|City lights on the French-Italian border, from the International Space Station.|
A recent Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) report, Population: One Planet, Too Many People?
, argues that “sustainable engineering solutions largely exist for many of the anticipated challenges” of a world population scheduled to top seven billion this year and projected to reach upwards of nine billion by 2050. “What is needed,” write the authors, “is political and social will, innovative financing mechanisms, and the transfer of best practice through localization to achieve a successful outcome.”
Since nearly all of the population growth in the next 40 years will occur in the developing world, the report recommends nations adopt five “Engineering Development Goals” (listed below), alongside the Millennium Development Goals, to meet the needs of the world’s growing poor. The report also recommends that developed countries provide technical engineering expertise to developing countries in the model of the UK Department for International Development’s Resource Centers. This assistance will help them implement these goals and “leapfrog” the “resource-hungry, dirty phase of industrialization.”
Population Growth a Threat?
While the report issues a clear call to action for engineers and governments, it does not address the issue of population growth per se, which has caused some to argue that population growth might not be the problem after all. The Independent, for example, initially headlined their article about the report, “Population Growth Not a Threat, Say Engineers,” but changed it after publication to “Population Growth a Threat, Say Engineers.”
The IME authors clearly state that “population increase is likely to be the defining challenge of the 21st century,” and the report provides practical steps governments can take given current population trends. But its focus on “engineering solutions” highlights the ongoing debate between those who argue that technological fixes alone can solve the world’s social and environmental problems, and those who advocate for contraception as a low-cost path to a sustainable world.
“I would love there to be technological solutions to all our problems,” said Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston at a recent ECSP event on the UK Royal Society’s forthcoming People and the Planet study, but “we’ve got to make sure that population is recognized, while not the sole problem, as a multiplier of many others. We’ve got to make sure that population really does peak out when we hope it will.”
The projections on which the report is based will be difficult to hit without dramatic reductions in fertility, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa – a goal that is nigh impossible without increased investment in access to voluntary family planning. The UN high variant projection, which calculates a much less dramatic decrease in current fertility levels, has world population reaching 11 billion by 2050.
“There is no need to delay action while waiting for the next greatest technical discovery,” write the IME authors. “If action is not taken before a crisis point is reached there will be significant human hardship. Failure to act will place billions of people around the world at risk of hunger, thirst, and conflict as capacity tries to catch up with demand.”
Engineering Development Goals
1. “Energy: Use existing sustainable energy technologies and reduce energy waste.”
Currently, “over 1.5 billion people in the world do not have access to energy,” says the IME report. In addition, global demand for energy is expected to rise by 46 percent by 2030, and the world will need to invest $46 trillion over the next 40 years to shift towards renewable energy sources. The report points out that “there are no insurmountable technical issues in sourcing enough energy for an increasingly affluent larger global population.” Instead, “the difficulties lie in the areas of regulation, financing, politics, social ethics, and international relations.”
2. “Water: Replenish groundwater sources, improve storage of excess water and increase energy efficiencies of desalination.”
Global water consumption, write the IME authors, is predicted to rise 30 percent by 2030 due to population growth and increased energy and agricultural consumption. These numbers are troubling, considering that a recent study in Nature found that more than 1.7 billion people, almost entirely from the developing world, already face chronically high water scarcity.
However, this problem is not simply one of a shortage of water, rather “a case of supply not matching demand at a certain time and place where people are living,” says the IME report. Engineering solutions must involve the capturing and storage of rain water, more cost-effective desalination techniques, and aquifer storage and recovery techniques, says the report. But more importantly, “decision-makers need to become more aware of the issues of water scarcity and work more closely with the engineering profession in finding localized solutions.”
3. “Food: Reduce food waste and resolve the politics of hunger.”
The IME report cites the World Bank’s prediction that demand for agricultural production will double by 2050, due to a combination of population growth, more people turning to meat-heavy diets, and agricultural shortages from extreme weather events. Efficiencies can go a long way towards filling this supply-demand gap, says the IME report. In developed countries an average of 25 percent of edible food is thrown away in the home after purchase, while in developing countries, as much as half of crops are lost before ever reaching market due to lack of adequate transportation and storage infrastructure.
For example, the authors point out that in India, “between 35 percent and 40 percent of fruit and vegetable production is lost each year between the farm and the consumer” – an amount greater than the entire annual consumption of the UK. Americans are also big food wasters. A USDA study found that in one year, 27 percent of all edible food was thrown away in the United States after purchase. Developed countries can significantly increase efficiency “through behavioral change that recognizes the value of food,” says the report.
4. “Urbanization: Meet the challenge of slums and defending against sea-level rises.”
Urbanization “presents one of the greatest societal challenges of the coming decades,” write the IME authors, but cities also represent a “significant opportunity…to be very efficient places to live in terms of a person’s environmental impact.”
According to the World Bank, by 2050, three quarters of the world will live in cities, and nearly all of this growth will occur in the developing world. Already, one third of the world’s urban population live in “appalling slum conditions,” says the IME report. Challenges for the urban poor are especially severe in coastal areas – home to three quarters of the world’s large cities – where they are vulnerable to flooding and extreme weather events, which according to new studies, have increased as a result of climate change.
The report calls for nations to use an “integrated, holistic approach” that brings in engineering expertise early in the planning process to create infrastructure that is individualized to a city’s unique cultural, geographical, and economic needs.
5. “Finance: Empower communities and enable implementation.”
Implementation of the above four goals will require “innovative soft loans and micro-financing, ‘zero-cost’ transition packages, and new models of personal and community ownership, such as trusts,” write the IME authors. Furthermore, communities must play a central role in decision-making in order to find appropriate and local solutions.
In all five of these goals, “barriers to deploying solutions are not technological,” says the report. Instead, they are political and social. Better international cooperation, dialogue, and sharing of expertise between and amongst engineers, decision-makers, and the public, is crucial to implementation.
Sources: Department for International Development, Guardian, The Independent, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Nature, The New York Times, UN Habitat, United Nations, USDA, World Bank.
Image Credit: “City Lights, France-Italy Border (NASA, International Space Station Science, 04/28/10),” courtesy of flickr user NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.