When it comes to population growth, the United Nations has three primary projections. The medium projection, the one most commonly used, has world population reaching 9.2 billion by 2050. The high one reaches 10.5 billion. The low projection, which assumes that the world will quickly move below replacement-level fertility, has population peaking at 8 billion in 2042 and then declining. If the goal is to eradicate poverty, hunger, and illiteracy, then we have little choice but to strive for the lower projection.
Slowing world population growth means ensuring that all women who want to plan their families have access to family planning information and services. Unfortunately, this is currently not the case for 215 million women, 59 percent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent. These women and their families represent roughly 1 billion of the earth’s poorest residents, for whom unintended pregnancies and unwanted births are an enormous burden. Former U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) official J. Joseph Speidel notes that “if you ask anthropologists who live and work with poor people at the village level...they often say that women live in fear of their next pregnancy. They just do not want to get pregnant.”
The United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute estimate that meeting the needs of these 215 million women who lack reproductive health care and effective contraception could each year prevent 53 million unwanted pregnancies, 24 million induced abortions, and 1.6 million infant deaths. Along with the provision of additional condoms needed to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, a universal family planning and reproductive health program would cost an additional $21 billion in funding from industrial and developing countries.
Shifting to smaller families brings generous economic dividends. In Bangladesh, for example, analysts concluded that $62 spent by the government to prevent an unwanted birth saved $615 in expenditures on other social services. For donor countries, ensuring that men and women everywhere have access to the services they need would yield strong social returns in improved education and health care.
Slowing population growth brings with it what economists call the demographic bonus. When countries move quickly to smaller families, growth in the number of young dependents—those who need nurturing and educating—declines relative to the number of working adults. At the individual level, removing the financial burden of large families allows more people to escape from poverty. At the national level, the demographic bonus causes savings and investment to climb, productivity to surge, and economic growth to accelerate.
Japan, which cut its population growth in half between 1951 and 1958, was one of the first countries to benefit from the demographic bonus. South Korea and Taiwan followed, and more recently China, Thailand, and Viet Nam have been helped by earlier sharp reductions in birth rates. Although this effect lasts for only a few decades, it is usually enough to launch a country into the modern era. Indeed, except for a few oil-rich countries, no developing country has successfully modernized without slowing population growth.
Though many developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were successful in quickly reducing their fertility within a generation or so after public health and medical gains lowered their mortality rates, many others did not follow this path and have been caught in the demographic trap—including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen. (Large families are a greater financial burden on both parents and governments, and more impoverished people and societies tend to produce larger families. Thus they become “trapped” in a cycle of poverty and high fertility.)
Countries that do not succeed in reducing fertility early on face the compounding of 3 percent growth per year or 20-fold per century. Such rapid population growth can easily strain limited land and water resources. With large “youth bulges” outrunning job creation, the growing number of unemployed young men increases the risk of conflict. This also raises the odds of becoming a failing state. Put simply, the costs to society of not filling the family planning gap may be greater than we can afford.
The good news is that governments can help couples reduce family size very quickly when they commit to doing so. My colleague Janet Larsen writes that in just one decade Iran dropped its near-record population growth rate to one of the lowest in the developing world.
When Ayatollah Khomeini assumed leadership in Iran in 1979 and launched the Islamic revolution, he immediately dismantled the well-established family planning programs and instead advocated large families. At war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988, Khomeini wanted to increase the ranks of soldiers for Islam. His goal was an army of 20 million.
Fertility levels climbed in response to his pleas, pushing Iran’s annual population growth to a peak of 4.2 percent in the early 1980s, a level approaching the biological maximum. As this enormous growth began to burden the economy and the environment, the country’s leaders realized that overcrowding, environmental degradation, and unemployment were undermining Iran’s future.
In 1989 the government did an about-face and restored its family planning program. In May 1993, a national family planning law was passed. The resources of several government ministries, including education, culture, and health, were mobilized to encourage smaller families. Iran Broadcasting was given responsibility for raising awareness of population issues and of the availability of family planning services. Television was used to disseminate information on family planning throughout the country, taking advantage of the 70 percent of rural households with TV sets. Religious leaders were directly involved in what amounted to a crusade for smaller families.
Some 15,000 “health houses” or clinics were established to provide rural populations with health and family planning services. Iran introduced a full panoply of contraceptive measures, including the option of vasectomy—a first among Muslim countries. All forms of birth control, including the pill and sterilization, were free of charge. Iran even became the only country to require couples to take a course on modern contraception before receiving a marriage license.
In addition to the direct health care interventions, Iran also launched a broad-based effort to raise female literacy, boosting it from 25 percent in 1970 to more than 70 percent in 2000. Female school enrollment increased from 60 to 90 percent. Women and girls with more schooling are likely to have fewer children, making their education a smart investment.
As a result of this initiative, family size in Iran dropped from seven children to fewer than three. From 1987 to 1994, Iran cut its population growth rate by half, an impressive achievement.
The bad news is that in July 2010 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the country’s family planning program ungodly and announced a new pronatalist policy. The government would pay couples to have children, depositing money in each child’s bank account until age 18. The effect of this new program on Iran’s population growth remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, Iran’s history shows how a full-scale mobilization of society that incorporates public outreach, access to family planning resources, and gender equality in education can accelerate the shift to smaller families.
Adapted from Chapter 11, “Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population, and Rescuing Failing States” in Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/wote
Nearly four weeks after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, emergency personnel are still struggling to stabilize the disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Beyond the immediate need to minimize further radioactive leakage and protect public health, the government is beginning to reconsider its long-term plans for nuclear power expansion. International media coverage has typically assumed that Japan must expand its electricity generation from coal, oil, and natural gas if nuclear is no longer an option. But the leaders in Tokyo do not have to be restricted to just these choices. A review of Japan’s geothermal, wind, and solar energy potential shows that domestic renewable resources could easily power the world’s third-largest economy.
The aftermath of the two natural disasters has brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of a nation currently reliant on imports to meet the vast majority of its energy needs. Japan imports all the uranium used to fuel its nuclear reactors, which account for 11 percent of its energy consumption. And Japan is the world’s top importer of both coal and natural gas, which make up 21 percent and 17 percent of its energy use. It is also the third-ranking oil importer. Consumed largely in the transportation sector, oil accounts for 46 percent of Japan’s energy use. The remainder comes from renewable sources, mostly hydropower. Altogether, Japan spends some $160 billion a year importing all of its coal and uranium and virtually all of its oil and natural gas.
