People and the Planet
This substantial, 132 page, Royal Society report of April 2012 is the work of 24 authors from 11 countries, and should be taken seriously. It gives an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption on the planet. Its concern is the continuing growth of the world population which reached 7 billion in 2011 and is expected to increase to between 8 and 11 billon by2050. In this it concentrates on what they believe could or ought to happen rather than on what seems probable. In doing so it gives the ideals they consider we should aim for.
It argues that the per capita material consumption in the richest parts of the world is far above the level that can be sustained for everyone in a population of 7 billion or more. The contrast is with the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, who need to consume more in order to be raised out of extreme poverty – a point emphasised in several places throughout the report. But the problem is that the highest fertility rates are now seen primarily in the least developed countries; the lowest fertility rates are seen in the more developed countries and increasingly in Asia and Latin America.
Despite a decline in fertility almost everywhere, global population is still growing at about 80 million per year, because of the demographic momentum inherent in a large cohort of young people. The global rate of population growth is already declining, but the poorest countries are neither experiencing, nor benefiting from, this decline. “The Earth’s capacity to meet human needs is finite, but how the limits are approached depends on lifestyle choices and associated consumption…. Developing countries will be building the equivalent of a city of a million people every five days from now to 2050. The continuing and rapid growth of the urban population is having a marked bearing on lifestyle and behaviour: how and what they consume, how many children they have, the type of employment they undertake.”
This leads to the first of the report’s recommendations. “The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development, education, family planning and health.”
The second recommendation, although desirable, seems to based more on wishful thinking and may be difficult to be achieved – as a later reference to Veblin shows. It calls for the developed countries to reduce “unsustainable consumption” But it admits this will entail a scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions, and the adoption of sustainable technologies. “At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth and improving the wellbeing of individuals so that humanity flourishes rather than survives”. This will require a decoupling of economic activity from material and environmental throughputs – reusing equipment and recycling materials, reducing waste, obtaining energy from renewable sources, and by consumers paying for the wider costs of their consumption. “Changes to the current socio-economic model and institutions are needed to allow both people and the planet to flourish by collaboration as well as competition during this and subsequent centuries.” But despite this recommendation the necessary political leadership, concentrating on long-term goals may be lacking.
There are a number of warning signs. Just under a fifth of the world’s people have families averaging between 4 and 7 children and live in countries where 90% of future population growth is expected to occur. In contrast the people who now have two children or fewer (42% of the world’s population), have the highest per capita incomes and consumption.
Because of population growth there are a greater number of consumers than ever before. Economic development has meant that the material needs of societies have become more complex, reflecting aspirations as well as basic needs. “Over the last sixty years total fish production has increased nearly fivefold, and total world meat production fivefold. The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased steadily from pre-industrial times. Emissions of CO2 from energy use reached an all time high in 2010 (and have since continued to increase}. Since 1978 the annual average Arctic sea ice extent has shrunk by 2.7% per decade. With high levels of CO2 more of it is absorbed into water and the oceans are acidifying. The increase in food production has meant that more land is taken over for agriculture and fish stocks have dwindled rapidly. The loss of biodiversity has been dramatic.”
Although population growth has slowed from its peak at above 2.0% in the mid 1960s, rapid population growth continues in some parts of the world. The upward population trend will not reach its peak for another 40 years or more because present day children and the unborn have yet to have children themselves.
“With this increasing population total consumption will also continue to increase as the population gets larger; more people means more mouths to feed and more goods to satisfy their aspirations. People depend on their natural environment for meeting many of these needs and desires, but over-consumption of material resources is eroding this natural capital. Access to sufficient food, water and fuel for everybody is already a problem.”
The report criticizes the adoption of GDP as the primary measure of national
prosperity, since it does not capture much of what is valuable in human life
such as freedom, security, health and social relations. Resources, on which
economic activity depends, are not necessarily unlimited. While some such as
fresh water may replenish, they may also suffer from irreversible
deterioration when overused.
Subsequent chapters consider in detail the question of population growth with its mortality and fertility trends where the Total Fertility Rate for the More Developed Countries is estimated to be 1.71. In the Less Developed Countries the decline in fertility started in the 1950s, dropping from 6 births per woman to 2.3 for the period 2010-2015. Fertility in the Least Developed Countries started to decline in the 1970s, going from 6.7 in 1965-1970 to 4.1 in 2010-2015.
The increase in carbon dioxide emissions referred to throughout the report is taken up again in the chapter on energy. “In 1900, the activities of humans released half a billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere per year. In 2000, they released 7.3 billion tons a year – a fifteen-fold increase. The human population of Earth in 1900 was 1.6 billion. The population in 2000 was 6.1 billion – a nearly fourfold increase. So average CO2 emission per capita also increased fourfold.” But carbon dioxide emissions are related to economic growth. As countries develop they tend to move towards emissions levels comparable to those of developed market economies.
