Join us on a trip around our planet as we explore the twelve wicked issues that will likely be big in 2012 and beyond. We start our journey in space and travel down through the interrelated physical, economic and social spheres, touching on human, business and geopolitical themes. Along the way, we hope that you will reflect upon and consider issues that will play out in Canada and position us around the world.
Twinkle, twinkle little … junk?
We often think of space as an underexplored, open and pristine frontier. So sending our extremely sensitive and highly expensive technology into space is safe, right? According to NASA, there are more than 500,000 pieces of space debris orbiting the earth at any given moment, traveling at speeds of over 28,000 kilometers per hour. Space debris is on the rise from the launch of new satellites and space missions and from older satellites breaking apart over time. And it’s dangerous: a 10-centimeter sphere of aluminum would be like seven kilograms of TNT. In 2009 two satellites hit over Siberia adding approximately 2,100 new pieces of space debris into orbit. This very real potential for space collision has important implications for satellite communication networks, space missions, earth observation and even space tourism.
In 2012 the final plans for Canada’s RADARSAT Constellation should be approved and construction will begin with the intent to launch the first of three satellites in 2014. Images from these satellites allow Canada to conduct maritime surveillance, engage in disaster preparedness and management as well as ecosystem monitoring. Of course, Canada is not the only country placing objects in space. Currently, all countries are doing so in the absence of a global strategy for space cooperation. Can governments work together to better manage our objects in space? If they don’t, what are the chances of our satellites and other technologies becoming part of the space junkyard? As space-based monitoring, data and communications systems become more integrated in every aspect of our lives, how vulnerable are we and in what ways?
Water, water everywhere, can technologies help us drink it?
While junk is a problem in space, back on earth some see it as an opportunity beyond just a source of materials for recycling. Toronto-based Pacific Blue Solutions has developed some unique water reclamation technologies, including the ability to rapidly turn raw sewage or landfill garbage into clean drinking water. The technology, originally developed for applications in the U.S. military in areas of limited usable water, is currently in use in 29 countries around the world. Other companies are developing technologies for the urban toolkit for water diversion and management in times of floods. This includes making use of permeable surfaces or replacing curbs and drains with swales to absorb overflow. Experimental technologies for renewably powered desalination are also in the works. These types of technological advances will be critical as the world faces an uncertain future of water.
This uncertain future has the potential to dramatically increase human migration. Most would be surprised to know that the number of “water refugees” outnumbers those resulting from wars. What is the potential for that number to increase in the coming years? Nobody knows for sure, but currently over one billion people around the world are without access to adequate water supply. As one of the essentials for human life, when water supplies fall, serious consequences can arise, including political instability, international conflict and loss of life. Will technologies such as those above be used to help mitigate these dangers? Who will manage water resources? And who will pay to install the technology in vulnerable states where it is most needed?
When weather attacks
Another danger spurring migration may be severe weather events. In 2011 the U.S. had a record number of billion-dollar weather-related disasters for one year. The federal Canadian Disaster Database recorded 14 where at least 100 people were evacuated including the Brandon, Manitoba floods in May where over 3500 people were evacuated. Is more severe weather in all of our futures? Will Ottawa, Ontario become more like Ottawa, Kansas?
Unfortunately, scientists and insurance companies are projecting an upward global trend in severe weather events. That’s at least partly why several insurers are supporting a new voluntary framework by the United Nations. It’s called the Principles of Sustainable Insurance and it will be unveiled in June 2012 at the UN conference on sustainable development in Rio. It hopes to get insurers to commit to systematically considering environmental and related issues in all aspects of their industry so as to both improve their profits and to contribute to sustainability. The impact this might have is unclear. Indeed, it remains to be seen how the insurance industry will respond to rising disasters generally. Will it continue to raise premiums? Will it stop insuring some activities? Or both? What economic effects might this have and in what position will this put governments? Certainly the rise in such disasters will increase pressure to get projects right in the first place by ensuring resilience and preparedness as essential traits for development in the coming years.
Fork in the fracking road
What’s two degrees Celsius? If your body temperature went up by that much, you’d have a fever. It’s also the amount of global warming that nations recognize as the limit beyond which they don’t want to go, in part to avoid more severe weather events. A major way to stay below two degrees is to use cleaner energy sources. That’s why many are excited about the potential of a new technique to access natural gas, which is cleaner burning than oil and coal. “Fracking,” a way to access large reserves of natural gas and oil locked in rock formations by injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure, also has the potential to create jobs, generate economic benefits and help countries become energy independent.
What about potential problems, including excess water use and possible negative effects of substances added to, or resulting from the process such as corrosive salts, carcinogens and radioactive elements? Different jurisdictions are responding with bans, moratoria or by studying fracking with an eye to regulating it. As 2011 was an emergent year in the U.S. in fracking for oil, what will be the implications for Canada’s oil exports? What might fracking do to our “two degree” problem? With respect to energy, most countries are seeking to employ fracking to some extent while also developing zero emission technologies. Where will the balance of development lie? In 2012, we will likely get a good sense of the path we’re on.
Jumping the tracks of path-dependent infrastructure
Our path is also leading us to a future that’s wired and interconnected, and many also talk about development that is smart, affordable and sustainable. We are on the cusp of big changes to what we need and expect from our infrastructure.
Much of our current infrastructure dates to the Second World War and the paths we chose then are not necessarily the paths we should choose now. There are transportation issues. How can we share the road between competing uses and solve gridlock? There are food issues. Will urban agriculture take off? There are remote area issues. How can they get better Internet access and more affordable energy? And there are issues of emergency preparedness. How can we make structures that can withstand the increasing severity of natural disasters? Indeed, these are on