Considering the risks inherent in nuclear power, the chronic political instability gripping some key oil-producing regions, and the climate volatility and pollution-related disease resulting from continued fossil fuel use, Japan’s current energy economy is far from secure. The good news is that energy from the earth, the wind, and the sun can change this picture dramatically.
Located along the tectonically active Pacific Ring of Fire, with nearly 200 volcanoes and some 28,000 hot springs, Japan is one of the world’s most geothermally rich countries. Using conventional technologies, geothermal energy could provide over 80,000 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity—enough to meet half of the country’s electricity needs. But with the modern enhanced geothermal systems (EGS ) technology now available, Japan’s geothermal potential could be far greater. To give a sense of the possibilities, a U.S. Geological Survey study of geothermal resources in the United States found that EGS increased estimated U.S. geothermal power potential 13-fold.
Despite this vast resource, Japan has developed just 536 megawatts of geothermal capacity since the first utility-scale plant came on-line in Iwate Prefecture in 1966. (See data at www.earth-policy.org.) In a given year, geothermal provides less than 1 percent of Japan’s electricity. What makes this particularly surprising is that three Japanese firms—Fuji, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi— produce two thirds of the world’s geothermal turbines.
Similarly, Japan’s enormous wind energy potential has hardly been tapped. At the end of 2010 Japan had installed 2,300 megawatts of wind capacity, enough to power 700,000 Japanese homes. The official goals for 2020 and 2030 are 10,000 and 20,000 megawatts, respectively, with the latter capacity equal to 6 percent of Japan’s current electricity consumption. But a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that Japan’s land-based wind resources could provide half of its electricity. If harnessable offshore wind resources are included, the wind energy potential far exceeds current electricity needs.
Japan’s most ambitious renewable energy goals are those for solar photovoltaics (PV), mostly in rooftop panels. Among the world leaders in installed PV capacity, Japan connected an estimated 900 megawatts to the grid in 2010, bringing its total capacity to more than 3,500 megawatts. By 2020, Japan aims to increase this eightfold, to 28,000 megawatts, with a goal of 53,000 megawatts by 2030. This would be sufficient to power 18 million Japanese homes.
Solar PV in Japan owes its recent rapid growth to strong policies promoting its adoption. For example, the government covers up to 35 percent of a home PV system’s installation costs. A requirement that utilities pay homeowners a premium for electricity fed back into the grid by renewable energy systems—known as a feed-in tariff or FIT—makes residential PV even more attractive. Begun in mid-2009, Japan’s FIT rate for PV is about twice what a resident would normally pay for a kilowatt-hour of electricity. Moreover, with technology improvements and further installations under the national PV 2030+ initiative, the government aims to make solar PV among the cheapest electricity options available.
While PV appears to be on its way to widespread adoption, multiple obstacles have impeded wind and geothermal power. One important constraint is the disproportionate funding for energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) allocated to the various technologies. Geothermal has received absolutely no RD&D funding from the government since 2002. Wind receives roughly $10 million per year. In stark contrast, nuclear power gets $2.3 billion per year.
Geography has also constrained geothermal and wind development. Japan’s best land-based wind resources are in northern and southern prefectures, whereas demand is highest in the middle of the country. Thus electrical grid and transmission expansion will be necessary to fully harness Japan’s wind energy. With geothermal, much of the potential capacity lies within national parks and has been declared unavailable under conservation laws passed in the 1970s. But because geothermal projects can be developed without significant negative environmental impacts, the government may want to revisit this policy.
Beyond being adequate to meet Japan’s current electricity needs many times over, geothermal and wind energy could also displace much of the expensive imported oil now used in transportation. Japan already has impressive rail ridership compared with other industrial nations. The key now is to shift more road freight to electrified rail, increase the use of light rail and metro subways within cities, and accelerate the replacement of conventional cars with plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles—and to run them all largely on electricity generated from renewable sources.
As Japan recovers and rebuilds from the disastrous earthquake and tsunami, the country will have to decide whether to rely even more heavily on inherently risky nuclear power and imported fossil fuels or to chart a new energy course. If the nation turned to renewables instead of fossil fuels and nuclear power, it would be investing in the health, energy security, and economic well-being of its people. In addition to avoiding the risk of future radioactive contamination of air, water, and crops, Japan would save tens of billions of dollars annually on imported energy. It would also nurture its already formidable renewable energy manufacturing industries. Japan was second only to China in PV manufacturing in 2009, and, as noted, Japanese companies dominate global geothermal turbine production.
Clearly, Japan does not have to settle for sources of energy that either pose a radioactive risk or destabilize the earth’s climate. By fully committing to wind, solar, and geothermal, Japan could cancel all planned nuclear and fossil fuel power plants, replace the existing ones, and power its transportation system with carbon-free domestic energy.
In 1994, I wrote an article in World Watch magazine entitled “Who Will Feed China?” that was later expanded into a book of the same title. When the article was published in late August, the press conference generated only moderate coverage. But when it was reprinted that weekend on the front of the Washington Post’s Outlook section with the title “How China Could Starve the World,” it unleashed a political firestorm in Beijing.
The response began with a press conference at the Ministry of Agriculture on Monday morning, where Deputy Minister Wan Baorui denounced the study. Advancing technology, he said, would enable the Chinese people to feed themselves. This was followed by a government-orchestrated stream of articles that challenged my findings.
The strong reaction surprised me. In retrospect, although I had followed closely the Great Famine of 1959–61, during which some 30 million people starved to death, I had not fully appreciated the psychological scars it left. The leaders in Beijing are survivors of that famine. As a result of that traumatic experience, no leader could acknowledge that China might one day have to import much of its food. China, they said, had always fed itself, and it always would.
As party leaders assessed the situation, they decided to launch an all-out effort to maintain grain self-sufficiency. The government quickly adopted several key production-boosting measures, including a 40 percent rise in the grain support price paid to farmers, an increase in agricultural credit, and heavy investment in developing higher-yielding strains of wheat, rice, and corn, their leading crops.
