By John Macklien Olandag | January 27, 2021
Sustainability, Daniel Christian Wahl wrote, refers to sustaining the underlying pattern of health, resilience, and adaptability that maintain this planet in a condition where life as a whole can flourish.
What Wahl had defined is what people often overlook. The overwhelming exploitation of natural resources, some taking a long time or sometimes virtually to be renewed, created a large gap between the concept of sustainability, and actually applying it.
The environment has been holding on, barely. Tsunamis, sandstorms, hailstorms, typhoons, among many events, are often viewed as grim phenomena of uncontrollable nature, yet more than that, it is also viewed as a “wrath of nature against her negligent people.” It can’t be denied that the effects of these natural phenomena have ramped up because of the climate crisis.
Climate activists advocate for sustainable living to ease the effects of climate change brought about by industrialization. Environmental scientists have devised frameworks and plans for alternatives and solutions concerning the crisis, focusing on how those technologies can thrive to a dynamically changing environment. Even entrepreneurs have invested for the advancement of environmental protection and preservation.
These efforts mean that there are emerging problems in the modern times concerning the environment.
Hard truths about the environment today
According to envirotech-online.com, there are five major problems that the current natural environment has been facing. These problems had plagued the global flora and fauna primarily because of the rise of greenhouse gases, gases that absorb and reflect radiant energy from the sun, which in turn traps heat inside the atmosphere.
Climate change is the greatest natural problem created by both manmade activities along with circumstances interlinked with industrialization. Weather and climate patterns have changed in the recent years because of rising average global temperatures, catalyzing water cycle processes causing more severe storms if not heat.
Musk and the environment
Elon Musk tweeted on January 21 that he would award a $100 million prize to those who can develop the “best” technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions.
Capturing carbon dioxide is a crucial undertaking to reduce or eradicate the carbon footprint in the atmosphere which has been causing global warming. More destructive floods had happened due to rising sea levels alongside anthropogenic activities like deforestation, and also because of urbanization that affected marine life and those thriving near the bodies of water.
This technology will prevent carbon dioxide from being released to the atmosphere. Being a greenhouse gas, it causes depletion of the ozone layer, a thin layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that captures most if not all of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Exposure to UV rays can cause premature aging of the skin or worse, cancer that usually metastasizes throughout the body.
It has also been found out that when biomass, organic materials that come from living organisms, when added to the carbon capture system, would emit negative emissions, meaning they could be able to produce a range of gases that actually causes less or no harm to the atmosphere. Carbon capture technology has been a crucial part of an undertaking for environmental sustainability. However, the recent years saw very little progress with efforts focused instead on cutting carbon dioxide emissions rather than eradicating it.
While the carbon capture is a promising milestone towards futuristic sustainability, Musk has a paradox up on his sleeve. The mobilization of Starlink satellites that was estimated to reach to a thousand subsequently would disrupt global telecommunications. These Starlink constellations, named more so because of their concentration in the skies, will give satellite internet connectivity even in less developed areas.
Musk had taken an extra step to delve into the aspect of telecommunications yet according to the past reports about the environmental impacts of telecommunications by capacitymedia.com, telcos accounted for the production of 110.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, or equivalent to the emission of about thirty cars, per capacitymedia.com’s report on the impact of telecommunications in the environment.
The 2011 article from capacitymedia.com had described the telcos’ impact on the environment as one of balance, or of rather, severe pragmatism. Companies and manufacturers can always create the green and sustainable means of production, while considering the overall efficiency and output quality of products as ways and means of manufacturing tools for telecommunication are being adjusted. Generally, creating a whole new telecommunication network involves power that comes from the power plants and cooling systems harnessed by the largest data centers, down to the integrated power suppliers needed by internet service providers. The whole process releases wasted energy or heat therefore adding more heat than what is trapped by the greenhouse effect.
Musk’s other endeavour, SpaceX was also able to launch Falcon Heavy Rocket, a fully reusable rocket that brings a great step forward to exploring the Solar System and SpaceX’s constant vision of colonizing Mars. This undertaking can also be said to have the same overall effects on the environment as the Space X’s factories themselves. While the rocket scores fairly high in terms of sustainability because of its reusable components, its mass, like the other rockets, is still composed of 95% fuel. So building bigger rockets will mean more fuel to be used for each launch. Currently, Falcon Heavy uses RP–1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen which produce a great amount of carbon dioxide upon combustion.
Tesla, another company owned and managed by Musk, has also accelerated the planet’s transition to sustainable energy. Tesla’s website has claimed that the production of electric vehicles have scored much in the field of sustainability as its factories rely on robots for precision, LED lighting to save energy, and its factories are also reliant on local renewable energy. The Tesla vehicles had created less pollution out of its windpipe but the issue comes in the field of materials sourcing. Accusations of indigenous people surrounding the lithium mine in Argentina, dirty source of graphite in China, and cobalt mines of the harsh treatment given to them came up as they were rumored to have been mining these minerals under harsh conditions, and such issues are also lobbying risk factors of environmental degradation, with the mining activities threatening the natural landscape and risking soil erosion.
Regarding the matter, Tesla had stated, “Reliably determining the origin [of these materials] is a difficult task, but the due diligence practices required of our suppliers adds transparency to help us and our suppliers adhere to the responsible sourcing principles of our Code.”
Tesla crafted the Tesla Supplier Code of Conduct and the Human Rights and Conflict Minerals Policy long before the said issues came out ensuring the welfare of both the suppliers and laborers.
So far as current reports are concerned, Starlink satellites already have the mechanisms of “keeping the space clean.” The official website of Starlink said that it is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation, making use of an on-board propulsion system that would burn up within 1-5 years if the system will already be inoperable.
With the famous call of Elon Musk to hasten the development of technology that will create a significant change in the Earth’s sustainable undertakings, the newly-sworn US President Joe Biden, who immediately executed an order for the United States’ return to Paris Agreement, then named Jennifer Wilcox, an expert in carbon removal technologies to be leading the way in developing the carbon capture technology.
It should be noted that former President Donald Trump ceased all participation with the Paris Agreement three years ago, which put the United States at a “permanent disadvantage.” The agreement aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels, or the average global temperature before the rise of industries that had caused the overwhelming production of greenhouse gases.
Even with Elon Musk hopping on the sustainability train, it will still take years for the “future to commence,” especially that the world right now is battling a more dangerous and minute enemy along with the challenge of sustainability. Musk, however, is just one man. It takes more than just one man and the world’s technology to lead to a future of sustainability. But that future is coming.