In her keynote speech for the University of Idaho’s Engineering Design EXPO, alumna and former faculty member Margrit von Braun admitted challenges in managing global climate change are daunting but said there is reason for hope.
Von Braun graduated from the UI in 1980 and, with her husband Ian von Lindern, founded the environmental engineering company TerraGraphics in Moscow. The company deals in remediation of hazardous waste sites, particularly those related to mining.
After selling the company about 10 years ago, von Braun and von Lindern went on to found the nonprofit TerraGraphics International Foundation devoted to working with governments and communities to improve environmental health around the world.
In her speech, von Braun said the U.S. has come a long way in terms of eliminating hazardous waste like air and water pollution within its own borders, but has become a major exporter of pollution and polluting industries to the developed world.
“We’ve often, rightfully, patted ourselves on the back and said, ‘We don’t have rivers on fire anymore, we don’t have horrible industrial air pollution like we used to have,’ ” she said. “But a lot of that is still happening in other parts of the world and of course we’re still benefiting from the products that we buy that they produce.”
While there are laws in many developed countries that protect against the exploitation of the environment, there are no global environmental laws preventing companies from simply moving pollution-heavy practices to poorer nations with weaker environmental and occupational health standards. For example, Von Braun noted resource extraction for precious metals is often performed by poor individuals in developing countries, usually through toxic processes like using mercury to extract gold from ore found in colonial lead mines.
She said one such operation in Nigeria caused deaths of more about 500 children by lead poisoning in a two-month period — the largest lead poisoning event in modern history.
While there are better, less toxic methods for extracting gold than using mercury, and there is a global movement to eliminate the industrial use of the metal, she said these practices still persist.
“What have we learned is the science is really the easy part, the stuff that we learn in science and engineering school, especially around pollution — how to prevent it, how to remediate it — we know how to do that,” she said. “The harder parts are all of the social, cultural, political, etc., etc., complicators and those are ones that I think as you develop in your engineering careers, you’re going to keep crashing into those no matter what you’re doing.”
Von Braun said even while the world attempts to address antiquated, pollution-heavy practices it is familiar with, new problems — like the crisis surrounding microplastics and nanoplastics — are only now being discovered.
She noted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has told world governments they must drop carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2030 and totally eliminate emissions by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophe — and there is not a single government in the world is on track to meet those goals.
While representative of only about 5 percent of the world population, von Braun said the U.S. consumes about a quarter of the world’s energy, emits about 15 percent of greenhouse gasses and produces about 40 percent of the garbage. In order to turn this around, she said numerous steps need to be taken including embracing new, more efficient technologies and assigning liabilities and consequences to organizations that damage the environment.
Von Braun admitted these challenges are daunting but said there is reason for hope. She noted world leaders met in a virtual summit last week on Earth Day and committed to bold targets. The U.S. in particular pledged to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030, positioning itself to lead the world in its movement toward a greener future.
“It is really an optimistic moment but let’s remember, this is not a political problem,” she said. “I like to think that maybe this climate change race that we’re on could be kind of like the space race to get to the moon.”
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