They offset cropland losses in the fast-industrializing coastal provinces by plowing grasslands in the northwestern provinces, a measure that contributed to the emergence of the country’s massive dust bowl. In addition to overplowing, they expanded irrigation by overpumping aquifers.
Lastly, the Party made a conscious decision to abandon self-sufficiency in soybeans and concentrate their agricultural resources on remaining self-sufficient in grain. The effect of neglecting the soybean in the country where it originated was dramatic. In 1995 China produced and consumed nearly 14 million tons of soybeans. In 2010 it was still producing only 14 million tons—but it consumed nearly 70 million tons, most of it to supplement grain in livestock and poultry rations. China now imports four-fifths of its soybeans. (See data.)
Despite China’s herculean efforts to expand grain output, several trends are now converging that make it harder to do so. Some, like soil erosion, are longstanding. The pumping capacity to deplete aquifers has emerged only in recent decades. The extraordinary growth in China’s automobile fleet and the associated paving of land have come only in the last several years.
Overplowing and overgrazing are creating a huge dust bowl in northern and western China. The numerous dust storms originating in the region each year in late winter and early spring are now regularly recorded on satellite images. For instance, on March 20, 2010, a suffocating dust storm enveloped Beijing, prompting the city’s weather bureau to warn that air quality was hazardous, urging people to stay inside or to cover their faces when outdoors. Visibility was low, forcing motorists to drive with lights on in daytime.
Beijing was not the only area affected. This particular dust storm engulfed scores of cities in five provinces, directly affecting over 250 million people. And it was not an isolated incident. In early spring, residents of eastern China hunker down as the dust storm season begins. Along with the difficulty in breathing and the dust that stings the eyes, people face a constant struggle to keep dust out of homes and to clear doorways and sidewalks of dust and sand. But the farmers and herders in the vast northwest, whose livelihoods are blowing away, are paying a far higher price.
Wang Tao, one of the world’s leading desert scholars, reports that from 1950 to 1975 an average of 600 square miles of land in China’s north and west turned to desert each year. By the turn of the century, nearly 1,400 square miles of land was going to desert annually. The trend is clear.
China is now at war. It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. And in this war with the deserts, China is losing.
A U.S. Embassy report entitled “Desert Mergers and Acquisitions” describes satellite images showing two deserts in north-central China expanding and merging to form a single, larger desert overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu Provinces. To the west in Xinjiang Province, two even larger deserts—the Taklimakan and Kumtag—are also heading for a merger. Highways running through the shrinking region between them are regularly inundated by sand dunes.
An estimated 24,000 villages in northwestern China have been totally or partially abandoned since 1950 as sand dunes encroach on cropland, forcing farmers to leave. Unlike the U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when many farmers in the Great Plains migrated to California, China’s “Okies” do not have a West Coast to migrate to. They are moving to already heavily populated eastern cities.
Overpumping, like overplowing, is also taking a toll. As the demand for food in China has soared, millions of Chinese farmers have drilled irrigation wells to expand their harvests. As a result, water tables are falling and wells are starting to go dry under the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. The overpumping of aquifers for irrigation temporarily inflates food production, creating a food production bubble that eventually bursts when the aquifer is depleted. Earth Policy Institute estimates that some 130 million Chinese are being fed with grain produced by overpumping—by definition, a short term phenomenon.
In a 2010 interviewwith Washington Post reporter Steve Mufson, Chinese groundwater expert He Qingcheng noted that underground water now meets three fourths of Beijing’s water needs. The city, he said, is drilling 1,000 feet down to reach water—five times deeper than 20 years ago. He notes that as the deep aquifer under the North China Plain is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve—its only safety cushion. His concerns are mirrored in the unusually strong language of a World Bank report on China’s water situation that foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.
At the same time, China is losing cropland to residential and industrial construction, and to paving land for cars as their numbers multiply at a staggering rate. In 2009, vehicle sales totaled 14 million, surpassing those in the United States for the first time. In 2010, sales jumped to 18 million, and in 2011 they are projected to reach 20 million, the highest ever for any country. Adding 20 million cars to the fleet means paving one million acres for roads, highways, and parking lots. Cars are now competing with farmers for cropland in China.
Rural China is also facing a tightening labor supply. As industrial wages rise, it becomes more difficult to find young people to work at low-return jobs in rural areas. Marginal cropland and smaller plots, no longer economical, are abandoned. As the rural labor supply shrinks, so does the potential for labor-intensive double-cropping (such as planting winter wheat and then corn as a summer crop in the north or producing two rice crops per year in the south), a practice that has dramatically expanded China’s grain production.
As all these trends converge, China’s food supply is tightening. In November 2010, the food price index was up a politically dangerous 12 percent over a year earlier. Now after 15 years of near self-sufficiency in grain, it seems likely that China soon will turn to the world market for massive grain imports, as it already has done for 80 percent of its soybeans.
How much grain will China import? How will it compare with their soybean imports? No one knows for sure, but if China were to import only 20 percent of its grain, it would need 80 million tons, an amount only slightly less than the 90 million tons of grain the United States exportsto all countries each year. This would put heavy additional pressure on scarce exportable supplies of wheat and corn.
For China, the handwriting is on the wall. It will almost certainly have to turn to the outside world for grain to avoid politically destabilizing food price rises. To import massive quantities of grain, China will necessarily draw heavily on the United States, far and away the world’s largest grain exporter. To be dependent on imported grain, much of it from the United States, will be China’s worst nightmare come true.
For U.S. consumers, China’s worst nightmare could become ours. If China enters the U.S. grain market big time, as now seems inevitable, American consumers will find themselves competing with 1.4 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes for the U.S. grain harvest, driving up food prices.
This would raise prices not only of the products made directly from grain, such as bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals, but also of meat, milk, and eggs, which require much larger quantities of grain to produce. If China were to import even one fifth of its grain, there would likely be pressure from U.S. consumers to restrict or to ban exports to China, as the United States did in the 1970s, when it banned soybean exports to Japan.
But in dealing with China, the United States now faces a very different situation. When the U.S. Treasury Department auctions off securities every month to finance the U.S. fiscal deficit, China has been a major buyer. It holds over $900 billion worth of U.S. Treasury securities. China is our banker. In another time, another age, the United States could restrict access to U.S. grain as it did in the 1970s, but with China today this may not be possible.
