Peak Environmental Impact

by Linus Blomqvist, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger

Note: Linus, Ted & Michael will be visiting London soon to launch their new publication Nature Unbound, and will be holding several events related to Ecomodernism. More details here.
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You won’t hear about it from green campaigners, but many of the key drivers of environmental destruction are slowing down. The rate of population growth is nearly half today what it was in 1970. The global population could peak as early as the middle of this century. By some calculations, the amount of farmland needed to grow food globally has already peaked. And per capita water use, food consumption, and material use have all already peaked in rich countries, and many developing ones as well.

Taken together, these trends suggest a truly remarkable possibility: overall human impacts on the environment could peak and then decline within the next several decades.

How soon we hit the peak, and how rapidly impacts decline, depends on how quickly key trends driving the slowing of environmental impacts can be accelerated. And therein lies the rub for environmentalists: to get to peak environmental impact quickly, we will need to accelerate key economic and technological processes that greens have long opposed.

Consider population. The primary determinant of whether global population peaks around 2050 at 9 billion people or 2100 at 11 billion will be how quickly sub-saharan Africa develops. The faster Africa moves its population out of the subsistence agrarian economy and into cities, the faster population will stabilize. That’s because in the agrarian economy, children are needed to work the fields and support aging parents in circumstances in which there is no social safety net to speak of.

When families move to the city, fertility rates fall from as many as 5 or 6 to 2 or fewer. Women gain economic opportunities outside the household. Children are valued for their future earning potential in the formal economy, rather than their labor in the fields.

Rapid urbanization requires jobs in the city for those who migrate and higher agricultural productivity for those who continue to farm. This requires industrialization and agricultural modernization. A growing manufacturing base has long been a crucial way to integrate a large, low skilled population into the formal economy, and increase labor productivity. To grow more food on less land, farming becomes mechanized, relieving agricultural workers of a lifetime of hard physical labor.

Urbanization and industrialization are hard pills to swallow for environmentalists who have long valorized peasant farmers, demonized industrial agriculture, and railed against the evils of consumption and capitalism. But the evidence is clear that when people move to cities and farm more intensively, birth rates fall, per capita land use for food production declines, and pressures on forests, ecosystems, and biodiversity are reduced.

The one driver of global environmental impacts that doesn’t slow when populations urbanize and economies modernize is energy consumption. But here again, accommodating the development imperatives of a global population that remains overwhelmingly poor — while mitigating the environmental consequences of energy consumption — forces the green movement to reconsider some long held shibboleths.

The United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative, for instance, is predicated on the notion that much of the global population stays poor and rural, consuming a tiny fraction of the energy that citizens of developed economies take for granted. Even were developing world populations willing to accept this future, which they most assuredly do not, the consequences would not bode well for the environment.

Large rural populations dependent on subsistence agriculture are hard on the land and hard on nature. They clear forests to make room for low productivity farming and pasture, hunt bushmeat for protein, and depend on fuelwood and charcoal for cooking and heating.

A cheap solar panel on a thatched roof hut powering an LED lightbulb and a cell phone charger can shine a light on rural poverty but can’t help large populations escape it. That requires far larger amounts of energy to power irrigation and tractors on the farm and factories in the cities. It requires roads and other infrastructure to provide farmers with access to markets and urban populations with access to commercially grown food.

Emerging economies, from Great Britain onwards, have historically met this need with large hydro-electric dams and fossil energy, which provides large quantities of cheap, on demand grid electricity to growing urban populations, industrial facilities, and large scale agricultural operations.

All energy production comes with tradeoffs. Dams harm local river ecosystems, but they also provide water for irrigation and power for farmers, allowing higher agricultural productivity and less clearing of forests for fuel and food. Fossil fuels emit carbon into the atmosphere and pollute the air but replace wood and charcoal for heating and cooking, which result in millions of indoor air pollution deaths annually.

While the environmental consequences of continuing growth in energy consumption can’t be eliminated, they can be significantly mitigated. Sub-saharan Africa has enormous hydro-electric potential and is rich in natural gas. It is possible, indeed even likely, that rapid urbanization and development in Africa might be powered by gas and hydro instead of coal.

Many poor and emerging economies are also increasingly turning to nuclear energy. China and India have both launched ambitious programs to build large fleets of conventional plants and develop a new generation of advanced nuclear technologies that are cheaper and burn their own waste. Kenya and other poor nations have launched joint ventures with China, Slovakia and South Korea to construct nuclear plants domestically.

Nuclear power is hands-down the best source of energy for the environment, producing large quantities of reliable zero-pollution power on a tiny patch of land while the tiny quantity of radioactive waste nuclear produces is easily and safely stored.

The environmental benefits of accelerating urbanization, agricultural productivity, and decarbonization are enormous. With far higher yields on larger farms, marginal farmlands revert back to grasslands and forest. Urbanization, agricultural modernization, and rising incomes from industrialization take pressure off of parks and protected areas in poor countries.

Thanks to those factors, forests are coming back across much of the United States and Europe and many developing nations like Costa Rica have been able to protect much more of their forests and biodiversity in parks and protected areas.

Today, humans use about half the Earth to meet our material needs, most of that for food production. With accelerated urbanization, agricultural productivity, and decarbonization, it is possible that we could very significantly shrink human impacts over the course of the next century, leaving 70 or even 80 percent of the Earth to nature.

That future is by no means automatic. Accelerating the diffusion of better and cleaner agriculture and energy technologies is a program that governments and global institutions ought to be able to get behind, as they once did for the green revolution in agriculture.

