Article / Environment

Sober look at people-environment links for Rio+20: Better technologies and use of natural resources essential but not sufficient

Spedos Figurine of a Woman (Cycladic)

Figurine of a Cycladic (Keros-Syros culture) woman, dated to 2700–2400 BC and said to be from Syros (photo on Flickr by Ann Wuyts/vintagedept).

Tara Garnett, in the current issue of her always-interesting Food Climate change Research Network (FCRN) newsletter, draws attention to some sobering news and advice for decision-makers attending the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development this week.

First, she cites a statement issued by the Global Network of Science Academies (IAP), which comprises the world’s 105 science academies, that highlights ‘the relevance of population and consumption to the future of both developed and developing countries and reminds policy-makers preparing for Rio+20 of the need to consider a number of issues’. Among key actions needed, the IAP says, are:

Consideration of population and consumption in all policies, including those related to poverty reduction and economic development, global governance, education, health, gender equality, biodiversity and the environment.

Reduction of levels of damaging types of consumption and the development of more sustainable alternatives, with action critically needed in higher-income countries.

Garnett also highlights ‘. . . [a] very interesting paper that reviews the literature on the relationship between consumption and GHG emissions, between population and emissions, and the interactions among all three. It raises doubts that improvements in technology, or shifts in patterns of behaviour (consumption) will be sufficient in addressing GHG emissions unless combined with a greater focus on population growth (scale effects).’

The paper’s authors say that:

The substantive conclusions that one draws from the comparative literature on greenhouse-gas emissions is sobering. The population and economic growth that can be anticipated in coming decades will tend to push emissions substantially upward—a scale effect. . . . [M]uch of the resistance to climate change mitigation policy points to the presumed large-scale changes in technology and forms of consumption that will be required to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. These changes will need to be huge because they must counter substantial increases in scale coming from population growth and especially increasing affluence. . . . [I]t is clear that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the face of scale growth will not occur in the context of the institutional, political and cultural forces that have prevailed so far.

The following is how ScienceDaily covers this paper.

‘. . . In an article published in the journal Nature Climate Change, Michigan State University’s Thomas Dietz and his colleague, Eugene Rosa of Washington State University, take a critical look at the various factors that have long been prime climate-change suspects. One in particular: The role of population growth.

‘”How does population growth influence greenhouse gas emissions?” Dietz asks. “Well, in looking at most nations of the world during the last few decades we find that for each 1 percent increase in population, we get a bit more than a 1 percent increase in emissions.”

‘And with Earth’s population projected to reach 10 billion by the end of this century, “it unquestionably will add to the stress we place on the planet,” Dietz said.

‘Until recently, climate-change debate had focused on whether it was brought about by human activity. Recently that debate has shifted to what sorts of activities are creating it. . . .

‘Dietz and Rosa write that they are not optimistic about the future, calling the paper they did “sobering.”. . .

The only possible saving grace, they say, is improved technology and changes in the way humans use resources.

‘”However, these changes will need to be huge because they must counter substantial increases in scale coming from population growth and especially increasing affluence.”‘

Read the whole article in ScienceDaily: More people, more environmental stress, 11 Jun 2012.

Read the paper this news article refers to in Nature Climate ChangeHuman drivers of national greenhouse-gas emissions, by Eugene A Rosa and Thomas Dietz, 10 Jun 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1506

Read about the International Livestock Research Institute at Rio+20
ILRI News Blog: The road back to Rio: Turning straw into gold – Crop ‘wastes’ at the heart of greener livestock development, 18 Jun 2012.

ILRI News Blog: The Road Back to Rio: ‘LivestockPLUS Learning Event’ shows how better feed reduces poverty AND livestock ‘hoofprints’, 18 Jun 2012.

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