For Americans, who live in a country that has been the world’s breadbasket for more than half a century, a country that has never known food shortages or runaway food prices, the world is about to change. Like it or not, we are going to be sharing our grain harvest with the Chinese, no matter how much it raises our food prices.
For many years, a small handful of countries dominated growth in wind power, but this is changing as the industry goes global, with more than 70 countries now developing wind resources. Between 2000 and 2010, world wind electric generating capacity increased at a frenetic pace from 17,000 megawatts to nearly 200,000 megawatts.
Measured by share of electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leading nation at 21 percent. Three north German states now get 40 percent or more of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, the figure is 8 percent—and climbing. And in the state of Iowa, enough wind turbines came online in the last few years to produce up to 20 percent of that state’s electricity.
In terms of sheer volume, the United States leads the world with 35,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, followed by China and Germany with 26,000 megawatts each. Texas, long the leading U.S. oil-producing state, is now also the nation’s leading generator of electricity from wind. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online, 370 megawatts more under construction, and a huge amount under development. If all of the wind farms projected for 2025 are completed, Texas will have 38,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity—the equivalent of 38 coal-fired power plants. This would satisfy roughly 90 percent of the current residential electricity needs of the state’s 25 million people.
In July 2010, ground was broken for the Alta Wind Energy Center (AWEC) in the Tehachapi Pass, some 75 miles north of Los Angeles, California. At 1,550 megawatts, it will be the largest U.S. wind farm. The AWEC is part of what will eventually be 4,500 megawatts of renewable power generation, enough to supply electricity to some 3 million homes.
Since wind turbines occupy only 1 percent of the land covered by a wind farm, farmers and ranchers can continue to grow grain and graze cattle on land devoted to wind farms. In effect, they double-crop their land, simultaneously harvesting electricity and wheat, corn, or cattle. With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers typically receive $3,000–10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine on their land. For thousands of ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains, wind royalties will dwarf their net earnings from cattle sales.
In considering the energy productivity of land, wind turbines are in a class by themselves. For example, an acre of land in northern Iowa planted in corn can yield $1,000 worth of ethanol per year. That same acre used to site a wind turbine can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. This helps explain why investors find wind farms so attractive.
Impressive though U.S. wind energy growth is, the expansion now under way in China is even more so. China has enough onshore harnessable wind energy to raise its current electricity consumption 16-fold. Today, most of China’s 26,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity come from 50- to 100-megawatt wind farms. Beyond the many other wind farms of that size that are on the way, China’s new Wind Base program is creating seven wind mega-complexes of 10 to 38 gigawatts each in six provinces (1 gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts). When completed, these complexes will have a generating capacity of more than 130 gigawatts. This is equivalent to building one new coal plant per week for two and a half years.
Of these 130 gigawatts, 7 gigawatts will be in the coastal waters of Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most highly industrialized provinces. China is planning a total of 23 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity. The country’s first major offshore project, the 102-megawatt Donghai Bridge Wind Farm near Shanghai, is already in operation.
In Europe, which now has 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind online, wind developers are planning 140 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity, mostly in the North Sea. There is enough harnessable wind energy in offshore Europe to satisfy the continent’s needs seven times over.
In September 2010, the Scottish government announced that it was replacing its goal of 50 percent renewable electricity by 2020 with a new goal of 80 percent. By 2025, Scotland expects renewables to meet all of its electricity needs. Much of the new capacity will be provided by offshore wind.
Denmark is looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50 percent by 2025, with most of the additional power coming from offshore. In contemplating this prospect, Danish planners have turned conventional energy policy upside down. They plan to use wind as the mainstay of their electrical generating system and to use fossil-fuel-generated power to fill in when the wind dies down.
Spain, which has 19,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity for its 45 million people, got 14 percent of its electricity from wind in 2009. On November 8th of that year, strong winds across Spain enabled wind turbines to supply 53 percent of the country’s electricity over a five-hour stretch. London Times reporter Graham Keeley wrote from Barcelona that “the towering white wind turbines which loom over Castilla-La Mancha—home of Cervantes’s hero, Don Quixote—and which dominate other parts of Spain, set a new record in wind energy production.”
In 2007, when Turkey issued a request for proposals to build wind farms, it received bids to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, far beyond its 41,000 megawatts of total electrical generating capacity. Having selected 7,000 megawatts of the most promising proposals, the government is issuing construction permits.
In wind-rich Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta are the leaders in installed capacity. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has received applications for offshore wind development rights on its side of the Great Lakes that could result in some 21,000 megawatts of generating capacity. The provincial goal is to back out all coal-fired power by 2014.
On the U.S. side of Lake Ontario, New York State is also requesting proposals. Several of the seven other states that border the Great Lakes are planning to harness lake winds.
Earth Policy Institute’s Plan B to save civilization has four components: stabilizing climate, restoring earth’s natural support systems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty. At the heart of the plan is a crash program to develop 4,000 gigawatts (4 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to cover over half of world electricity consumption in the Plan B economy. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, up from a doubling every three years over the last decade.
This climate-stabilizing initiative would mean the installation of 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each. Manufacturing 2 million wind turbines over the next 10 years sounds intimidating—until it is compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces each year.
At $3 million per installed turbine, the 2 million turbines would mean spending $600 billion per year worldwide between now and 2020. This compares with world oil and gas capital expenditures that are projected to double from $800 billion in 2010 to $1.6 trillion in 2015.
In February, world food prices reached the highest level on record. Soaring food prices are already a source of spreading hunger and political unrest, and it appears likely that they will climb further in the months ahead.
As a result of an extraordinarily tight grain situation, this year’s harvest will be one of the most closely watched in years. Last year, the world produced 2,180 million tons of grain. It consumed 2,240 million tons, a consumption excess that was made possible by drawing down stocks by 60 million tons. (See data at www.earth-policy.org.) To avoid repeating last year’s shortfall and to cover this year’s estimated 40-million-ton growth in demand, this year’s world grain harvest needs to increase by at least 100 million tons. Yet that would only maintain the current precarious balance between supply and demand.
To get prices back down to a more acceptable level, it would take perhaps another 50 million tons for a total increase of 150 million tons. Can the world boost this year’s grain harvest by 150 million tons or even 100 million tons? It is possible, because we have had annual harvest jumps of 150 million tons twice over the last two decades, but this year it does not appear likely.
