It’s getting crowded on this third, and increasingly warmer, rock from the sun… What to do?

It’s getting crowded on this rock.

The United Nations, which tracks world population growth, has upped its estimates. We know that we’ll pass the seven billion mark sometime this October, but the U.N. is now saying we could hit 10 billion within the century – nearly a billion more than expected. Actually, by 2050 we will likely hit 9.3 billion. For some perspective, the planet held five billion people back when Johnny Depp was just starting his career on the TV show 21 Jump Street (Yes, I admit, I was a huge fan of that show). That was the mid-1980s – not so long ago, is it?

Ten billion people are a lot of mouths to feed, bodies to hydrate and families to shelter. It translates into more vehicles on roads, more gigawatts of electricity demand, and more land needed for growing crops. And dramatically more garbage and pollution. It will become much more difficult for supply to meet this demand. Commodity prices will continue to rise, as they have been. Fresh water resources will become more scarce. Regional conflicts will grow. Greenhouse gas emissions will rise. This isn’t scaremongering, this is reality. Even climate skeptics must appreciate that the current path is unsustainable. Global warming isn’t the only reason to be concerned.

Now, reducing waste, eliminating inefficiency and doing things in a more intelligence way will help, but ultimately dealing with the planet’s population explosion will also require a complete rethinking of where we get energy and how we use it. We can’t simply “shoe-horn” renewables into an existing fossil-fuel infrastructure, at least not in the long term. We need to imagine an infrastructure that puts renewables and low-emission energy sources first, and then begin the difficult task of making the transition. Many barriers (entrenched interests, risk aversion, lack of political leadership and citizen buy-in) will need to be overcome, but what’s the alternative?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a short preview of an upcoming report today that asserts we can make the transition. It concludes that nearly 80 per cent of the world’s energy supply could by 2050 be met through deployment of renewable energy technologies — particularly those that capture solar energy. Now, it’s a highly optimistic scenario, but it’s what we need to help keep GHG emissions below 450 parts per million and keep the global temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees C.

Are we too intimidated by the daunting task ahead? Perhaps that’s part of the problem. The IPCC spends many years putting together a massive and comprehensive report on the climate and then plunks it down for all the world to see. It’s information overload — simply too much to digest in one sitting — and it gives the impression that we have a problem that’s too big to tackle. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment was roughly 3,000 pages! The Fifth Assessment, currently in the works, will be an equally large tome filled with depressing conclusions and broad calls for action that no countries appear ready to embrace.

I agree with folks like Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria, who is perhaps Canada’s top climate scientist. He says we need to start targeting the science and dividing the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks. ”The science behind the problem is so utterly solid is that what we need to do is start carving pieces off and dealing with those,” Weaver recently told me.

Take, for example, global emission from landfills, which represent up to 4 per cent of total global GHGs. Why doesn’t the IPCC come out with a full report dedicated to the problem of landfill methane emissions and how to tackle it aggressively? Another report could focus on air travel, another major contributor, or tropical deforestation, or agricultural, or even geo-engineering as an attempt to buy time for adaptation programs. “Hiving off these parts and focusing international negotiations on individual sectors is probably where we need to go,” said Weaver. “The problem is so big people don’t know where to begin, so we have to go in this direction. Some are easy to tackle, some are more difficult. All of them are doable if you deal with them bit by bit.”

Now, back to the climate skeptics. Many say Canada is so insignificant that there’s no point in taking any action that could threaten our economy. How, for example, can a country of less than 50 million really register in a world heading toward 9 billion? One can see the allure of the do-nothing position when looked at this way. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the other problems — real, verifiable problems — that come with overpopulation and rapid depletion of resources, particularly fossil fuels. Air quality. Water scarcity. Geopolitical instability. Rising oil prices. Mass immigration that threatens to overwhelm the west’s social systems. Economic volatility. Even if you forget about greenhouse gases, there are plenty of hazards ahead that should concern us. Canada is not an alone. These issues will impact us, and will take a toll on our economy and standard of living.

