London’s 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference
, on all things global change – including climate, population, global risks, and food security – kicked off with a bang on March 26 and ECSP was there to cover it. We’ll be here throughout the week following all of the most pertinent population, health, and security events – we invite you to visit our booth if you happen to be in London, join the conversation on Twitter (#Planet2012
), and/or watch the livestream
During the opening plenaries, UK Scientific Advisor and all-around environmental all-star Sir John Beddington was the first to introduce population into the discussion.
Speaking on “The Planet in 2050” panel, Beddington immediately noted that really 2050 is too far out and instead we should focus on the next two decades. Within these 20 years the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change will be determined by the extent and manner of urbanization and demographic changes, particularly in Africa.
“How are we going to generate an infrastructure to feed 500 million Africans in the next 13 years?” Beddington asked.
Beddington’s talk could be considered a rejoinder to his famous “perfect storm” analogy, outlined in The Guardian in 2009:
Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50 percent more food. At the same time, we will need 50 percent more energy, and 30 percent more freshwater.In a later session, “Securing Global Biodiversity,” Simon Stuart, chair of the species survival commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), expanded on this “perfect storm” analogy.
There are dramatic problems out there, particularly with water and food, but energy also, and they are all intimately connected. You can’t think about dealing with one without considering the others. We must deal with all of these together.
He agreed that the global challenge of our day hinged on how human needs add pressures to the natural environment. Rising demand for energy, food, and freshwater not only influences climate change but also exerts unprecedented pressure on soil quality and biodiversity.
But although we’re impeded by major challenges, including “unsustainable economic models,” a lack of public support, and a massive need for investment in conservation, we have made some strides, Stuart said. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s strategic plan for biodiversity, established in 2010, sets 20 targets for biodiversity conservation by 2020. Stuart believes this is the beginning of acknowledging the urgency of addressing the threat to biodiversity.
Tim Coulson, professor of population biology at Imperial College London, compared the efficiency of either reducing fertility rates or per capita consumption to determine the best way to reduce humanity’s impact on the planet.
Coulson ran two simple simulations using India and the United States as case studies. In one model, he changed fertility rates by one percent per year for 50 years. In the other, he decreased per capita consumption by one percent per year for 50 years. What he found in both cases was that decreasing per capita consumption achieved the most rapid change in human impact on the environment. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that a longer-term course of action of declining fertility rates was needed to keep impact stable.
Readers beware, however – this type of experiment is an incredibly simplified exercise in the intersection of people and the environment. A more varied set of scenarios would produce more useful results. As Beddington mentioned, populations in sub-Saharan Africa have both the highest growth rates and the most direct impact on the environment due to their higher reliance on natural resources for livelihoods.
And, perhaps most importantly, as one commentator noted, these scenarios do not take into account cost factors. For instance, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through more energy efficient buildings and transport, the United States would need to invest $1.1 trillion through 2030. Alternatively, the cost to provide for the 215 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy but are not using an effective means of contraception is estimated at $3.6 billion. Using the “wedge” climate model, meeting unmet family planning needs would be equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions saved by converting entirely to electric vehicles – at a fraction (about five percent) of the cost.
Stay tuned for more updates from ECSP at the Planet Under Pressure Conference. We’ll also be posting pictures from the conference to our Facebook and Flickr pages.
Video Credit: “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure Conference.