In assessing the world grain harvest prospect, we focus on the big three grains -- rice, wheat, and corn -- that together account for nearly 90 percent of the harvest. Barley, oats, sorghum, rye, and millet make up the remainder.
We start by looking at rice because, as an irrigated crop, its production fluctuates little. The average annual gain in the world rice harvest, which totaled 452 million tons last year, has been 7 million tons. Let’s assume that we get a 10 million ton gain in rice this year.
Wheat, now the world’s leading food grain, is much more difficult to assess because so much of the harvest is rain-fed, making yields as variable as the rainfall. But since most wheat is winter wheat, which is planted in the fall, is dormant in winter, and resumes growth in early spring, we know that this year the wheat area planted is up by 3 percent. We also have an early sense of the crop’s condition.
We begin with the big four wheat producers -- China, India, the United States, and Russia -- which collectively produce half the world’s wheat. China, the leading wheat producer, was until very recently suffering the worst drought in its winter wheat-growing region in 60 years. Although rain and snow in late February and early March rains and snow have lessened the drought effect, we could easily see China’s wheat harvest drop from 115 million tons last year to 110 million tons this year. India officially expects an 82-million-ton harvest, up 1 million tons from last year.
In the United States -- the third ranking wheat producer -- the southern Great Plains are suffering from drought. As of the end of February, the U.S. winter wheat crop condition was among the worst in the last 20 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the harvest will drop from 60 million tons to 56 million, and this may be conservative.
Russia’s wheat harvest should be up sharply from last year’s heat-devastated crop of 42 million tons. But last fall it was too dry to plant one fifth of its winter wheat, which means many more farmers will plant lower-yielding spring wheat -- wheat that is planted in the spring and is harvested in the late summer or early fall. With a little luck, Russia should harvest roughly 58 million tons of wheat.
Adding in the rest of the world’s expected wheat production, can we match last year’s world wheat harvest figure of 645 million tons? We should exceed it. The International Grains Council estimates this year’s harvest at 672 million tons, up by 27 million tons over 2010. This contrasts with the Canadian Wheat Board estimate of 653 million tons, a gain of only 8 million tons. For calculation purposes, let us assume that this year’s wheat harvest is up by 20 million tons for a total of 665 million tons.
Now for corn. Two countries tell the story here: the United States and China, which produce 40 and 20 percent, respectively, of the 814-million-ton world corn harvest. Combining the expected 4 percent increase in U.S. planted area with a 10-ton-per-hectare yield, the U.S. corn harvest could increase by 25 million tons. China’s corn harvest, which has fluctuated around 165 million tons for the last three years, is not likely to increase given its tight water situation. For the remaining 40 percent of the corn harvest, we will assume a gain of 15 million tons. All together this takes the world harvest up by 40 million tons.
Let’s review the global numbers. It will take 100 million tons of additional grain just to maintain the current precarious situation and close to 150 million tons to restore some semblance of stability in the world grain market. We can count on a 10-million-ton increase in this year’s rice harvest. We are hoping for a 20-million-ton rise with wheat and a 40-million-ton jump in corn. Let us also assume that minor cereals increase by 10 million tons over last year. This would give us a total increase of 80 million tons, not enough to prevent further price rises.
Estimating world grain production is becoming more complex and difficult. On the demand side of the equation, there are three sources of growth: the addition of 80 million people per year, some 3 billion people moving up the food chain consuming more grain-intensive livestock products, and the massive conversion of grain to fuel ethanol in the United States.
On the supply side, there was a time when grain production was on the rise almost everywhere. That world is now history. In a number of countries, grain harvests are shrinking because of aquifer depletion and severe soil erosion. Rising temperatures are also taking a toll. And some agriculturally advanced countries have run out of new technology to raise land productivity.
In 18 countries containing half the world’s people, overpumping for irrigation is depleting aquifers. Among the countries where harvests are falling as aquifers are depleted are Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. World Bank data for India indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, which by definition is a short-term phenomenon. The comparable number for China is 130 million people.
In some countries such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain production has fallen by half or more in recent decades as severe soil erosion has led to wholesale cropland abandonment. In North Korea and Haiti, soil erosion is undermining efforts to raise output.
In several agriculturally advanced countries, the backlog of unused technology has largely disappeared. Japan’s rice yield per acre has not increased for 16 years. China’s rice yield, now approaching that in Japan, may also be about to level off.
In France, Europe’s leading wheat producer, yields have been flat for a decade. Wheat yields have also plateaued in Germany and the United Kingdom. In Egypt, Africa’s leading wheat producer, wheat yields have been flat for six years.
At this point, it seems unlikely that we will get the 100-million-ton grain harvest increase this year that would be needed just to maintain the current rather precarious situation. Instead, it looks more likely that we will reduce stocks further. It may be somehow possible to avoid a rise in world food prices in the months ahead, but at this point it seems unlikely.
Lester R. Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge.
The hundreds of data sets that accompany Lester Brown’s latest book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, illustrate the world’s current predicament and give a sense of where we might go from here. Here are some highlights from the collection.
VEERING TOWARD THE EDGE:
As the world economy has expanded nearly 10-fold since 1950, consumption has begun to outstrip natural assets on a global scale. The same values that have allowed ecological deficits to grow are contributing to ballooning fiscal deficits around the world, threatening to undermine economic progress.
Some of the planet’s natural capital, like fossil fuels or water in non-replenishable aquifers, is finite and exhaustible. And some is regenerative; it can be thought of like an interest-earning bank account, where if the principal is maintained, one can live off of the interest indefinitely. In nature, we can harvest plants from the same land as long as soils are maintained; we can continue to catch fish from the sea as long as the catch remains below each fishery’s sustainable yield; we can get water from underground as long as pumping does not exceed rates of recharge; and carbon can regularly cycle through the atmosphere, land, and oceans without major consequence.
Many of these negative trends intersect at our global food supply. While for many years the world was making gains in reducing the number of hungry people, this progress was reversed in the late 1990s. Today close to one billion people in the world are undernourished.
As food prices rise, the ranks of the hungry are likely to grow even larger. Following the punishing heat wave that devastated Russia’s wheat harvest in summer 2010, staple grain prices have soared to near-record highs in early 2011. Rising food prices hit people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder—many of whom spend over half their income feeding their families—the hardest.
