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Planetary Health: Measuring and Managing Planetary Biomarkers

CRISIS - Viability of Life on Earth by Ram Ramprasad Global Commons Jun 27th 20236 mins
Planetary Health: Measuring and Managing Planetary Biomarkers

Ram Ramprasad makes a strong case that planetary wealth can only be created by addressing planetary health. He suggests complementing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with Environmental Health Index (EHI), which encompasses planetary biomarkers as a way to achieve sustainable development.

Planetary Biomarkers: Measuring the Five Elements to Manage Them

Our ancient seers respected Mother Nature, especially the five elements: Water, soil, air, fire (energy), and space. These elements sustain and form the basis of all life on Earth. Only by protecting them can we protect all life and create a circular economy.

We only manage what we measure. As long as we continue to rely on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a metric for economic progress, it will be extremely challenging to meet our climate action goals. 

GDP measures both the positive and negative aspects of economic activity. For instance, while plastics provide utility, their pollution costs $600 billion per year, according to a recent UN report. If we extend this example to every sector of the economy, GDP becomes a measure that conflicts with the goals of sustainable economic development. 

Since revising GDP lacks consensus, we need to complement it by measuring the five elements using a simple metric. These five elements, or planetary biomarkers, are similar to human biomarkers used to assess health. For example, blood and urine analysis (water element), stool analysis (soil element), breath analysis (air element), exercise analysis (energy element), and body mass index (debris in space). Similarly, planetary biomarkers measure planetary health and guide us to formulate the right strategies. 

Let us measure both wealth (GDP) and health (biomarkers): Health creates wealth, not the other way around. Like GDP, the measurement of the five planetary biomarkers – water, soil, air, energy, and space – is already occurring at a global level but needs to be formalised for each country through the use of modern statistical sampling techniques (with the exception of space). When four of the five measured elements (except Space) are aggregated, it can provide a single number – a national or global Environmental Health Index (EHI). This is the number we need to manage in order to build true circular economies.

1. Measuring Water to Manage It

Water bodies comprises two-thirds of our planet and serve as a significant carbon sink due to their diverse marine life. To measure water, we can track the number of diverse fish species and the health of water (phytoplankton) per square mile compared to a desired target.

Satellite imagery can help estimate the distribution, population, and diversity of fish, coupled with factors such as water temperature, acidity level, ocean colour, chlorophyll concentration, acoustic surveys, sonar monitoring, and more. Scientists can then develop the right formula for the desired range. NASA has already gathered several insights on all of the water on the Earth’s surface, including freshwater bodies.

Key Considerations to Positively Impact Ocean Water and Marine Life

According to Edward Jones of Utrecht University, 48% of the world’s untreated wastewater ends up in the oceans, a figure that is even higher in developing countries. Plastic pollution in oceans is also a major problem, posing additional challenges. We must ensure that only treated wastewater is discharged into the oceans, and waste must be utilised as a resource for building road networks, recharging groundwater, construction materials, nutrients, and treated water must be used for agriculture, and so on. When oceans are clean, fish, whales, and phytoplankton will increase to their historic levels, contributing to restoring the oceans’ efficiency as Earth’s greatest carbon sink.

2. Measuring Soil to Manage It

Soil health is measured by the percentage of soil organic carbon (SOC). The desired SOC range is between 3-5%. Well-established lab techniques and sampling methods are already in use by soil scientists.

Key Considerations to Positively Impact Soil Organic Carbon

According to the UN, 40% of the world’s land is degraded due to the ways we produce food for humans and livestock –industrial farming practices, chemicals, pesticides, and more. Soil is a great carbon sink but, according to NASA, 86% of our land ecosystems are becoming progressively less efficient as a carbon sink. The UN states that, if land systems were restored, global GDP would increase by 50%. Several sustainable, organic, regenerative, and other holistic farming practices are now receiving increasing attention. Encouraging people to switch to a plant-based diet or other holistic alternatives could free up more land and water.

