On development, demography and climate change: the end of the world as we know it?

I can talk to you about climate change. It’s the subject that I worked on about 15 years but I also co-organize a conference about climate change every year. So I keep the breath of developments. And I have to say, that unfortunately this is also going to be a gloomy talk because nothing that happened in the last 20 years has made me change my mind.

I’m going to give you a little bit of historical prospective. I’m going to use data from both the social and the natural sciences. It is a subject regarding which there is still substantial uncertainty, there’s a lot of what we don’t understand.

Starting with industrial revolution in Britain 200 years ago, the whole basis of the modern economic growth was based on burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas.

 In 1800 Britain’s annual burning of coal was about 50 million tons per year, in the rest of Europe at that time it was around 3 million tons.

After the defeat of Napoleon use of coal and burning of coal spread rapidly throughout Western Europe. The USA comes to coal rather late in 1880 largely because it was burning large amounts of wood rather than coal. But at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century with the US in the vanguard we have the development of the oil industry and then in the 1930s with high pressure pipeline technologies being developed – natural gas.

Following the Second World War Western Europe and Japan catch up with the US particularly with natural gas. It is used more and more in the home. And then somewhat later in China around 1980 and India in 1990 onwards we have huge use of fossil fuels.

Oil has been most important fuel in the world since 1960s. By 2016 oil accounted for about 33% of global energy use followed by coal (28%) and nature gas (24%).

In 1900 the world was burning about 50 mln tons of coal every year. In 2016 we were burning 5,6 billion tons of coal. Absolutely staggering increase. If you look at these statistics, even between 2000 and 2016 there was more than a 60% increase in coal use in the world.

A lot of peoples in the liberal left talk about renewables. By renewables I mean wind, solar energy, geothermal and biomass. Renewable use today as the fraction of global energy used is minor (4% of global energy use).

The trends in the recent past show very little sign of a decrease in use. 2014, 2015 and maybe 2013 – it was a little stall, a minor plateau in fossil fuel energy. But the latest estimates are that this stall is finished, and we are increasing again (2% rise in carbon emissions between 2016 and 2017).

Fossil fuel consumption has recently been falling the most developed countries. For example, between 2006 and 2016 there was 6% fall in the US and 17% in the EU. The EU fall has been compensated by importing goods that were made in China where fossils fuels were used to produce them.

On the other hand, the last 10 years fossil fuel consumptions rose by about 40% in Indonesia, 44% Brazil, 76% India, 43% China. And quite understandably in the recent past both China and India have built many coal power stations.

I think that is very important to say, that all economic progress has been based upon fossil fuel use. That relates to the seats that you’re sitting on, to the clothes that you’re wearing, everything else in here and of course the whole building that we’re in.

First of all, it’s modern economic growth that underlaying fossil fuel consumption, staggering rise. But in additions since I’m demographer, in my lifetime the world’s population has increased by 5 billion people. Just in my lifetime so far.

About 100 years ago Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius argued the Earth temperature will be increased by increased level of CO2.

And indeed he estimated that a doubling of a level of atmospheric CO2 would cause about 4 C increase in the average surface temperature of the Earth. In the 1980-s it began to become clear that the Earth is really getting warmer.

Successive IPCC reports have concluded with growing confidence firstly that the world is indeed getting warmer and second that this is mainly due to human-induced causes. First and foremost, causes are burning of fossil fuels, but also release of other greenhouse gases.

Turning to the level of atmospheric CO2, Measurements from observatory in Hawaii indicates the level of CO2 has risen. Roughly half of the CO2 that we produce goes into the atmosphere and roughly half of it is absorbed by vegetation and oceans. But the level of atmospheric CO2 goes up every year. And never goes down. The world’s temperature does fluctuate but the level of atmospheric CO2 goes up every year by a bigger and bigger amount.

The modern economic growth has raised levels of atmospheric CO2 which is obviously very unwelcome news. It is raises the difficult issues about the basis of economic development. And basis of economic development is fossil fuels. It highlights immoral disparities between rich and poor countries. And perhaps most difficult of all it raises the prospect that individuals are going to have to change behavior in really radical ways.

So not surprisingly human response to this unwelcome news has been characterized by a mixture of denial, avoidance and recrimination. And I regard these social psychological reactions as utterly predictable human responses to a difficult problem.

Most people are preoccupied with the events of their daily lives. Whether we can a get to shop sometime, whether the kid’s education is going ok, whether you are going to get promotion – all this sort of things. And political leaders have more immediate concerns and they try to avoid making difficult decisions. They are concerned with the next election.

So in the context of climate change the examples of denial involve denying the Earth surface is getting warmer. The example of the avoidance is to believe that the technology will solve everything.

Perhaps the most difficult, the worst form of avoidance in this context is putting ones faith in CCS. It is a lot of nonsense. CCS is carbon, capture and storage. That means capturing the carbon as it comes out of the power stations, compressing it, putting it down underground and keeping it for hundreds, thousands of years. The technical problems behind it are immense.

And then finally the recrimination. Europeans blame Americans, Americans blame the Chinese.

The summary for policy makers: without additional mitigation effects beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21 century will lead to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally.

The Paris climate accord has no binding targets, it omits shipping, it ignores aviation, and according to Anderson it is predicated on the widespread use of technologies which border on the fanciful.

The range of future trajectories varies from the tractable (manageable) to the disastrous. So, I think some uncomfortable considerations relating to the future of humanity include firstly the fact that there is going to be substantial population growth and most of the additional population will be poor people living in vulnerable parts of the world, particularly, living in coastlines.

Secondly, another problem is the natural systems are often limited in the extent to which they can adapt, for example, if the tropical forest goes, we can’t put it back. Food production is unlikely to cope with these abrupt changes in temperature.

Any really major change in the world’s climate can lead to the situation in which everyone loses, and nobody wins.

Timothy Dyson, PhD, Professor of Population Studies at London School of Economics 

Recorded during the Annual Ukrainian School of Political Studies Conference (USPS)

Published on the Ukrainian Pravda site