Politicians talk about cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, but more ambitious cuts are likely needed to prevent climate catastrophe. Together the climate stabilization measures described in World on the Edge would drop net carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020.
Uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Middle East at the start of 2011 have reminded the world just how politically fragile some countries are. But the focus of international politics has been shifting for some time now. After a half-century of forming new states from former colonies and from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community is today faced with the opposite situation: the disintegration of states. As an article in Foreign Policy observes, “Failed states have made a remarkable odyssey from the periphery to the very center of global politics.”
The Failed States Index, undertaken by the Fund for Peace and published in each July/August issue of Foreign Policy, ranks 177 countries according to “their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration,” based on 12 social, economic, and political indicators. In 2005, just 7 countries had scores of 100 or more out of 120. (A score of 120 would mean that a society is failing totally by every measure.) By 2010, it was 15. Higher scores for countries at the top and the doubling of countries with scores of 100 or higher suggest that state failure is both spreading and deepening.
States fail when national governments lose control of part or all of their territory and can no longer ensure people’s security. Failing states often degenerate into civil war as opposing groups vie for power. In Afghanistan, for example, the local warlords or the Taliban, not the central government, control the country outside of Kabul.
One reason for government breakdowns that has become more relevant recently is the inability to provide food security -- not necessarily because the government is less competent but because obtaining enough food is becoming more difficult. Providing sufficient food has proved to be particularly challenging since the rise in food prices that began in early 2007. Although grain prices subsided again for a while, they have remained well above historical levels and, at the beginning of 2011, are fast approaching levels similar to the spring 2008 peak.
Among the top 20 countrieson the 2010 Failed States list, all but a few are losing the race between food production and population growth. The populations in 15 of the top 20 failing states are growing between 2 and 4 percent a year. Many governments are suffering from demographic fatigue, unable to cope with the steady shrinkage in cropland and freshwater supply per person or to build schools fast enough for the swelling ranks of children.
In 14 of the top 20 failing states, at least 40 percent of the population is under 15, a demographic indicator that raises the likelihood of future political instability. Many are caught in the demographic trap: they have developed enough economically and socially to reduce mortality but not enough to lower fertility. As a result, large families beget poverty and poverty begets large families.
Virtually all of the top 20 countries are depleting their natural assets -- forests, grasslands, soils, and aquifers -- to sustain their rapidly growing populations. The 3 countries at the top of the list -- Somalia, Chad, and Sudan -- are losing their topsoil to wind erosion, undermining the land’s productivity. Several countries in the top 20 are water-stressed and are overpumping their aquifers.
After a point, as rapid population growth, deteriorating environmental support systems, and poverty reinforce each other, the resulting instability makes it difficult to attract investment from abroad. Even public assistance programs from donor countries are sometimes phased out as the security breakdown threatens the lives of aid workers.
The conditions of state failure may be a long time in the making, but the collapse itself can come quickly. Before revolution in Tunisia helped spark unrest in Yemen in January of 2011, the country already faced several threatening trends. It is running out of both oil and water, and has the poorest population among Arab countries. The shaky Yemeni government faces a Shiite insurgency in the north, a deepening conflict between the north and the south, and an estimated 300 Al Qaeda operatives within its borders. With its long, porous border with Saudi Arabia, Yemen could become a gateway for Al Qaeda to move into Saudi Arabia.
Failing states are rarely isolated phenomena. Conflicts can easily spread to neighboring countries, as when the genocide in Rwanda spilled over into the DRC, where an ongoing civil conflict claimed more than 5 million lives between 1998 and 2007. Similarly, the killings in Sudan’s Darfur region quickly spread into Chad as victims fled across the border. Failing states can become training grounds for international terrorist groups, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen; bases for pirates, as in Somalia; or sources of drugs, as in Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma).
Fortunately, state failure is not always a one-way street. South Africa, which could have erupted into a race war a generation ago, is now a functioning democracy. Liberia and Colombia, both of which once had high Failed State Index scores, have each made a remarkable turnaround.
Nevertheless, as the number of failing states grows, dealing with various international crises becomes more difficult. Situations that may be manageable in a healthy world order, such as maintaining monetary stability or controlling an infectious disease outbreak, become difficult and sometimes impossible in a world with many disintegrating states. Even maintaining international flows of raw materials could become a challenge. At some point, spreading political instability could disrupt global economic progress.
One of the leading challenges facing the international community is how to prevent that slide into chaos. Continuing with business as usual with international assistance programs is not working. Reversing the process of state failure is an even more challenging, demanding process than the rebuilding of war-torn states after World War II, and it requires a level of interagency cooperation that no donor country has yet achieved. Since state failure is, by its nature, systemic, a systemic response is called for -- one that is responsive to the many interrelated sources of failure.
Within the U.S. government, efforts to deal with weak and failing states are fragmented. What is needed now is a new cabinet-level agency -- a Department of Global Security (DGS ) -- that would fashion a coherent policy toward each weak state. This recommendation, initially set forth in a report of the Commission on Weak States and U.S. National Security, recognizes that threats to security now come less from military power and more from the social and environmental trends that undermine states.
The new agency would incorporate AID (now part of the State Department) and all the various foreign assistance programs that are currently in other government departments, thereby assuming responsibility for U.S. development assistance across the board. It would be funded by shifting fiscal resources from the Department of Defense, in effect becoming part of a new security budget. It would focus on the central sources of state failure by helping to stabilize population, restore environmental support systems, eradicate poverty, and strengthen the rule of law through bolstering police forces, court systems, and, where needed, the military.
The DGS would make such issues as debt relief and market access an integral part of U.S. policy. It would also provide a forum to coordinate domestic and foreign policy, ensuring that domestic policies do not weaken the economies of low-income countries or raise the price of food to unaffordable levels for the poor.
These investments are in a sense a humanitarian response to the plight of the world’s poorest countries. But in the economically and politically integrated world of the twenty-first century, they are also an investment in our future.
Adapted from Chapter 7, “Mounting Stresses, Failing States,” and Chapter 11, “Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population, and Rescuing Failing States” in Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/wote
Today there are three sources of growing demand for food: population growth; rising affluence and the associated jump in meat, milk, and egg consumption; and the use of grain to produce fuel for cars.
