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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Mankind on the brink

Humanity’s impact on earth cannot be doubted. We need to be smart about the challenges ahead, writes Colin Church

Colin Church
The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining

My new role as CEO of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining comes at a significant moment. Back in 1869, the Iron and Steel Institute was founded to address the practical and scientific issues surrounding iron and steel and their role in addressing societal problems. As IOM3 celebrates its 150th year, humanity faces an unprecedented set of challenges.
We need to transition to a low carbon, resource efficient society to meet them. The choices we make over what materials we use now will either contribute to making this transition a success or hinder it. We will need scientific endeavour, advanced engineering and innovative business models. The extraction and manipulation of materials have always been at the core of human developments, and this one is no different. Materials must and will play a fundamental part in addressing the issues. We need products with longer lives that are easier to remanufacture or recycle. We need to stop wasting so much, whether by design or accident. To do this, we need to be smart about our materials choices and be much more aware of the whole lifecycle of materials from the very beginning of the design process to end of life. Mankind is shaping this planet to an unprecedented extent, so much so that many scientists
describe this geological period as the Anthropocene. Rather than ice ages or the movement of continents, the dominant impact on the globe today is our activity.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is now over 410 parts per million – a level we’ve never experienced. The vast majority of this flows from our actions. We’re already witnessing the effects of the resulting climate change, with extreme weather events across the globe. If we don’t act soon, the impacts will be catastrophic. Sea levels around the UK have already risen by 16cm since the 1900s but could increase by another half metre or more this century – even if the globe decarbonises rapidly. In its first 18 years of operation, the Thames Barrier in London was closed fewer than 40 times. In its second 18 years, it’s been closed four times as often and by the end of the century, if not modified, is at risk of being overtopped.

By 2100, heatwaves in parts of India could be so extreme that being outside an airconditioned environment would be fatal within a few hours. In the UK, summers like 2003 will be the norm – not the exception.

The pressures of population growth on land use and resource consumption continue. Thanks to improving health through good nutrition and better medicine, we’ve already passed a global population of 7.5 billion. In 1950, one third of the global population lived in urban areas; by 2050 it’s likely to be two thirds. So, it’s not surprising that China used more cement between 2011-13 than the US did in the entire 20th Century and that global steel production has increased seven-fold since 1950, despite 630 million tonnes being recycled each year.

In wealthy Europe, we need almost a third of a hectare of cropland per person to support our lifestyles. Given those population projections, that needs to be more like a fifth if we are to balance global supply and demand in an equitable manner. At the same time, overuse, desertification and pollution mean that a third of our soil globally is acutely degraded, reducing the capacity to restore nature’s bounty.

The role of the Institute must be to help the people who manage materials… become heroes of the transition

Biodiversity is reducing in every part of the world under the twin pressures of human development and climate change. It’s estimated that in some nature reserves in Germany, for example, insect life has declined by three quarters. Similar drops have been recorded in other parts of the world.

Plastic waste in our oceans is another phenomenon to hit public consciousness. Some estimates suggest that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. With five billion people living without proper waste management, it’s no surprise that half to three quarters of the plastic entering our oceans comes from developing countries. We in the rich world are complicit too, through the accidental or deliberate release of tiny particles of plastic – and through shipping our waste to poorer countries for what’s supposed to be recycling, but all too often is poor quality disposal.

And environmental challenges are not the end of the matter. Alongside the overall population growth, rich countries face a change in age profile. The average age in Japan will be 53 in 2050, compared to 47 now. Before then, a third or more of the UK population will be over 65, compared to a fifth now.

Since 25 February 1869, materials scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have been coming together under the umbrella of the Institute and its predecessors to address the professional and societal challenges of the time. This remains core to the Institute’s mission today. With, at the time I write, the unknown outcome of Brexit, the skills shortage across many sectors and challenges in relation to investment and environment, I firmly believe we must and will bring together the skill, passion and professionalism in the UK and beyond to meet and overcome the myriad challenges we face and support this transition.

The role of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining must be to help the people who manage materials throughout the materials cycle become heroes of the transition, not villains. That is a role that society as a whole would expect and want us to play, so that professionals in the field, can deliver the innovations and solutions humanity needs.

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