By Dr. Ranil Senanayake
In a tragic and insensitive interview, Elon Musk boasts that he relies on the availability of Oxygen to power his rockets, because it is free. This is the same subsidy that we give the fossil fuel industry. A free pass to abuse the global commons. This type of resource abuse is an actualisation of the hypothesis that ‘what is unowned is unmarketed, what is unmarketed is under-priced, what is under-priced is mismanaged, overused and wasted’. In reality, the under-pricing is done by governments who have a responsibility by the global commons and permit its free use as a subsidy to industry. It is this subsidy that has provided for the erosion of the quality of water, air and human well-being through the sale of cheap, under-priced, oil, gas and coal for transport and industry.
The burning of fossil fuels to obtain energy, produces Carbon Dioxide and Water vapour, seemingly innocuous, but both contribute to global warming and provoke climate extremes. Further, all this is done by burning the limited stock of Oxygen in the atmosphere. This stock in now under increasing pressure from rocketry and the military industrial complex.
While it is a fact that the global stocks of Oxygen availability are being endangered by the fossil fuel driven economy and by the actors above, it is abundantly clear, that other areas of Oxygen depletion also need to be addressed. One is the is the expansion of fossil-based farming at the expense of vast regions of forests. This activity not only destabilises the atmosphere by accelerating global warming, it also affects the volume and performance of Photosynthetic Biomass, which is the only substance that creates free molecular Oxygen for our atmosphere.
The signs are all around. A recent study on the levels of Oxygen in the ocean found that the oceanic Oxygen levels decreased by 2 % over the last 50 years. On land, the font of Oxygen are the leaves of trees. Another study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that 15 billion trees are cut down each year and the global tree count has fallen by 46% since the beginning of human civilisation. Considering that a tree produces 120 Kg of oxygen each year, this represents a massive loss to the Global Commons.
The growth of our populations has reached a point where we consume seven billion tons of Oxygen a year, just for breathing.
In the first study attempting to frame the global Oxygen budget, the authors conclude that fossil fuel use alone will account for a loss of 100 gigatons per year until 2100. This is not considering Cement production, metal production, chemical industries, agriculture, etc. Put another way, the current worldwide consumption of Oxygen just by burning oil in single day is equivalent to the amount of Oxygen produced by 221,965,166 trees over one year, clearly an unsustainable situation and one that needs international scrutiny.
The impact of these actions, on the Global Commons of our atmosphere, is becoming clear. The measurement of Oxygen concentration the world over suggests a decline. The figures below demonstrate the trends as measured from places as far apart as California and Australia. They say the same thing. The global stock of Oxygen, is diminishing.
How can we change the current predatory relationship that we have with the global commons? The Sri Lanka country statement made at the COP21 in Paris five years ago, stated:
We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised. We would request the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to examine the value of photosynthetic biomass.
One way of addressing this call would be by recognising the value of Primary Ecosystem Services (PES) and assigning value to it.
Primary Ecosystem Services (PES) refer to the actions generated by the act of Primary Productivity, the start of all life as we know it. Primary Productivity is the action of photosynthesis whereby the energy of the sun is captured and stored as biomass. As it is the leaves (Photosynthetic Biomass) of plants that deliver these services, they are the most logical source of Primary Ecosystem Services (PES).
Recognising the value of PES can provide a huge economic boom for the rural sector, it can also create an economic incentive for the public to participate in the essential work of environmental repair. There are other benefits in recognizing the value photosynthetic biomass as the source of PES. Photosynthetic biomass can retain value only as long as it is living. A leaf on a tree, for instance, has value only as long as it is carrying out the activity of photosynthesis and producing PES, pluck that leaf and the activity ceases, as does the value. Such an economy can, for the first time, begin to put a value on life. Such an economy will increase photosynthetic biomass everywhere and render that area rich in environmental services as well in economic opportunities. It can change urban–rural relations into a more equitable and sustainable state.
The market in Ecosystem Services is massive. In 1997 Robert Costanza, an economist with the World Bank, made the first estimate of ecosystem services worldwide to be worth an average $33 trillion, nearly twice the global GNP of around $18 trillion at the time. This is the capital available through ecosystem services.
Now, a Sri Lankan company has emerged to address this market. Earthrestoration p/l (www.restore.earth), it has measured and set algorithms for the generation of Oxygen and clean water from identified species and use this data to reward rural participants of their programme. It seeks to change the current exploitative relationship with the global commons by rewarding those who help to replace what we use from the global commons in our individual and communal lives.
The photosynthetic biomass of the land and the oceans has maintained the equilibrium in the Oxygen concentration of the planetary atmosphere, now massively compromised by actions of the growth-based industrial complex. It may now be the time to request industry to invest in processes that audit their extraction from the global commons and in processes that ensure replacement.
Considering the fact that the blue of the sky comes from the Oxygen in the atmosphere, we should look to replace what we use to sustain ourselves so that we can keep the sky clear and blue for now and for the generations to come!