Population growth is as old as agriculture itself. But the world is now adding close to 80 million people per year. Even worse, the overwhelming majority of these people are being added in countries where cropland is scarce, soils are eroding, and irrigation wells are going dry.
Even as we are multiplying in number, some 3 billion of us are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. As incomes rise, annual grain consumption per person climbs from less than 400 pounds, as in India today, to roughly 1,600 pounds, as among those living high on the food chain in the United States, where diets tend to be heavy with meat and dairy products.
When the United States attempted to reduce its oil insecurity by converting grain into ethanol, the growth in world grain demand, traditionally around 20 million tons per year, suddenly jumped to over 50 million tons in 2007. Roughly 119 million tons of the 2009 U.S. grain harvest of 416 million tons went to ethanol distilleries, an amount that exceeds the grain harvests of Canada and Australia combined. This massive ethanol distillery investment in the United States launched an epic competition between cars and people for grain.
On the supply side of the food equation, several trends are making it more difficult to expand production rapidly enough to keep up with demand. These include soil erosion, aquifer depletion, more frequent crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets, melting mountain glaciers, and the diversion of irrigation water to cities.
Farmers are also losing cropland to nonfarm uses. Cars compete with people not only for the grain supply but also for the cropland itself. The United States, for example, has paved an area for cars larger than the state of Georgia. Every five cars added to the U.S. fleet means another acre of land will be paved over—the equivalent of a football field.
The implications for China of this relationship between cars and cropland are startling. In 2009, for the first time, more cars were sold in China than in the United States. If China were to reach the U.S. ownership rate of three cars for every four people, it would have over a billion cars, more than the entire world has today. The land that would have to be paved to accommodate these cars would be two thirds the area China currently has in rice.
This pressure on cropland worldwide is running up against increased demand for soybeans, which are the key to expanding the production of meat, milk, and eggs. Adding soybean meal to livestock and poultry feed sharply boosts the efficiency with which grain is converted into animal protein. This is why world soybean use climbed from 17 million tons in 1950 to 252 million tons in 2010, a 15-fold jump.
Nowhere is the soaring demand for soybeans more evident than in China, where the crop originated. As recently as 1995, China produced 14 million tons of soybeans and consumed 14 million tons. In 2010, it still produced 14 million tons, but it consumed a staggering 64 million tons. In fact, over half of the world’s soybean exports now go to China.
Demand is climbing, but since scientists have failed to increase yields rapidly, the world gets more soybeans largely by planting more soybeans. The soybean is devouring land in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, which together account for four fifths of world soybean production and 90 percent of exports.
Ensuring future food security was once the exclusive responsibility of the ministry of agriculture, but this is changing. The minister of agriculture alone, no matter how competent, can no longer be expected to secure food supplies. Indeed, efforts by the minister of health and family planning to lower human fertility may have a greater effect on future food security than efforts in the ministry of agriculture to raise land fertility.
Similarly, if ministries of energy cannot quickly cut carbon emissions, the world will face crop-shrinking heat waves that can massively and unpredictably reduce harvests. Saving the mountain glaciers whose ice melt irrigates much of the cropland in China and India during the dry season is the responsibility of the ministry of energy, not solely the ministry of agriculture.
If the ministries of forestry and agriculture cannot work together to restore tree cover and reduce floods and soil erosion, grain harvests will shrink not only in smaller countries like Haiti and Mongolia, as they are doing, but also in larger countries, such as Russia and Argentina—both wheat exporters.
And where water shortages restrict food output, it will be up to ministries of water resources to do everything possible to raise national water productivity. With water, as with energy, the principal potential now is in increasing efficiency, not expanding supply.
In a world where cropland is scarce and becoming more so, decisions made in ministries of transportation on whether to develop land-consuming, auto-centered transport systems or more-diversified systems that are much less land-intensive will directly affect world food security.
In the end, it is up to ministries of finance to reallocate resources in a way that recognizes the new threats to security posed by agriculture’s deteriorating natural support systems, continuing population growth, human-driven climate change, and spreading water shortages. Since many ministries of government are involved, it is the head of state who must redefine security. At the international level, we need to address the threat posed by growing climate volatility and the associated rise in food price volatility. The tripling of wheat, rice, corn, and soybean prices between 2007 and 2008 put enormous stresses on governments and low-income consumers. This price volatility also affects producers, since price uncertainty discourages investment by farmers.
In this unstable situation, a new mechanism to stabilize world grain prices is needed—in effect, a World Food Bank (WFB ). This body would establish a support price and a ceiling price for wheat, rice, and corn. The WFB would buy grain when prices fell to the support level and return it to the market when prices reached the ceiling level, thus moderating price fluctuations in a way that would benefit both consumers and producers.
One simple way to improve food security is for the United States to eliminate the fuel ethanol subsidy and abolish the mandates that are driving the conversion of grain into fuel. This would help stabilize grain prices and buy some time in which to reverse the environmental and demographic trends that are undermining our future. It would also help relax the political tensions over food security that have emerged within importing countries.
And finally, we all have a role to play as individuals. Whether we decide to bike, bus, or drive to work will affect carbon emissions, climate change, and food security. The size of the car we drive to the supermarket and its effect on climate may indirectly affect the size of the bill at the supermarket checkout counter. At the family level, we need to hold the line at two children. And if we are living high on the food chain, we can eat less grain-intensive livestock products, improving our health while helping to stabilize climate. Food security is something in which we all have a stake—and a responsibility.
Adapted from Chapter 5, “The Emerging Politics of Food Scarcity” and Chapter 12, “Feeding Eight Billion” in Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/wote
We are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency. Can we think systemically and fashion policies accordingly? Can we change direction before we go over the edge? Here are a few of the many facts from the book to consider:
The indirect costs of gasoline, including climate change, treatment of respiratory illnesses, and military protection, add up to $12 per gallon. Adding this to the U.S. average of $3 per gallon brings the true market price closer to $15 per gallon.
Between 2007 and 2010, U.S. coal use dropped 8 percent. During the same period, 300 new wind farms came online, adding 21,000 megawatts of U.S. wind-generating capacity.
