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Universidad Nacional de Colombia - Sede Bogotá

Departamento de Ingeniería Química y Ambiental


Diseño de procesos químicos y bioquímicos
2016-11-04

Pollution in Colombia by 2050: more than greenhouse gases emissions

By Jorge Andrés Felibert Álvarez

In the book "The future of the chemical industry by 2050" by Rafael Cayuela, the author
presents the current situation of the chemical industry in the world, based on the consulted
data from different sources, like the World Bank, the United Nations or the American
Chemistry Council, just to mention a few. Considering this, he makes a number of
predictions of the situation of this industry by 2050, addressing what for him would be the six
most important factors to consider, and the relative importance of each one. For the author,
the most important of these factors is the one related to emissions of greenhouse gases,
specifically, carbon dioxide. However, the author omits many other topics of our reality that
must be considered for a real environmental sustainability analysis, such as water pollution,
soil pollution, the ice caps melting, deforestation, destruction of the ozone layer, industry’s
solid wastes, among others. In Colombia, most of the problems already mentioned are
presented, either directly such as water pollution, soil pollution and deforestation or indirectly
as the ice caps melting, in which all of us have responsibility. Consequently, I think that
regarding the environmental issues, the author predictions are so optimistic, and that in
Colombia, the reality that we will face in the next 30 years will be much more difficult. My
intention in this paper is to show with facts that the predictions made in the book, on
environmental sustainability, are very limited and very optimistic. First, I will start doing a
very general analysis of the most common kinds of pollution in Colombia, and then I will
discuss the consequences that have been presented. The idea is to show that in our country, as
in many others, carbon dioxide emissions are not more decisive than the other ways of
pollution, and it is far away to be the only one to keep in mind when discussing about
sustainable development.

The author identifies six major features. These are: relevance of the industry, feedstocks and
energy, products (those that generate an economical benefit to the industry), greenhouse
emissions, industry structure and social awareness. Due to that, other important
environmental issues are not analyzed deeply. In fact, the water pollution topic is not
mentioned even once in the entire book. Contamination can not be measured only by the
carbon dioxide emissions of a company, region or country. It must also be taken into account
other ways of pollution like water pollution, such as the Bogota River, which according to
studies, has high levels of biological contamination by fecal coliforms, heavy metals such as
chromium, lead and iron and more than 800 tons of suspended solids (Pérez Preciado, 2000;
Dinero, 2016). It should also be analyzed the negative effect that fertilizers have on the soil,
which produce greater erosion and lower productivity in them (Uribe Pérez, 2013), as well as
it must be considered the water pollution by nitrates, phosphates and pesticides (FAO, 2002).
He argues that the increase in population brings with it increased demand for food;
consequently, higher demand for fertilizers, which would mean an exponential growth in the
agrochemicals market, regardless of its consequences.

Regarding the use of renewable energies, it is explained that some of these such as solar or
wind energy, have not been successfully and massively implemented, mainly due to
economic impediment of them. However, Cayuela states that, with the arrival of climate
change and increasing energy demand, research and use of renewable energy in the chemical
industry will be accelerated. Finally, he says that advanced economies will be the first ones to
change into renewable energies, due to their high per capita carbon dioxide emissions and
incomes, while the BRIC economies and the REST, will change because of the need to avoid
climate change. In Colombia, it is not observed any trend in the increase of renewable energy
as proposed by the author. Our country, which lies within the REST countries, according to
the classification used in the book, in 2005, 81.2% of the total energy was produced by
hydropower, while in 2011 it was 78% and in 2012 it decreased to 75% (Ministerio de Minas
y Energía, 2013). The thermal energy production has gradually increased, while the share of
other renewable energy sources is declining, including lower energies such as wind or solar.
The thermal energy we produce is obtained from fossil fuels, this also due to the decrease in
the cost of oil in recent years, which makes it less attractive compared with the use of other
energy sources, as shown by some newspapers as the BBC (Shukman, 2015), El Espectador
(Monsalve S, 2015) or some specialized magazines like Forbes (Solis, 2015), Portfolio
(2016) and Dinero magazine (2016), where also some specific issues are mentioned such as
lack of incentives and regulations to consolidate the renewable energies. In addition, it is
usually omitted the environmental impact of the implementation of some renewable
energies, assuming this was null, but the truth is that for example in the case of hydropower,
which produces most of the energy of our country, the impact is considerable. The most
common environmental impacts that occur are the alteration of the flow regime, loss of the
topsoil and affectations in temporary and permanent settlements (Hernández Torres, 2011).