To realize the our full potential to shrink the human footprint and bring back more nature, we’ll need better technologies still. We’ll need next generation nuclear plants that can’t meltdown and burn their own waste; seeds that produce their own pesticides and better tolerate drought on a hotter planet; water recycling and desalination; aquaculture that spares wild fish populations; and ways of producing meat requiring far less land and resources.

Peak human impact is an inspiring vision, and it is within sight. Achieving it will be difficult, but no technological or scientific breakthroughs nor significant economic sacrifices are required. Human societies have repeatedly shown themselves capable of overcoming outmoded dogmas and myths — not just with science and rationality, but also with positive visions of the future. We can do that again.

Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are coauthors of “Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation,” and work at Breakthrough Institute.

13 Comments

  1. Brian Heap

    See:

    e4sv.org/new-thinking

    Reply
    1. Richard Bono

      I agree with Lynas’ thesis. Just returning from Vietnam, I spoke to many people in the countryside….fishermen and farmers and ordinary small business owners. They were proud that their sons and daughters were studying this or that at the institutes in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. I spoke to young people who had dreams, career goals, and plenty of desire to make them come true. I didn’t see a people who opposed modernity. I saw people who were embracing it…..Now it’s true that there is no guarantee that nations will avoid the pitfalls of the west’s early industrial age. But there are signs that they will be ambitious enough to act wisely. I saw partnerships between the Vietnamese, and China and Japan, on mass transit. And I saw an article in the “Vietnam News” extolling the virtues of nuclear power….THE most important emissions free energy source, which they have the opportunity to make part and parcel their own energy tradition…..Hard to know what will happen exactly, but there are signs of hope. We need to nourish them.

  2. gubulgaria

    “developing nations like Costa Rica have been able to protect much more of their forests and biodiversity in parks and protected areas”

    This Costa Rica?

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/costarica/11489426/Costa-Rica-has-only-used-renewable-energy-this-year.html

    Reply
  3. Rob Yorke @blackgull

    Mark
    Some interesting opposing thoughts here – fear of neo-liberal or wish to ‘couple’ nature closer?

    http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=854

    ‘And though humans can probably never escape entirely from a godlike differentiation of self from nature-other, our power lies not in ‘sparing’ nature but rather in moving purposefully within the realm of its power’.

    Having chaired Simon Fairlie (The Land) at the Hay Festival, I look forward to EM’s events in town next week.
    Yours etc

    Reply
    1. Michael Shellenberger

      Thanks, Rob, looking forward to meeting you.

  4. Robert Hargraves

    We need about 1kW ave electric power per person for prosperity

    Reply
  5. Chuck Niwrad

    Great post Mark. Lynas for President!

    Reply
    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      I’m enjoying your sarcasm, but it’s misplaced – I didn’t write that, it was a guest post if you look closely!

    2. Chuck Niwrad

      Not even a hint of sarcasm intended, I was just careless in attribution. I don’t think I have ever agreed more with a post on this subject. Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were spot-on, in my opinion, and I can only dream of a politician who shares their views.

  6. Peter Mott

    The BBC Countryfile program each week promotes a primitivist vision of agriculture. Not entirely, Adam’s Farm has £250,000 GPS guided machinery but it’s mostly people messing around with c17 technology – putting metal rims on cartwheels and the like. What Marx called “rural idiocy” (he didn’t mean it quite like that, but it’s a great phrase)

    Reply
  7. Sarah J Wilson
  8. peterc

    It’s good to see some optimism.
    But on population, the official (UN) estimates were recently (Dec. 2014) revised sharply upwards:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/world-population-will-soar-higher-than-predicted/
    And Africa accounts for most of the increase.

    Reply
  9. paulw

    Our efforts to boost productivity, and to conserve, can deliver marginal increases in efficiency — but are subject to diminishing returns and collateral consequences.

    Such efforts are futile if we don’t address human population growth.

    Rescue by new jumps in agricultural output is unlikely. As Lester Brown notes, the slowing rise in grain yields since the mid-1990s (oddly slowing just when GMOs were introduced), after threefold gains since the 1950s, reflects the limits of photosynthetic efficiency in a world with finite sunlight and arable land.

    The amount of farmland AVAILABLE to grow food globally has already peaked.

    Many developing countries are succeeding in raising their standard of living. In just 15 years, “By 2030, [the global middle class] will more than double in size, from 2 billion today to 4.9 billion!” (http://www.reuters.com/middle-class-infographic)

    However, this further multiplies the impact on the planet. The doubling cannot continue much longer; the question is whether we can stabilize or hopefully reduce population soon, while preserving some quality of life — e.g., forests and fish.

    Mere “smart” management of natural capital, like fisheries, is doomed:

    “Big-Fish Stocks Fall 90 Percent Since 1950”
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/05/0515_030515_fishdecline.html

    Christopher Clugston, an ecological and resource economist, documents “the reality that the NNRs [Non-renewable Natural Resources] that have enabled industrial expansion for over 200 years are now permanently scarce, declining in quality and availability and rising in cost.” (See his NPG Forum paper “Whatever Happened to the Good Old Days?” at http://www.npg.org/library/forum-series/whatever-happened-good-old-days.html)

    Meanwhile, ~50% of pregnancies are unintended and >40% of those result in abortions, both domestically and abroad. The critical remedy for getting to peak environmental impact: increase support for family planning. It costs only ~$22/year per woman in developing countries. In contrast to GMOs and their toxins, it’s cheap, it works, and there is huge unmet need for it.

    Reply

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