“We can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty, and we can restore the earth’s soils, forests, and fisheries. We can build a global community where the basic needs of all people are satisfied—-a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized.” –Lester R. Brown
Topping off the warmest decade in history, 2010 experienced a global average temperature of 14.63 degrees Celsius (58.3 degrees Fahrenheit), tying 2005 as the hottest year in 131 years of recordkeeping.
This news will come as no surprise to residents of the 19 countries that experienced record heat in 2010. Belarus set a record of 38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7 degrees Fahrenheit) on August 6 and then broke it by 0.2 degrees Celsius just one day later. A 47.2-degree Celsius (117.0-degree Fahrenheit) spike in Burma set a record for Southeast Asia as a whole. And on May 26, 2010, the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan hit 53.5 degrees Celsius (128.3 degrees Fahrenheit)—a record not only for the country but for all of Asia. In fact, it was the fourth hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere. (See data at www.earth-policy.org/indicators/C51.)
The earth’s temperature is not only rising, it is rising at an increasing rate. From 1880 through 1970, the global average temperature increased roughly 0.03 degrees Celsius each decade. Since 1970, that pace has increased dramatically, to 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade. Two thirds of the increase of nearly 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the global temperature since the 1880s has occurred in the last 40 years. And 9 of the 10 warmest years happened in the last decade.
Global temperature is influenced by a number of factors, some natural and some due to human activities. A phenomenon known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is characterized by extremes in Pacific Ocean temperatures and shifts in atmospheric patterns. The cycle involves opposite phases, both of which have global impacts. The El Niño phase typically raises the global average temperature, while its counterpart, La Niña, tends to depress it. Temperature variations are also partly determined by solar cycles. Because we are close to a minimum in solar irradiance (how much energy the earth receives from the sun) and entered a La Niña episode in the second half of 2010, we would expect a cooler year than normal—making 2010’s record temperature even more remarkable.
Since the Industrial Revolution, emissions from human activities of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have driven the earth’s climate system dangerously outside of its normal range. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen nearly 40 percent, from 280 parts per million (ppm) to almost 390 ppm. As the atmosphere becomes increasingly overloaded with heat-trapping gases, the earth’s temperature continues to rise.
Even seemingly small changes in global temperature have far-reaching effects on sea level, atmospheric circulation, and weather patterns around the globe. Climate scientists note that increases in both the frequency and severity of extreme weather events are characteristics of a hotter climate. In 2010, the heat wave in Russia, fires in Israel, flooding in Pakistan and Australia, landslides in China, record snowfall across the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and 12 Atlantic Ocean hurricanes were among the extreme weather events. The human cost of these events was not small: the Russian heat wave and forest fires claimed 56,000 lives, while the Pakistan floods took 1,760.
Although the weather of 2010 seems extreme compared with that of earlier years, scientists warn that such patterns could become more common in the near future. And while no single event can be attributed directly to climate change, NASA climate scientist James Hansen notes that the extreme weather of 2010 would “almost certainly not” have occurred in the absence of excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Warmer air holds more water vapor, and that extra moisture leads to heavier storms. At the same time that precipitation events are becoming larger in some areas, climate change causes more intense and prolonged droughts in others. By some estimates, droughts could be up to 10 times as severe by the end of the century.
Like a growing number of extreme weather events, an increase in the number of record-high temperatures—and a concomitant decrease in the number of record lows—is characteristic of a warming world. For instance, while 19 countries recorded record highs in 2010, not one witnessed a record low temperature. Across the United States, weather station data reveal that daily maximum temperature records outnumbered minimum temperature records for nine months of 2010. Over the last decade, record highs were more than twice as common as record lows, whereas half a century ago there was a roughly equal probability of experiencing either of these.
Temperatures are rising faster in some places than in others. The Arctic has warmed by as much as 3–4 degrees Celsius (5–7 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1950s. It is heating up at twice the rate of the earth on average, making it the fastest-warming region on the planet. Disproportionately large warming in the Arctic is partially due to the albedo effect. As sea ice melts, darker ocean water is exposed; the additional energy absorbed by the darker surface then melts more ice, setting in motion a self-reinforcing feedback.
In 2010, Arctic sea ice shrank to its third-lowest extent on record, after 2007 and 2008, and also reached what was likely its lowest volume in thousands of years. At both poles, the great ice sheets are showing worrying signs: recent calculations reveal that Greenland is losing more than 250 billion tons of water per year, and 87 percent of marine glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula have retreated since the 1940s. There is enough water frozen in Greenland and Antarctica to raise global sea levels by over 70 meters (230 feet) if they were to melt entirely.
Unless global temperatures are stabilized, higher seas from melting ice sheets and mountain glaciers, combined with the heat-driven expansion of ocean water itself, will eventually lead to the displacement of millions of people as low-lying coastal areas and island nations are inundated. Sea level rise has been minimal so far, with a global average of 17 centimeters (6 inches) during the last century. But the rate of the rise is accelerating, and some scientists maintain that a rise as high as 2 meters (6 feet) is possible before this century’s end.
It is not only coastal populations that are threatened by rising global temperatures. Higher temperatures reduce crop yields and water supplies, affecting food security worldwide. Agricultural scientists have drawn a correlation between a temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius above the optimum during the growing season and a grain yield decrease of 10 percent. Heat waves and droughts can also cause drastic cuts in harvests. Mountain glaciers, which are shrinking worldwide as a result of rising temperatures, supply drinking and irrigation water to much of the world’s population, including hundreds of millions in Asia.
More than any natural variations, carbon emissions from human activities will determine the future trajectory of the earth’s temperature and thus the frequency of extreme weather events, the rise in sea level, and the state of food security. The 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the earth would warm 1.1–6.4 degrees Celsius (2–11 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Yet a rise of 2–3 degrees Celsius will make the earth as hot as it was 3 million years ago, when oceans were more than 25 meters (80 feet) higher than they are today. Subsequent research has projected an even larger rise—up to 7.4 degrees Celsius—if the world continues to depend on a fossil-fuel-based energy system. But we can create a different future by turning to a new path—one with carbon-free energy sources, restructured transportation, and increased efficiency. By dramatically reducing emissions, we could halt the rapid rise of the earth’s temperature.
Data and additional resources at www.earth-policy.org. This post was written by Alexandra Giese, staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute.
Spirituality is, of
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