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Key issues in global change

Kirill Ya. Kondratyev considers priorities in responding to global environmental change as we approach the 21st century.

The author is a Professor and Counsellor at the Research Centre for Ecological Safety at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Recognition of the importance of global environmental change has greatly increased since the second UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992.

The approval of UNCED documents such as Agenda 21 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by the United Nations General Assembly has opened certain perspectives on international efforts to combat growing environmental dangers on the global scale, such as climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation and desertification.

As we approach the end of the second millennium, it is very important to assess the global ecological situation whilst looking at potential perspectives for future development as a result of interaction between society and environment.

In view of the great number of problems the critically important task is the substantiation of priorities. Unfortunately, an attempt to work from the Earth Charter — as a general document defining priorities which was undertaken before the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development — failed and, as a substitution, a vague document of a purely declarative nature was suggested.

What has been achieved since then?

The most discussed environmental problem is global warming — it is more appropriate to call it global climate change — and, within the context of this discussion, specifically the growth of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It is, therefore, justifiable to consider what is happening with carbon dioxide, as the principal greenhouse gas apart from water vapour, in light of the climate treaty recommendation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels of 1990 by the year 2000.

World carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are still growing although some countries have undertaken certain measures to reduce emissions. The situation regarding emissions levels varies greatly amongst the global community. The low level of carbon emissions in the former USSR countries is a result of declining economies, although it is highly probable that this trend will reverse at a later stage of economic development. A number of developed countries such as Australia, Canada and Italy are far from satisfying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change requirements.

A significant consideration to be aware of is the strong contrast of emissions/per person between developed and developing countries. China, for example, has a high level of total emissions but is at the end of the list of countries with low emissions per person. India is at the very bottom of this list. In view of the necessity of further industrial development in countries such as China and India it is obvious that their total emissions can only increase in the future.

Total world population and urban fraction at 5-year intervals.

Undoubtedly, one of the most worrying features of the present time is the continuing growth of the global population. Two specific features of this growth have been the concentration in developing countries and the growth of urban populations. It is obvious that such a situation leads to strengthening socio-economic contrasts, and controversies, between developed — the “golden billion” — and developing countries under the adverse conditions of deteriorating economic situations in many of the latter countries.

An important question in this context is the adequacy of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change recommendation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the one hand, it is obvious that, generally speaking, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is a very useful measure. But on the other hand, it is equally clear that such a measure is not a panacea against global change dangers.

As far as global change science is concerned, it is important to recognize that present-day numerical climate modelling (even in the case of 3-D coupled global models) remains far from being able to reliably simulate real climate change and, consequently, to identify the contributions of various climate-forming factors, including the enhancing greenhouse effect. Though it is well known that climate change results from interaction between all components of the climate system, the relative influence of various factors cannot be defined precisely and “new” influences are still being added to the climate equation.

A curious illustration of these circumstances is the recently-expressed emphasis on “aerosol cooling” counteracting the “greenhouse warming”. It should be noted that the need to consider aerosol loading has been known for many, many years despite these recent “discoveries.”

It was in view of the joint consideration of “greenhouse warming” and “aerosol cooling” that the statement was made in the Second IPCC Assessment Report that “the balance of evidence now suggests that there is a discernible human influence on climate.” Nobody doubts that at the present time human influence on climate is a reality.

The problem is, however, that an anthropogenic contribution to climate change has so far not been assessed quantitatively. This is why the authors of the statement could not go further than to mention “a discernible human influence” — which is, unfortunately, a fairly vague definition — without specifying in precise terms “the balance of evidence”.

Apart from the choice of better semantics — by definition, “the balance” can indicate only an equality of different factors — it would be worthwhile to accomplish a concrete analysis of “the balance of evidence.”

It is well known for instance, from publications which have not been referenced in the IPCC Report, that the assumption that aerosols only scatter solar radiation (hence, “aerosol cooling”) is not acceptable, since real atmospheric aerosols always contain components absorbing in both shortwave and longwave wavelength regions. Aircraft observations of spectral shortwave radiation fluxes under different conditions have shown, for example, that, on the average, absorption of solar radiation by aerosols and water vapour is of the same order of magnitude.

