Sunday 7 October 2007

Globalisation and Climate Change

The first and most obvious answer is Globalisation leading to more of the same as the established technologies and markets of the developed world are applied to raise the living standards of the rest.
Increased global demand for nonwovens and disposables is assured for at least 10 years as the most populus regions of the world centred on China and India, once described as “under developed” aspire to the same standards of life and convenience as has been enjoyed in the last couple of decades in the developed regions. They, and then Africa, will rapidly catch up with what used to be called the developed world.
The situation in the Americas and Europe will be different as a result of increasing public awareness that two “megatrends” which have been evident for the last 40 years at least, are in fact real and need to be addressed with some urgency.
The first is Climate Change, now known to be caused by industrialisation, and the other is the depletion of the fossil reserves on which our 4 decades of uninterrupted growth have been based. We are now living in the transition period known as Peak Oil, and I’ll now turn attention to each of these megatrends.

Climate Change

The human race has proved so successful that the agricultural and industrial systems needed to sustain it, to further improve its living standards, and to grow it further are now known to be destroying the natural life-support systems on which it depends. At base the problem is one of overpopulation, but it seems politically unacceptable to address this issue directly. The essentials of life (“The hierarchy of needs”), clean air, water, uncontaminated food and a moderate temperature are all being affected (polluted?) by the non-essentials which range from ever-better housing through global travel for all, to the convenience products which allow us spend more time productively and less on just living. Attempting to reduce the impact of the growing population by reducing its demands for energy and non-essentials is now politically acceptable and governments around the developed world are competing to be “greener than thou”, while the developing world is claiming exemption on the grounds that they’re way behind in energy use.
A consensus is emerging. We now feel we must act quickly to reverse the build up of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide but methane is much more potent), in order to reduce global warming and hence the trend to a more energetic atmosphere and sea-level rise. Carbon dioxide levels are the key to global temperatures, and also to the relative success of the plant kingdom versus the animal kingdom. We often forget that animals were able to evolve to compete with plants because photosynthesis and other natural process removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and added oxygen. A balance where the two kingdoms thrived in each others company was arrived at until the growth of the human population, the onset of industrialisation, and the discovery that exponential growth was the only way to keep everyone happy. Since then, as amply illustrated in Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”, we have been digging up fossil carbon, oxidising it in our energy generating processes, and putting it back into the atmosphere, appearing for all the world to be trying to reverse the atmospheric change which allowed us to evolve. Maybe it is already too late to reverse a warming process that appears to include positive feedback. A warmer world will release more of the carbon trapped in ice, dissolved in sea water and nearly-fossilised in the peat bogs currently inactive in the permafrost regions of the north. Biodegradation rates will increase, and more methane will escape to the atmosphere where this occurs anaerobically and uncontrolled. Melting polar ice will allow the newly revealed dark surface to absorb even more solar radiation where once it was reflected it back into space.
Carbon-offsetting has emerged as a mechanism for driving change to more sustainable industrial and transportation practises, and carbon-footprint now appears to be understood by most consumers. Most who understand it want to reduce it – even if it costs a little more. Furthermore, the fossil reserves we have been using so profligately could be about to increase in price sufficiently to force us into new ways of living and generating energy. While energy generation is beyond the scope of this paper, the by-products of energy generation from fossil fuels, ethylene and propylene, are fundamentally important to our industry’s synthetic polymer requirements, so the fate of fossil fuels needs to be considered as a factor important to future trends in nonwovens.
Coming next: Peak oil

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