More Developed Countries have per capita emissions from 4 to 50 times those of Least and Less Developed Countries. But these patterns are changing fast: emissions (both total and per capita) are growing up to 10 times faster in Less Developed Countries “At present, per capita emissions are 10 to 50 times higher in high income than low-income countries. Access to energy is very unequally divided, and energy insufficiency is a major component of poverty.”
In discussing household energy consumption there is an interesting reference to Veblin whose 1899 book “Conspicuous Consumption” first drew attention to consumption as a status symbol (expensive cars, clothes, and houses etc.). So at the national level, GDP has become an accepted measure of a country’s prosperity and influence. This must cast doubt on suggestions in the report that the developed countries should cease expanding their economies. It could be wishful thinking that these will stabilise, and eventually reduce material consumption and the adoption of sustainable technologies will enable the less developed countries to catch up. Increasing GDP will always require some increase in energy.
An intriguing discussion is on the consumption of resources per capita which often continues to increase after advancements in technology and processes which would permit its reduction, described as “technological lock in” – the inertia of an existing technology where self-reinforcing barriers to change, inhibit or prevent the uptake of new technologies, many of which might improve the sustainability of resource demand. Apparently inferior designs become fixed in use by a process in which strategy and historic circumstance are as important as the design itself. “Once established, mass production, rapid development and conformity to the prevailing norm (eg for inter-operability) locked-in these technologies as the predominant designs in their respective markets. Such technologies yield increasing economies of scale, and implementation of new designs and processes in their place incurs additional “penetrational” structural and resource costs – even if long term consumption of resources, functionality, environmental impacts and cost might be superior.” Light- water nuclear reactors are among the examples cited.
Another energy-related topic is the acidification of the oceans from carbon dioxide discharged from fossil fuel combustion.
“Related to, but distinct from, climate change, ocean acidification is a
consequence of the increase in CO2 emissions arising from deforestation,
agriculture and burning of fossil fuels. Over the past 200 years the oceans
have absorbed approximately a quarter of the CO2 produced from these
activities (Royal Society 2005). This has affected ocean chemistry and has
caused the oceans to become more acidic – reducing the concentration of
carbonate ions that are required for the growth and/or survival of many marine
organisms, including coral reefs, most shellfish and some fish species.
Although a global
issue, impacts will be regionally variable, with the Polar Regions, upwelling areas, and coral reefs (the most biologically productive regions of the ocean) likely to be most affected. Whilst the impacts of these changes on oceanic ecosystems and the services they provide cannot yet be estimated accurately, they are potentially large. Under current global emission rates it is projected that by 2020 10% of Arctic waters will be corrosive to species key to Arctic food webs and this could reach 80% by 2060 (InterAcademy Panel on International Issues 2009).
The effects of ocean acidification will be in addition to those due to climate change and pollution, making the impacts uncertain. Some species are likely to benefit, but others will not, leading to potentially profound ecological shifts as a result. Whilst there may possibly be some feasible localised technological fixes, the only practical way to minimise the risk of large- scale and long-term changes to the oceans is to reduce CO2 emissions (Royal Society 2005).”
Surprisingly, in Chapter 3 on Consumption, energy is only briefly discussed in about 3 pages in the whole 132 page report. More space is given over to the increasing consumption of water, minerals, and food. The report does not seem to recognize that that any increase in these sectors will depend on an increase in energy supply which is fundamental in securing economic and population growth. It points out that the need to limit the burning of fossil fuels is now being reached by the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and then calls for a switch to a combination of nuclear, wind, marine, solar energies and CCS. But although this leaves nuclear power as the only secure form of energy there is no further discussion of its role in future energy supply or comment on the limited potential contributions the renewable energies can make. These renewables are intermittent and require back up, most probably from fossil fuels, while the potential problems and dubious long-term safety and expense of CCS suggest its future deployment is unlikely.
In a favourable comment on wind power a reference is made to a report on what it calls “Denmark’s successful use of wind power” by Sharman 2005, (curiously this is does not appear in the list of references), which seems to be almost deliberately misleading; other writings by Sharman show him as a prominent and well-informed critic of the Danish wind programme. Contrary to the implied suggestion Sharman ’does not endorse’ but is highly critical of the role of wind; he has pointed out that “Over the last eight years West Denmark has exported (couldn’t use), on average, 57% of the wind power it generated and East Denmark an average of 45%. The correlation between high wind output and net outflows makes the case that there is a large component of wind energy in the outflow indisputable.
