Humanity is at a tipping point.
The impact of the human population on the planet now has consequences for humans: climate change and species to species transmission of disease. Previously the negative consequences of our impact have been felt by other species, now they are being experienced by humanity itself.
The benefit of our efforts to grow our society are now turning negative.
The law of diminishing returns will prove to be the most inconvenient truth.
We love to benefit from the work of people such as David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall, but do we listen when they deliver these very messages?
Let us summarise the message:
Unlimited consumption is not sustainable on a planet with finite resources, and a limited ability to absorb waste.
Regardless of efforts to transition to clean energy, we will still have to limit consumption and waste. Ultimately this means limiting the population, reducing consumption per capita and the pursuit of increased efficiency to reduce waste.
Who will ask thecomplicated questions that the tipping point demands?
Short to medium term efforts to embrace renewable sources of energy, and to seek cleaner sources of energy are all very necessary, but they are only delaying the inevitable unless we address the main driver of our impact on the planet that is population growth.
Why use medical science to extend life spans beyond the point of quality and dignity, when faced with growing evidence of overpopulation?
What are we doing to extend the use of contraception and family planning education when opposed by outdated religious doctrine, or when opposition is leveraged by politicians for advantage, or when faced with patriarchal societies that subjugate women?
The answers to these questions are not comfortable, the questions themselves are seen as controversial, but we do not serve humanity or the planet by avoiding the issues of limiting birth rates and limiting life spans when we have reached this tipping point.
Rather than address or even discuss the root cause, innovative ways to provide alternative energy sources are eagerly seized upon by governments, whose mantra is unlimited growth, and hence will never ask the hard questions about population, let alone answer them.
As many industries stand to benefit by providing these alternative solutions, the combination of politics and commercial benefit provides powerful support for solutions that may produce clean energy, but are they affordable for the end user?
Some alternative energies require the use of resources that are already in short supply. We must be sure we don’t exchange one problem for another, emissions reduction for resource scarcity.
In all cases, we must be sure to fully understand the overall equation of alternative energy.
Above all, we must not delude ourselves that alternative energy innovation avoids the tipping point. We cannot ignore the demand side of the equation.
Unlimited consumption is not sustainable on a planet with finite resources.
The laudable efforts to produce renewable energy in Europe still serve to demonstrate that fossil fuel and increased nuclear energy is required to generate sufficient energy to supply demand. Gas is being imported in increasing quantities. Not only are wind and solar cyclical, the reliability and longevity of the technology remains to be improved.
Mineral prices edge higher as demand increases. Electrification requires mineral mining.
Water is in increasingly short supply, yet electrolysis is being considered for Hydrogen production.
Desalination is in increasing use for water supply, further increasing energy demand.
Demand for energy cannot be balanced with supply over the next decades without fossil fuel unless more nuclear energy is introduced to base load generation capacity. Nuclear lead times extend beyond the decade so there is no alternative to increased fossil fuel production in the short term.
We can only diversify energy; we cannot completely transition to clean energy based on current population growth predictions.
CO2 sequestration may be an answer, but costs must increase to afford it, perhaps through efforts such as carbon taxation, but the costs will be passed through to the end user.
A carbon tax has the additional benefit of driving energy efficiency, perhaps the most overlooked aspect of energy in the current rush to explore alternative energy sources.
Efficiency and productivity are the most overlooked aspects of the modern belief in unlimited economic growth.
Much of the world population currently rejects nuclear as the base load alternative to fossil fuels, yet an increasing percentage of the population, and sources of finance, reject fossil fuels. This poses a difficult conundrum for those in heavy industry and those charged with baseload generation.
Even if we can address transition and diversification lowering emissions to sustainable levels, what will we do to address the encroachment of population on the territory of other species that increases the chance of disease?
Perhaps it is the natural consequence of development that education and access to family planning will cause the world’s population to decline: the birth rate in some developed countries has fallen below the renewal rate, but we cannot leave that to chance. We must engage with the developing world, without denying them the opportunities we enjoyed.
Who will be brave enough to engage, discuss and address these complex issues? Complexity will only further increase with time unless root causes are addressed and eliminated, or at least minimised now.
Bottom line, unlimited economic growth driven by unlimited population growth is not sustainable on a planet with limited resources, and a limited ability to absorb waste.