Cayuela expects that per capita carbon dioxide production increases in the coming years up to
a limit that he considers as “sustainable”. Additionally, in the book, the ice caps melting topic
is not analyzed, which is of vital importance for all countries. However, he proposes three
questions that are not then discussed, such as: “If some or all of the methane trapped in the
permafrost is released, what effect will it have on the global temperature and climate?”; “If
the ice cover in the poles keeps shrinking so that there is less bright white surface and more
dark liquid sea surface, how much more heat from the sun will the dark surface trap, and how
much less can the ice packs reflect back into space?”, and finally “if the sea expands as it
warms, how much will this add to the rise in sea level?” (Cayuela Valencia, 2013, p. 140).
Even with current carbon dioxide emission rates, climate effect is highly negative and
unsustainable, so any increase in emissions is environmentally unsustainable. With the
current emissions, ice caps are melting very fast, as in the case of Greenland's glaciers
(Cardoso, 2015). Considering that the answers to the proposed questions are subject to what
might happen in the future, with the data we have today, we can get an idea of the possible
answers. For example, temperature in Medellin between the years 1971 and 2000 was
22,0°C, while for the period between 1981 and 2010 it was 22.5 ° C (Ideam, 2010); Likewise,
in Bogota on January the 26, 2016, a temperature of 25,6°C was recorded, the highest in its
history (Bernal Escorcia, 2016). Moreover, in the last 100 years, the Caribbean Sea level
increased from 15 to 22 centimeters high and is expected that in the next 25 years, this
phenomenon affects beaches, housing and road infrastructure of the cities located near the sea
(Martelo Tirado, 2015). Meanwhile, the IDEAM reports that between 1950 and 1990,
glaciers contributed in 0,14 mm/year to sea level rise, while by the end of the 1990s, this
value was 0,27 mm/year, estimating this way an increase between 19 and 59 cm by the end of
this century (Ideam, 2010). This shows that any increase in carbon dioxide emissions is
unsustainable, and that the phenomenon of ice caps melting is too important to make a
sustainability analysis without considering more than three questions.

The author argues that those chemical products that use wood as raw material are
environmentally friendly because they are renewable, such as rayon fibers, for which demand
has been stimulated by increased cotton costs. Although it is expected the chemical industry
to quadruple its production by 2050, and therefore the exploitation of resources increases, and
per capita dioxide emissions will be higher than the current ones, in the book nothing is
proposed about it, neither a real analysis of the issue is done. There I think there are no
enough arguments to support that the proposed scenario for 2050 is sustainable. It is said that
the wood is widely available, and that it is cheap and renewable. In Colombia, agriculture,
livestock, mining and other natural resource exploitation, are destroying our forests and will
continue doing this in the future. Its increasing loss has a direct influence on climate
variations like El Niño, water regulation, carbon sequestration, erosion control or biodiversity
shelter (Poveda Jaramillo, 2016). The environmental impact is increasing and there are no
real efforts to stop this problem, even when the country's largest natural park “Serranía de
Chiribiquete”, is already threatened by deforestation (Betancur Alarcón, 2016). An important
point to analyze is that, in the book, Cayuela does not mention deforestation even once,
neither a discussion on the subject is made. Over the past 50 years, humans have changed
ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any other period of human history which we
can compare with, largely to meet rapidly growing on demands for food, fresh water, timber,
fiber and fuel. This transformation of the planet has brought many benefits to human welfare
and economic development, but not all regions and all groups of people have been benefited
from this process. First of all, the 60% of ecosystem services are being degraded or used
unsustainably. Second, changes made in ecosystems are increasing the probability of
accelerated, abrupt and irreversible changes in them; and finally, the degradation of
ecosystem services is contributing to widening disparities between groups of people
(Evaluación de los ecosistemas del milenio, 2005). The consumption of ecosystem services,
which is not sustainable in many cases, will continue to increase to 2050, so the scenario
proposed by him, in addition of being very optimistic, does not consider all the environmental
factors that must be taken into account for an analysis of this magnitude.

