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The Earth We are Creating

1 Department of Design, Monash University-Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Rd, Caulfield East, Victoria 3145, Australia;
2 Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Monash University-Clayton Campus, P.O Box 31, Victoria 3800, Australia

Special Issues: The Role of Biomass and Bioenergy in Mitigating Climate Change

Over the past decade, a number of Earth System scientists have advocated that we need a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, to describe the changes to Earth that have occurred since the 1800s. The preceding epoch, the Holocene (the period from the end of Earth's last glaciation about 12 millennia ago), has offered an unusually stable physical environment for human civilisations. In the new Anthropocene epoch, however, we can no longer count on this climate stability which we have long taken for granted. Paradoxically, it is our own actions that are undermining this stability—for the first time in history, human civilisation is now capable of decisively influencing the energy and material flows of our planet. Particularly since the 1950s, under the twin drivers of growth in population and per capita income, we have seen unprecedented growth in oil use and energy use overall, vehicle numbers, air travel and so on. This unprecedented growth has resulted in us heading toward physical thresholds or tipping points in a number of areas, points that once crossed could irreversibly lead to structural change in vital Earth systems such as climate or ecosystems. We may have already passed three limits: climate change; rate of biodiversity loss; and alterations to the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. The solutions usually proposed for our predicament are yet more technical fixes, often relying on greater use of the Earth's ecosystems, biomass for bioenergy being one example of this, and one we explore in this paper. We argue that these are unlikely to work, and will merely replace one set of problems by another. We conclude that an important approach for achieving a more sustainable and equitable world is to reorient our future toward satisfying the basic human needs of all humanity, and at the same time minimising both our use of non-renewable resources and pollution of the Earth's soil, air and water.
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