The industrial revolution ushered forth a slew of new technologies with enormous potential. This has been followed by ongoing industrialization and technical breakthroughs in industrialized countries around the world, with the environmental consequence of this technology including overuse and destruction to our natural environment.
It took nearly three generations for the first concentrated attempts to reduce pollution, but once started, improvement has been significant. Even though the number of vehicle kilometres travelled has more than doubled, automobile emissions of six major air pollutants have fallen by 31%. After more than a century of polluting the land, air, and water, technology is now showing promise in environmental cleaning. Cleaner manufacturing techniques, due gas scrubbers, and catalytic converters are just a few of the technological improvements that are helping to alleviate some of the mounting pains of an increasingly modern world. In other words, technology can cause and undo environmental degradation. We'll look at technology and the environment in major areas like energy, climate, water quality, and waste cleaning in the sections that follow.
When dangerous or excessive amounts of gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, and methane are injected into the earth's atmosphere, it is known as air pollution. The main sources all deal with technology that came after the industrial revolution, such as fossil fuel combustion, factories, power plants, mass agriculture, and automobiles. Air pollution has detrimental health effects on humans and animals, as well as contributing to global warming, as rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap thermal energy in the Earth's atmosphere, causing the global temperature to rise.
Water pollution, on the other hand, is the contamination of bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, seas, and groundwater as a result of human activity. Domestic trash, industrial effluents, and insecticides and pesticides are among the most frequent water contaminants. The release of improperly treated wastewater into natural water bodies, for example, can lead to the destruction of aquatic ecosystems. Other negative consequences include infections like typhoid and cholera, eutrophication, and ecosystem damage, all of which have a severe impact on the food chain.
Another detrimental consequence of technology on the environment is resource depletion. It occurs when a resource is depleted quicker than it can be replaced. Natural resources are those that exist in the world without being created by humans, and they can be renewable or non-renewable. Aquifer depletion, deforestation, mining for fossil fuels and minerals, pollution of resources, soil erosion, and overconsumption of resources are the most severe forms of resource depletion. Agriculture, mining, water use, and fossil fuel consumption are the key causes, all of which have been made possible by technological improvements.
As the world's population grows, so does the rate of degradation of natural resources. As a result, the world's eco-footprint is estimated to be one-and-a-half times the earth's ability to sustainably provide each individual with enough resources to match their consumption levels. Large-scale mineral and oil exploration has increased since the industrial revolution, resulting in growing natural oil and mineral depletion. The exploitation of minerals has gotten easier as a result of advances in technology, development, and research, and humans are digging deeper to gain access to more, resulting in a drop in production for many resources.
Furthermore, the consequences of deforestation have never been more severe, owing mostly to agricultural causes, but also to logging for fuel and clearing land for residential areas, all of which are aided by rising population pressure. Not only do thousands of plants and animals lose their natural habitats and become extinct as a result of this, but it also results in the loss of trees, which are crucial because they extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
All of the world's economies are still grappling with how to use energy—the industrial age's lifeblood—while protecting environmental integrity. Even though energy efficiency in the United States is higher than it has ever been, economic expansion has ensured increased energy demand. While new passenger car fuel efficiency has more than doubled since 1975, the popularity of lower-mileage light-duty trucks and sport utility vehicles, increases in kilometres driven per vehicle, and substantial increases in vehicle ownership are gradually offsetting the environmental improvements. Nonetheless, technology has enabled significant decreases in automotive emissions of volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide per mile travelled, owing to economic, legal, and environmental concerns.
When talking about energy, it's reasonable to wonder how it's affecting the planet's climate. The use of coal and petroleum in energy generation and transportation, respectively, produces the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. However, two newer technologies, fuel cells and compact single-cycle gas turbines, are offering significant environmental benefits over traditional, huge, centralized power plants, as a result of economic and environmental considerations as well as innovation policy. Smaller plants can reduce transmission losses while simultaneously improving air quality because they can run on hydrogen and natural gas, which are substantially cleaner than coal per kilowatt-hour.
However, adopting such technology may not be the ideal option, particularly in the electricity generation sector. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is released by some fuel cell technology. Furthermore, small-scale plants that only serve residential or small-business clients may be less able to balance demand peaks than bigger plants that serve both categories of customers.
The most prominent, but not the only, environmental challenges connected to energy usage and production are air quality and climate change. Water quality is also harmed by industrial and traffic emissions, particularly nitrogen oxides. In lakes, rivers, and estuaries, nitrogen deposition acts as a fertilizer, promoting the growth of algae, resulting in eutrophic conditions that kill submerged aquatic plants. Agricultural runoff of pesticides, fertilizer, and animal excrement is even more dangerous. Runoff pollution is now being addressed by technology and policy, although it is difficult to assess, let alone manage because it comes from a wide range of "nonpoint" sources.
However, in recent years, geographic information systems (GIS) techniques that use remotely sensed data have provided new means to locate and observe these sources. Land-use data is combined with hydrology, topography, and soil data to create precise, digitized maps at very fine sizes and quantify runoff potential. Remote sensing data from aircraft and satellites on actual farming activities can be coupled with digital maps to provide more precise and timely runoff monitoring and estimation. While it may not be possible to track all runoff back to its source, it is becoming increasingly viable and cost-effective to do so for a significant portion of it.
In the next episode we would explore the impact on other aspects of the environment and the concluding factor of the relative impact of technology on the environment.
David Austin and and Molly K. Macauley, December 1, 2001. Cutting Through Environmental Issues: Technology as a double-edged sword. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/cutting-through-environmental-issues-technology-as-a-double-edged-sword/
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