The author states that issues such as the organization and demand of the large cities, as well
as existing concerns about pollution and waste will require significant attention, but he does
not include this in his approaches. The disproportionate growth forecast for developing
countries, implies the creation and expansion of landfills. Additionally, it is expected a strong
growth in the food industry to meet future demand, and in the case of this industry, it
produces a large amount of non-biodegradable materials that pose significant environmental
problems that are usually deposited in landfills (Madrigal Sánchez, 2013). The continuous
growth in population and changes in consumer habits in recent decades has led to increased
municipal solid wastes, with increasingly heterogeneous composition (Robayo A, 2012). In
the world, waste disposal is in emergency situation caused by insufficient coordination in
management of natural resources, a situation that had not posed a significant problem because
population was small and the area of land available for assimilation of wastes was large
(Robayo A, 2012). Even when the treatment of wastes by the method of landfills is
considered as a disposal technique that minimizes the damage to the environment and
dangers to public health and safety, it is possible to identify a large number of ecological
impacts like alteration of the quality and stability of the soil, destruction of topsoil, erosion,
generation of unpleasant odors, pollution of groundwater, among others (Siqueira M, Amaral
R, Bou-Issa, & Holanda, 2000; Yañez Zuleta, 2013). Assuming a growth on population and
chemistry industry as expected by the author, the need to include these issues in the study of a
sustainable scenario and the real scenario that we will face in the next 40 years is evident, as
this is a real problem that goes beyond emissions of carbon dioxide and that affects us
equally.

Finally, he states that governments will make their best efforts to create appropriate
legislation to enable responsible and sustainable chemical industry growth. Nevertheless, he
says that one of the most significant cases is the European Union, where it is expected that in
20 years, carbon dioxide emissions per private vehicle passenger, will be reduced from 170 to
100 g per kilometer, not taking into account existing legislation to water, because again,
focuses on that carbon dioxide is the most important source of pollution. In our country, the
law for the care of the environment is not rigorous enough, applied controls are not the most
appropriate and there are no proposals or initiatives to sufficient progress on this issue. In
Colombia, the latest regulation published for the care of water sources is the resolution No
631 of 2015, which is still too permissive with companies, because not only continue to allow
high loadings of certain pollutants, but many like phosphorus, nitrates, nitrites, phenols,
chlorides, sulfates, sulfides, among others, can be disposed without restriction (Ministerio de
ambiente y desarrollo sostenible, 2015). Considering that, decree No 1594 of 1984 was in
force for 31 years, there is no reason to believe that the No 631 of 2015 will be modified in
the coming years, which does not allow thinking that by 2050, the condition of our water
sources will be better. In the case of air quality, it remains in force decree No 948 of 1995
(Ministerio del medio ambiente, 1995). This is, a decree that has been in force for 21 years
and have been modified only a few times. The last one in decree No 1076 of 2015 through
which it is issued the unique regulatory decree of environment and sustainable development
sector (Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, 2015), where although maximum permissible levels for
gaseous emissions or leachate are imposed, yet certain concentration of pollutants such as
benzene, chlorobenzene or arsenic may be disposed in freshwaters legally.
The need for a deeper analysis of the different types of pollution is evident as they are
fundamental to make an approach of the possible scenarios of the chemical industry by 2050,
as argued by Cayuela is mainly based on emissions of greenhouse gases. Therefore, it is a
very small view for the magnitude of the environmental difficulties that are foreseen for the
next years worldwide, including our country. For this reason, the author could be wrong in
his approaches, and these could be very optimistic and away from the real scenario. It is
necessary to analyze trends and existing information on the contamination of water sources,
as these are essential for the sustainable development of countries. Also, a detailed study of
the phenomenon of ice caps melting is needed, because these are a major source of freshwater
on our planet, which is becoming scarcer every day. In addition, the information provided in
this work shows a more difficult reality that the one shown in the book, as it is the weakening
of renewable energy in Colombia and the trend towards the use of fossil fuels; deforestation
as a real problem that directly influence climate change, and showing us the unconscionable
and unsustainable way we exploit our renewable resources. It should also be noted that,
population growth expected by 2050 will bring a number of important challenges for
governments and industry, to which the author does not give the importance they deserve,
such as pollution from fertilizers and food industry, which are expected to grow
exponentially. The deterioration of our soils and the need to create and expand existing
landfills, with the environmental issues that this represents, must be studied thoroughly to
ensure sustainable development of our society in the future. However, it should be clarified
that even with today greenhouse gases emission, solid waste disposal and dumping of
pollutants into water sources, climate effect is highly negative and unsustainable, so it is
necessary to reduce this effect as much as possible. Finally, it is important to express the
concern regarding the legislation for environmental protection in Colombia, which remains
very permissive with companies and there no enough proposals or initiatives to make a
serious progress on this issue. The invitation is to analyze in the widest possible way, the
future of the chemical industry by 2050, with an emphasis on its responsibility in the care of
the environment and the challenges that matters this industry, and not just an economic
analysis of it. I also want to clarify that this text is far from covering all environmental issues
that affect us, and that what is shown in this is just a small sample of what we should see,
what we must analyze and what we must be conscious to undertake that journey to a better
world through better chemistry.

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