Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth's Surface
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Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

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Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll likely hit that milestone in 2023), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.

Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.

Defining Human Impact

Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:

  1. Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns
  2. Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures
  3. Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted
  4. Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas
  5. Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable
  6. Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways
  7. Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)
  8. Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access
  9. Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation
  10. Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution

The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.

A Closer Look at Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.

Land Use Contrasts: Egypt

Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.

egypt land use impact zone

The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.

Intensive Modification: Netherlands

The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.

netherlands land use impact zone

The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.

Resource Extraction: West Virginia

It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.

west virginia land use impact zone

The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.

You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?

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Technology

Synthetic Biology: The $3.6 Trillion Science Changing Life as We Know It

The field of synthetic biology could solve problems in a wide range of industries, from medicine to agriculture—here’s how.

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How Synthetic Biology Could Change Life as we Know it

Synthetic biology (synbio) is a field of science that redesigns organisms in an effort to enhance and support human life. According to one projection, this rapidly growing field of science is expected to reach $28.8 billion in global revenue by 2026.

Although it has the potential to transform many aspects of society, things could go horribly wrong if synbio is used for malicious or unethical reasons. This infographic explores the opportunities and potential risks that this budding field of science has to offer.

What is Synthetic Biology?

We’ve covered the basics of synbio in previous work, but as a refresher, here’s a quick explanation of what synbio is and how it works.

Synbio is an area of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning different biological components and systems in various organisms.

It’s like genetic engineering but done at a more granular level—while genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, synbio can build new genetic material from scratch.

The Opportunities of Synbio

This field of science has a plethora of real-world applications that could transform our everyday lives. A study by McKinsey found over 400 potential uses for synbio, which were broken down into four main categories:

  • Human health and performance
  • Agriculture and food
  • Consumer products and services
  • Materials and energy production

If those potential uses become reality in the coming years, they could have a direct economic impact of up to $3.6 trillion per year by 2030-2040.

1. Human Health and Performance

The medical and health sector is predicted to be significantly influenced by synbio, with an economic impact of up to $1.3 trillion each year by 2030-2040.

Synbio has a wide range of medical applications. For instance, it can be used to manipulate biological pathways in yeast to produce an anti-malaria treatment.

It could also enhance gene therapy. Using synbio techniques, the British biotech company Touchlight Genetics is working on a way to build synthetic DNA without the use of bacteria, which would be a game-changer for the field of gene therapy.

2. Agriculture and Food

Synbio has the potential to make a big splash in the agricultural sector as well—up to $1.2 trillion per year by as early as 2030.

One example of this is synbio’s role in cellular agriculture, which is when meat is created from cells directly. The cost of creating lab-grown meat has decreased significantly in recent years, and because of this, various startups around the world are beginning to develop a variety of cell-based meat products.

3. Consumer Products and Services

Using synthetic biology, products could be tailored to suit an individual’s unique needs. This would be useful in fields such as genetic ancestry testing, gene therapy, and age-related skin procedures.

By 2030-2040, synthetic biology could have an economic impact on consumer products and services to the tune of up to $800 billion per year.

4. Materials and Energy Production

Synbio could also be used to boost efficiency in clean energy and biofuel production. For instance, microalgae are currently being “reprogrammed” to produce clean energy in an economically feasible way.

This, along with other material and energy improvements through synbio methods, could have a direct economic impact of up to $300 billion each year.

The Potential Risks of Synbio

While the potential economic and societal benefits of synthetic biology are vast, there are a number of risks to be aware of as well:

  • Unintended biological consequences: Making tweaks to any biological system can have ripple effects across entire ecosystems or species. When any sort of lifeform is manipulated, things don’t always go according to plan.
  • Moral issues: How far we’re comfortable going with synbio depends on our values. Certain synbio applications, such as embryo editing, are controversial. If these types of applications become mainstream, they could have massive societal implications, with the potential to increase polarization within communities.
  • Unequal access: Innovation and progress in synbio is happening faster in wealthier countries than it is in developing ones. If this trend continues, access to these types of technology may not be equal worldwide. We’ve already witnessed this type of access gap during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, where a majority of vaccines have been administered in rich countries.
  • Bioweaponry: Synbio could be used to recreate viruses, or manipulate bacteria to make it more dangerous, if used with ill intent.

According to a group of scientists at the University of Edinburgh, communication between the public, synthetic biologists, and political decision-makers is crucial so that these societal and environmental risks can be mitigated.

Balancing Risk and Reward

Despite the risks involved, innovation in synbio is happening at a rapid pace.

By 2030, most people will have likely eaten, worn, or been treated by a product created by synthetic biology, according to synthetic biologist Christopher A. Voigt.

Our choices today will dictate the future of synbio, and how we navigate through this space will have a massive impact on our future—for better, or for worse.

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Energy

How Far Are We From Phasing Out Coal?

In 2021 coal-fired electricity generation reached all-time highs, rising 9% from the year prior. Here’s what it’d take to phase it out of the energy mix.

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How Far Are We From Phasing Out Coal?

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

At the COP26 conference last year, 40 nations agreed to phase coal out of their energy mixes.

Despite this, in 2021, coal-fired electricity generation reached all-time highs globally, showing that eliminating coal from the energy mix will not be a simple task.

This infographic shows the aggressive phase-out of coal power that would be required in order to reach net zero goals by 2050, based on an analysis by Ember that uses data provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Low-Cost Comes at a High Environmental Cost

Coal-powered electricity generation rose by 9.0% in 2021 to 10,042 Terawatt-hours (TWh), marking the biggest percentage rise since 1985.

The main reason is cost. Coal is the world’s most affordable energy fuel. Unfortunately, low-cost energy comes at a high cost for the environment, with coal being the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions.

China has the highest coal consumption, making up 54% of the world’s coal electricity generation. The country’s consumption jumped 12% between 2010 and 2020, despite coal making up a lower percentage of the country’s energy mix in relative terms.

Top Consumers2020 Consumption (Exajoules) Share of global consumption
China 🇨🇳82.354.3%
India 🇮🇳17.511.6%
United States 🇺🇸9.26.1%
Japan 🇯🇵4.63.0%
South Africa 🇿🇦3.52.3%
Russia 🇷🇺3.32.2%
Indonesia 🇮🇩3.32.2%
South Korea 🇰🇷3.02.0%
Vietnam 🇻🇳2.11.4%
Germany 🇩🇪1.81.2%

Together, China and India account for 66% of global coal consumption and emit about 35% of the world’s greenhouse gasses (GHG). If you add the United States to the mix, this goes up to 72% of coal consumption and 49% of GHGs.

How Urgent is to Phase Out Coal?

According to the United Nations, emissions from current and planned fossil energy infrastructure are already more than twice the amount that would push the planet over 1.5°C of global heating, a level that scientists say could bring more intense heat, fire, storms, flooding, and drought than the present 1.2°C.

Apart from being the largest source of CO2 emissions, coal combustion is also a major threat to public health because of the fine particulate matter released into the air.

As just one example of this impact, a recent study from Harvard University estimates air pollution from fossil fuel combustion is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths globally.

The Move to Renewables

Coal-powered electricity generation must fall by 13% every year until 2030 to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals of keeping global heating to only 1.5 degrees.

To reach the mark, countries would need to speed up the shift from their current carbon-intensive pathways to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

How fast the transition away from coal will be achieved depends on a complicated balance between carbon emissions cuts and maintaining economic growth, the latter of which is still largely dependent on coal power.

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