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Population growth and its effect on climate change

During the 20th century the world population grew from just 1.6 billion to a staggering 6.1 billion. Unsurprisingly CO₂ emissions rose enormously during that time, in fact at a rate 3x the increase in population growth. An indication of the incredible thirst for energy especially in the developed world. More people means more demand for oil, gas, coal and other fuels, and when burned these fuels spew carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere which traps warm air inside like a greenhouse and contributes towards increased global warming and climate change.

This graph shows the increase in energy consumption attributable to the various sources until 2015. You can see a rise in renewable energy but far lower that the rates of increase from oil, coal and gas.

Our population is expected to exceed 9 billion over the next 50 years. Understandably, scientists, environmentalists, and others are worried about the ability of our planet to withstand the huge pressures this will put on every ecosystem.

The target of limiting a global temperature rise to 2°C could already be beyond our control. Far from reducing our CO₂ emissions as planned by the Paris agreement, they are increasing and actually accelerating. Worldwide they rose by 1.1% in 2016 and in 2017 by 2.3%.

Roughly two-thirds of last year’s emissions increase came from Asia, where fast-growing countries continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels as they lift themselves out of poverty.

Actions to reduce output by the developed world such as UK, USA and Germany are being surpassed by China and India. It is thought these two will contribute 50% of global CO₂ by 2050, and according to the Global Population and Environment Program at the non-profit Sierra Club: “Population, global warming and consumption patterns are inextricably linked in their collective global environmental impact. As developing countries’ contribution to global emissions grows, population size and growth rates will become significant factors in magnifying the impacts of global warming.”

There is a partial understanding that we need to act and China installed as many solar panels last year as the entire solar capacity of France and Germany combined. Globally, renewable energy – including wind, solar and hydropower – was the fastest-growing energy source worldwide in 2017.

The catch? Last year’s “unprecedented” growth in renewables, the I.E.A. said, satisfied only about one-quarter of the increase in global energy demand as the world’s economy boomed. Fossil fuels supplied the rest. “The overall share of fossil fuels in global energy demand in 2017 remained at 81 percent, a level that has remained stable for more than three decades despite strong growth in renewables.”

If the world wants to cut emissions quickly and meet the climate goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, the I.E.A. said, clean energy will need to grow about five times as fast each year between now and 2040 as it did last year.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, a non-profit environmental think tank, the overriding challenges facing our global civilization are to curtail climate change and slow population growth. “Success on these two fronts would make other challenges, such as reversing the deforestation of Earth, stabilizing water tables, and protecting plant and animal diversity, much more manageable,” reports the group. “If we cannot stabilize climate and we cannot stabilize population, there is not an ecosystem on Earth that we can save.”

As climate change and population growth are linked, many population experts believe the answer to this side of the equation lies in improving the health of women and children in developing nations. By reducing poverty and infant mortality, increasing women’s and girls’ access to basic human rights (health care, education, economic opportunity), educating women about birth control options and ensuring access to voluntary family planning services, women will choose to limit family size!

Irrespective of what we do with population control it is probably not enough. Unfortunately, a recent report on global warming suggests it is happening at a much faster rate than previously envisaged, it makes pretty grim reading and makes the time for serious action right now.

Here is a part of that report.

Collapsing polar ice caps, a green Sahara Desert, a 20-foot sea-level rise

That’s the potential future of Earth, noting that global warming could be twice as fast as current climate models predict.

The rate of warming is also remarkable: “The changes we see today are much faster than anything encountered in Earth’s history. In terms of rate of change, we are in uncharted waters,” said study co-author Katrin Meissner of the University of New South Wales in Australia.

This could mean the landmark Paris Climate Agreement – which seeks to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels – may not be enough to ward off catastrophe.

“Even with just 2 degrees of warming – and potentially just 1.5 degrees – significant impacts on the Earth system are profound,” said study co-author Alan Mix, a scientist from Oregon State University.

“We can expect that sea-level rise could become unstoppable for millennia, impacting much of the world’s population, infrastructure and economic activity,” Mix said.

With this in mind maybe we should take more notice of the following proverb:

When the Last Tree is Cut Down, the Last Fish Eaten, and the Last Stream Poisoned, You Will Realise That You Cannot Eat Money

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