By Hugh Holland
In his excellent 90-minute film called A Life on our Planet, renowned British naturalist Sir David Attenborough shows how exponential population growth is a root cause of climate change and the alarming loss of biodiversity. The film is available on Netflix and should be on everyone’s to-watch list.
What Attenborough did not explain was that the coal-powered steam engine triggered the industrial revolution of the early 1800s. That resulted in massive improvements in productivity and quality of life which in turn helped to extend average life expectancy and increase the rate of population growth. That growth was further accelerated by the arrival of the oil-powered internal combustion engine in the early 1900s. By 1950, after WW1, the Spanish flu, and WW2, population growth became exponential.
By 1960, global population reached three billion which was thought to be the sustainable level, and 80 per cent of the world’s energy came from burning fossil fuels. In 2020, global population was five times 1900 and 80 per cent of the world’s energy still came from fossil fuels. Energy consumption is 10 times 1900, and greenhouse gas emissions are 13 times 1900. We are now at eight billion people heading for 9.8 by 2050, the date at which we must try to achieve net-zero emissions to hold global temperature to 1.5°C above 1900.
The evolution of the energy supply turned the population and emissions curves sharply upward. Ironically, it may be the next evolution of global energy supply that flattens the curves. Here’s why.
When the earth was formed, fossil fuel resources were not equally distributed. Eighty-five per cent of the world’s “proven” oil reserves reside in only 15 of 200 countries. That mismatch and the resulting competition for energy kept the Middle East and the world in turmoil for 120 years. But hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, and advanced nuclear energy will all be produced locally, and can enable every country to become self-sufficient with their own unique combination of those energy sources. That will reduce poverty in developing countries and reduce geopolitical tensions.
Reducing poverty, improving education, health care and job opportunities, especially for women, is the only thing that has ever reduced birth rates in an acceptable natural manner. So, that will help to flatten the population curve, as it has done in developed countries.
Fertility rate is the number of births per woman. The population replacement rate is 2.3 births per woman. Fertility rates reflect evolving economic and social conditions. Today’s highest fertility rate is 6.9 in Niger. Canada’s fertility rate was 6.8 at the time of Confederation in 1867 but is only 1.5 today. Asia, Europe, North and South America are all running below replacement rate, but all have pockets of poverty that help drive the global rate up to 2.4. The following data also suggests that urban communities are generally more efficient at providing quality education, health care, energy, public services, and economic opportunities, all of which help to reduce the fertility rate.
It is important to understand these key points.
1. More renewable and nuclear energy are essential to flattening emission and population curves.
2. We are on the cusp of a rapid transition in production and use of renewable and nuclear energy.
3. But the transition will take time. To avoid energy shortages that would cripple the world economy, the rate of decrease for old energy must be less than the rate of increase for new energy.
4. “Proven” global reserves of oil and gas will last for about 50 years. Canada is fortunate to have the world’s third largest proven reserves of oil. As smaller reserves are depleted over 30 years, the world will need more oil from Canada. Completion of the Trans-Mountain and Enbridge Line 3 pipeline expansions with enable Canada to produce and ship five million barrels per day for as long needed.
5. Rather than cashing all our chips to increase oil production and pipeline capacity in the short term, Canada should use our limited funds to ensure our oil production is sustainable for the longer term. Clean nuclear energy can replace the heat and eliminate the emissions from burning natural gas for oil extraction. Eliminating those emissions should eliminate the objection to Canada’s “dirty oil”.
The good news is we are starting to see a break in the global population and emissions curves. Global emissions dropped two per cent for the first time in 2019. Canada has a path to achieving 2030 and 2050 emissions targets. Europe is fully engaged, China is committed to 2030 goals and net-zero emissions by 2060, and the USA just re-joined the global effort. Developed countries must lead by intelligent and positive example and provide more assistance to the countries that need it.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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