You might also like: On A Mission to Keep the Magic of Soil Alive: An Interview With Sadhguru

3. Measuring Air to Manage It

Air quality can be measured by tracking CO2 parts per million (PPM), including methane emissions, due to their significant short-term impact. Methane contributes to one-third of global warming. A variety of sensor technologies are available to measure these gases.

Key Considerations to Positively Impact Air Quality

The current consensus is that our planet needs to be below 400 CO2 PPM. Despite this, we are now more than double what they were before the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century  around 410 PPM. Beyond 450 PPM, human survival is at stake.

In the near term, aggressive increases in forest cover to one trillion trees have been advocated by Crowther Labs as one of the fastest ways to combat climate change. In June 2023, a team of scientists and researchers at the University of Sheffield published a study suggesting that fungi store one-third of carbon from fossil fuel emissions.  Researchers suggest that conservation and biodiversity policies should be developed with these “jaw-dropping” findings in mind.

In the longer term, the total and complete replacement of fossil fuels within the next decade must be aggressively pursued. Recent developments, such as the solar-powered “artificial leaf” developed by the University of Cambridge, which produces car-ready liquid fuel from sunlight, pave the way for a zero-carbon emission future. However, options like making vehicles run independently with organic solar cells and metal-free biodegradable batteries are also highly efficient alternatives.

4. Measuring Energy to Manage It

Energy production should be measured by the percentage of carbon-free energy generated and per capita energy consumption. Established standards already exist to collect such data.

Key Considerations to Positively Impact the Energy Metric

Energy strategies should aim for the lowest land, water, air, and space footprint. Such an approach assures efficiency in resource use.

Dwellings and transportation vehicles should strive to meet their energy needs with minimal dependence on the grid or external energy sources. Reliance should be, among others, on sources such as blade-less wind turbines, organic solar photovoltaics, metal-free biodegradable battery power, and anaerobic digesters for cooking gas. Such a strategy creates the least harm to land and water instead of fracking, or long pipelines for natural gas or fuels. Cables to transport electricity placed under the sea or on land are also inefficient due to energy loss during transport and potential harm to the environment.

5. Measuring Space to Manage It

The amount of allowable debris in space should be tracked to ensure that it does not pose a threat to the launch of various spacecraft. Radar tracking, optical tracking laser ranging, photographic observations, and more help assess debris in space.

Key Considerations to Improve Sustainability in Space

Due to the significant number of derelict satellites and millions of tiny fragments posing a threat to spacecraft, it is crucial to address the problem of space debris. Initiatives like Clearspace-1, a startup expected to clear space debris starting in 2025, deservemore attention.

Additionally, the Artemis Accords, which grant signatory countries rights to mine the moon, require careful scientific evaluation of the potential risks. Until we have a better understanding of the moon’s various nocturnal influences on Earth, mining operations should be put on hold. Exploring alternative battery technologies that do not rely on metals also needs stronger support, such as several advancements in metal-free biodegradable batteries.

You might also like: What is Space Junk and How Does It Affect the Environment?

Final Thoughts

We need a systems approach to address our problems. We need regional and global treaties to promote the restoration of our water, soil, air, and energy. Not one element should adversely impact the others. By tackling each element independently, it becomes easier to take a whole-systems approach and eventually deal with all planetary biomarkers collectively. A systems approach addresses the root cause rather than having several siloed squabbles. The suggested approach is a first step towards discussion, debate, and bringing everything on a common platform. Organisations such as the UN Conference of the Parties (COP), the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) can take the lead.

Developing a simple environmental health index (EHI) that combines the above elements allows every country to benchmark its own health and its contribution to the health of the planet. In short, GDP will measure wealth, and EHI will measure health. Addressing planetary health is imperative to creating planetary wealth.

About the Author

Ram Ramprasad

Ram Ramprasad a sustainability advocate has frequently contributed to magazines in India. He has experience, as a Global Marketing Director for a Fortune 100 company in the USA. He holds degrees from Yale University, USA, and Madras University, India.

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