As far as climate change is concerned, the key task must be to study climate in all its complexity without an overemphasis on certain individual factors such as the greenhouse effect. But it is also necessary to identify the place and the role of climate change within the more general framework of global change.

It has been shown by V. G. Gorshkov (Physical and Biological Bases of Life Stability - Man, Biota, Environment, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1995) that the basic processes which regulate environmental dynamics are founded on the principle of the biotic regulation of the environment. If we accept such a concept then a priority order may be suggested as a basis for further discussion.

This preliminary scheme of priorities demonstrates a subordinate role for climate change within a much more general framework of concern about global change. In view of a certain overemphasis of the UNCED on global climate change as well as of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on the atmospheric greenhouse effect alone, it would be extremely important to undertake a reassessment.

In this context, the following draft of a declaration based on conceptual views discussed by V. G. Gorshkov, the present author and K. S. Losev in 1996 (Ecological Problems of Contemporary Civilization, Vestnik of the Russian Academy of Sciences, No. 2, in Russian) may be put forward for further consideration as an equivalent of an Earth Charter —

1. The Earth is a unique planet in the Solar System because life exists on this planet in the form of biota — a totality of all living organisms, including human beings. Important properties of life include: biological stability of species and their communities as well as a very rigid distribution of energy fluxes absorbed by biota over organisms of various sizes. Biota itself is responsible for the formation of its environment and stability of optimal environmental properties in accordance with its needs. Only because of this has such a long-term existence of the Earth’s biota been possible. To support a stable environment is a principal purpose of all living organisms.

2. Homo sapiens is one of the species of the biota and therefore its principal aim is to also support the global biosphere. Otherwise it would be impossible to develop sustainment. Long ago human beings left their natural ecological niche and started to consume much more biospheric resources than an ecological equilibrium allows. After the industrial revolution started, this process of the violation of the natural equilibrium was accelerated continuously due to the rapid growth of population.

3. Simple approximate assessments demonstrate that it is only possible to use not more than one per cent of the biospheric resources to guarantee a stable biosphere. At present it is close to ten per cent. Similar figures hold for the evolution of global biogeochemical cycles. For instance, the natural global carbon cycle was closed with an accuracy of the order of 0.01 per cent (this is where biodiversity plays a decisive role). Now this accuracy is of the order of 0.1 per cent (a threat of global ecological catastrophe has become visible).

Hence, we have to consider the biosphere not just as a resource, but as the fundamental basis for the continuation of life on the Earth. Now, the basic aim is to restore the already disturbed biosphere and to keep it under conditions which will guarantee a sustainable development. There are, however, many unknowns or poorly quantified aspects of assessing biosphere dynamics. In this context, a decisive role falls to simulation modelling and adequate observing systems. The latter is of special importance since there is still no adequate life support (global change) observing systems (even at a stage of planning).

4. A critically important feature of the development of contemporary civilization is the inequality between the developed and the developing countries expressed by the unequal use of existing resources. Per capita consumption of the “golden billion” is incomparably higher than for the rest of the world. A new social order is therefore necessary to be agreed upon on the basis of international cooperation and partnership. One can have healthy life support systems only through relevant international agreements.

5. Undoubtedly, more efforts are necessary to develop clean and efficient technologies, minimizing the use of energy and raw materials. The decisive measure is, however, a reduction in the size of the global population. This is, of course, a prohibitively difficult problem which involves socio-economic, religious and ethical aspects to be considered. Only global partnership under conditions of democracy and respect to all people and nations can lead to the solution of the problem.

Further information

Kirill Ya. Kondratyev, Research Centre for Ecological Safety, Russian Academy of Sciences, Korpusnaya Street, 18, 197110 St. Petersburg, Russia. Fax: 7-812-2354361. Email:


This is an edited version of an article originally published as “Key Issues of Global Change at the End of the Second Millennium” in the European Geophysical Society Newsletter (Number 63, June 1997). It is reproduced with permission. To obtain a copy of the original, longer article, contact Kirill Ya. Kondratyev at the above address or the European Geophysical Society, Max-Planck Str. 13, 37191 Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany. Fax: 49-5556-4709. Email:

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