The exported wind power, paid for by Danish householders, brings material benefits in the form of cheap electricity and delayed investment in new generation equipment for consumers in Sweden and Norway but nothing for Danish consumers. Taxes and charges on electricity for Danish household consumers make their electricity by far the most expensive in the European Union (EU)1. The total probable value of exported subsidies between 2001 and 2008 was DKK 6.8 billion (€916 million) during this period. A similar amount was probably exported prior to 20122 and larger quantities will be exported following the commissioning of 800 MW of new offshore wind capacity in 2013.
The wind power that is exported from Denmark saves neither fossil fuel consumption nor emissions in Denmark, where it is all paid for. By necessity, wind power exported to Norway and Sweden supplants largely carbon neutral electricity in the Nordic countries. No coal is used nor are there power- related emissions in Sweden and Norway.
Wind energy has replaced some thermal generation in Denmark. It has saved an average emission of about 2.4 million t per year at a total subsidy cost of 12.3 billion DKK or an average cost of 647 DKK (€ 87 or $124) per ton . Wind power has proven to be an expensive way to save emissions.” ( CEPOS: Wind Energy, the Case of Denmark, 2009.)
And again “The load factor of the Danish wind carpet is only 20%. In other words, for every 5 MW of installed capacity the wind carpet on average produced 1 MW during 2003. … On average 1kW of installed wind power costs $1000. Therefore, to get 1 MW return, 5 MW costing $5million needs to be installed. … Denmark relies on exchanging electricity with pumped storage hydroelectric facilities in neighbouring countries…. The output suffers from extreme high amplitude high frequency variance – in other words it is very spiky. Sometimes the Danish wind carpet produces maximum output when there is little demand. On other occasions it delivers no energy when demand is high. On one day during 2003, the wind carpet actually consumed more energy than it produced.” Sharman’s conclusion is that “Denmark has no indigenous hydroelectric power but has managed to negotiate a power balancing agreement with Scandinavian cousins to make their wind carpet work.” www.theoildrum.com/node/1735 31 Aug2006.
And with a particular warning for the UK – “The variations, which are inherent
in any wind energy system, can be readily accommodated in west Denmark because
there are very strong electrical connec- tions to the much larger grid systems
of Norway, Sweden and Germany that can absorb these variations, particularly
due to their reliance on rapid-reacting hydropower. Countries such as the UK,
which operate an ‘island’ grid, will find it difficult to do this with slower-
reacting thermal power stations and may thus have to limit their reliance on
wind power.” Proc ICE paper 13663 May 2005.
Looking to the future the Royal Society report perhaps over-optimistically suggests that all of Europe’s electricity could in principle be generated from solar power in North Africa – the Desertec scheme – which could be complemented with wind and marine power coming from the north.
In the conclusions to this chapter it emphasises that “Consumption and demography are closely inter-twined. Every person must consume, and each additional person on the planet will add to total consumption levels.” but it fails to point out that increased total consumption levels must inevitably depend on an increased energy supply.
A final conclusion to the report is “In the short term it is of the utmost urgency to reduce consumption and emissions that are already causing damage, for example greenhouse gases, deforestation, and land use change amongst others. Furthermore, unless the goal is a world in which extreme inequality persists, it is necessary to make space for those in poverty, especially the 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty, to achieve an adequate standard of living.”
This will require a secure energy supply, which can only come from an increasing nuclear power output. This is indeed being recognised in many developing countries where the future growth of nuclear power seems most certain.
An interesting report, but flawed by an apparent unwillingness to recognize
the need for nuclear power.
Saving energy On the 1st September the EU is to introduce a directive banning EU companies from making or importing vacuum cleaners above 1600 watts. These new European rules are a part of the EU’s energy efficiency directive, designed to help tackle climate change. They are being proposed with the intention of reducing energy consumption.
A little thought however suggests that the outcome could be the opposite to
that intended. In the first place a more powerful cleaner might perform more
efficiently and in a shorter time than a smaller model and could as
a consequence use a smaller amount of electricity to perform the task. But
even if a smaller model could do the job satisfactorily the money saved,
unless hidden under the mattress, will be spent on other goods and services
which might then result in a greater energy usage.
It would make more sense if, in seeking to reduce carbon emissions and the consequent climate change, which is presumably the intention, the EU were to promote the use of nuclear power instead of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
The EU has an important role in building a unified Europe; these pointless and dogma driven directives only strengthen the hand of those who seek to withdraw from the EU.
The basis for this ban is the EU Energy Efficiency Directive, which became operative in December 2012. This requires all the EU countries to use energy more efficiently at all stages of the energy chain – from the transformation of energy and its distribution to its final consumption. This is obviously a sensible aim, but it is quite wrong to believe, as the EU seems to, that this will result in a reduction in energy use. Indeed the opposite is more likely.
This was pointed out by the Victorian economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) in his 1865 work The Coal Question… “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” “As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption..” And he gives an example on the use of coal in blast furnaces … “if the quantity of coal used in a blast- furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it increase, and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each.”
This is as true today as it was then.