Moving away from increasingly expensive fossil fuels toward locally generated, zero-emission energy sources, and using clean technologies to reduce waste will enhance our economic competitiveness during these trying times. By becoming more self-sufficient, we can become more insulated from many of the global challenges that lie ahead.

Putting our eggs in the fossil fuel basket, on the other hand, greatly exposes us to these challenges. Sure, a small group of people will get really rich (and this will skew our national GDP, which is a misleading indicator of a country’s economic health). But we will become more vulnernable to the volatility of oil and gas prices, commodity price swings and other gyrations of our international markets.

 I can’t help but think that North America, at the moment, is like a teenage athlete that continues to take steroids to win a race, only to ignore the heart attack that’s likely to come at age 25. Where’s the glory in that? There’s a quote in the Coppola movie Rumble Fish, in which Rusty James asks his brother what California is like (in the 1980s). His brother answers back: “California’s like a beautiful, wild girl on heroin who’s high as a kite, thinkin’ she’s on top of the world, not knowing she’s dying even if you show her the marks.”

One could say this of Alberta. In fact, some kind of are — and they’re not just environmental groups.

4 thoughts on “It’s getting crowded on this third, and increasingly warmer, rock from the sun… What to do?”

  1. First of all… I think you meant to say ‘billion’ with a b at the Johnny Depp and five million statement. Second, the population will continue to grow until we cannot supply food and water to the people we have. Population growth rates are known to level off as living conditions improve.

    There are those that argue there are already people starving in the world. This is often mischaracterised as a lack of food but, in reality, is due to purely political reasons. I’m not sure if you’ve been in a grocery store lately but we are not lacking in food.


  2. Your assumption here is that these problems can only be solved by massive, international efforts led by the UN and Federal politicians. That position is not unique to you. But, as you say – this is a huge problem. Trying to solve it with central planning is a fool’s errand. There’s far too many competing interests involved, and no real incentive for any actor directly involved to make a real, substantive change.

    The key to solving these sorts of issues is to decouple the solution from Government. Capitalism and free markets are a great problem solver, because there’s money to be made from solving these problems. And a LOT of it. Currently, green technology investment is being tied up in Government red tape, because companies are chasing tax dollars – which, by the way, is not only a completely expected, but utterly rational choice. Removing those tax dollars from the system – entirely, in every area – frees up entrepreneurs, and their capital, to pursue whatever solution they think is most likely to be profitable. The most profitable solution, sans government interference, is the one that benefits the most people, and is highly likely to be the one that solves the biggest problem.

    There is an appetite for green solutions in the public, but there is little appetite for green solutions mandated from above, and used to control and direct people’s lives and economic decisions based on what politicians feel is necessary and useful for their career.

  3. Capitalism and free markets are very good at solving a very narrow set off problems. For things that matter? Not so much. Hiring a hitman to eliminate the competition is an “utterly rational” thing to do, so, thank god we humans are much more than “utterly rational”. Or, thank god for the bureaucracy and red tape that, mostly, protects us from those among us who _are_ “utterly rational”.

    Of course, in a truly free market, we could innovate a solution to the hitman problem. It would look remarkably similar to government bureaucracy, though.

    If someone like Matthew thinks that the hitman example is a cliche…too easy…an obvious exception to the rule (every libertarian knows that some government intervention is necessary) then don’t throw “the free market” around, unconditionally, as a solution to all our problems. If market “failure” exists in one place, what’s to say it can’t exist somewhere else? Is free-marketism a religion, to be taken on faith? Or does it stand up to skepticism? If so, why don’t people like Matthew ever actually subject their claims (the market will solve all…) to such skepticism? *That* would make an interesting contribution to the debate.

    It’s well known that some economists consider global warming to be a case of market failure. What if there is, in fact, no “economical” solution, no more efficient power source than fossil fuel. What if the path turns out to be very, very long and expensive? What if energy source replacement becomes economical only under certain cultural conditions? What if entrenched interests (uteerly rationally) use their superior resources to influence political structures or consumer behaviour? Where’s the incentive to innovate? How do we manage the risk that a solution won’t be found on time? Does market fundamentalism have those answers? Does it even ask the questions?

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