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climate policy and climate science inhabit parallel worlds

The mask slips : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

It says a lot about the outcome of the UN climate talks in South Africa at the weekend that most of the immediate reports focused on the wrangling that led to an agreement of sorts, rather than the contents and implications of the agreement itself. Late-night talks, later-night arguments and early-morning pacts between battling negotiators with the apparent fate of the world resting on their shoulders give the process a melodrama that is hard to resist, particularly for those who experienced it first hand in the chaos of the Durban meeting (see page 299).

Such late finishes are becoming the norm at these summits. Only as nations abandon their original negotiating positions and reveal their true demands — throwing international differences into stark relief — does a sense of urgency develop and serious negotiation take place. Combined with the consensus nature of the talks, which demands that everyone agrees to everything, the result is usually a cobbled-together compromise that allows as many countries as possible to claim victory and, most importantly, provides them with a mandate to reconvene in 12 months’ time.

So it was this time. In the search for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, we now have the Durban Platform, which comes on the heels of the Bali Road Map and the Copenhagen Accord.

It takes a certain kind of optimism — or an outbreak of collective Stockholm syndrome — to see the Durban outcome as a significant breakthrough on global warming, as many are claiming. Outside Europe — which has set itself binding emissions goals over the short and long term beyond what it will inherit under its stated plan to carry on with unilateral cuts under an extended Kyoto — there will be no obligation for any nation to reduce soaring greenhouse-gas emissions much before the end of the decade. And that is assuming that all flows smoothly in future UN talks, and that a global deal with binding commitments proves easier to find in talks due to start in 2015 than it has so far.

The Durban deal may mark a success in the political process to tackle climate change, but for the climate itself, it is an unqualified disaster. It is clear that the science of climate change and the politics of climate change, which claims to represent it, now inhabit parallel worlds.

This has always been true up to a point, but surely the mask of political rhetoric has now slipped so far, to reveal the ugly political reality underneath, that it can never be replaced. How can politicians talk now with a straight face of limiting global warming to 2 °C? How will campaigners frame this result as leaving yet another ‘last chance’ to save the planet?

That does not make the political process redundant — far from it. Introducing policies to curb emissions was never about saving the planet or not, or stopping global warming or not. It is about damage limitation — the 3 °C or 4 °C of average warming the planet could experience in the long term, according to some analyses of the Durban outcome doing the rounds, is clearly much worse than the 2 °C used as shorthand for dangerous at present. But it is preferable to the 5 °C or 6 °C that science suggests is possible if emissions continue to rise unabated.

To prevent that outcome will be just as difficult politically as was the now abandoned attempt to find a global successor in time to follow Kyoto. But it remains possible — and there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed. Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt. But as the Durban Platform crowds with politicians, the climate train they wait for has left the station.

Comments

  1. 2011-12-14 02:05 AM

    Report this comment #34028

    Jeffrey Thaler said:
    Well written editorial, and unfortunately too accurate. There is a theme arising out of Durban on the limits of legal-political processes, as well as the growing gap between scientific and political “realities”. How to bridge that gap, so we are not just mitigating significant harms to the world our children inherit, is the still-to-be-resolved challenge that requires work outside of the big conference halls. Time and growing GHG emissions are not waiting for any of us.

  2. 2011-12-14 03:13 AM

    Report this comment #34039

    Fred Singer said:
    The Nature editorial (Dec 15; The Mask Slips) talks about science and policy in parallel universes. Quite correct ? if you mean ?separate? and ?disconnected.? COP 17 was never about climate, let alone science. It was all about money: (1) How to assure continuing government careers for 200 delegations, with annual vacations paid by taxpayers. (2) How to transfer $100 billion a year from industrialized nations to LDCs (or more precisely, to their kleptocratic rulers), using ?climate justice? or ?climate guilt? (depending on who is doing the talking). (3) How to gain a national advantage by setting differential emission limits.

    By now it should be obvious that (1) the enshrined temperature limit of +2degC is based on fiction and has no scientific basis. As an annual global average, climate models tell us, it will mean warmer winter nights in Siberia and Canada; perhaps -35deg instead of -40; and little warming in the tropics. (2) It should also be obvious that even strenuous and economy-killing efforts at mitigation, will have little effect on atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, let alone on climate. If a demonstration is needed, just look at the lack of warming since 1998, in spite of rapidly rising levels of greenhouse gases.

    So, yes, I would agree with the editorial, if properly expanded.

  3. 2011-12-14 05:18 AM

    Report this comment #34049

    Kevin Matthews said:
    Yes, great editorial. Coming from the world’s leading scientific journal (which of course would prefer not to have to say such things) one would hope that authorities and media around the world take significant notice.

    Thinking about the whole UN climate negotiation process, and how complex and cumbersome it is to seek unanimous agreement from 194 countries….

    Then comparing what has come out of the COP17 cycle – significant and landmark progress, even if still sharply insufficient to the urgency of need – to what has come out of the U.S. Congress over the last several months or more, with its supposedly streamlined and results-oriented binary democracy approach – practically nothing.

    And suddenly – surprise! – consensus (in this entirely limited comparison) looks pretty darn effective – just from a simple results-accomplished perspective.

    For which differential, there is, in turn, good scientific reason.

  4. 2011-12-15 05:14 AM

    Report this comment #34107

    John Wheelahan said:
    No, there are no parallel worlds – the science and politics of AGW share the same scam. Spare us the crap about 6 degree C temperature rise , when you know that this is a lie. No temperature rise for a decade!
    The science and politics are about money – the greatest swindle since the South Sea Bubble. Hundreds of billions of dollars are to be given to African despots, conmen, swindlers and bankers for a scientific fanatsy. These beneficiaries will live in luxury in their Mediteranean villas while the poor of the third world countries and developed countries will be the sufferers, and pay the price. Please get real, Nature Editor.

  5. 2011-12-15 07:21 AM

    Report this comment #34146

    Patrik D’haeseleer said:
    I think it is very clear that the “global consensus” approach to dealing with climate change has failed.

    I may be time for those countries who are willing to do something about it to band together and go it alone. And then start charging tariffs on any goods imported from countries not part of the coalition, proportional to the amount CO2 pollution caused by those countries.

    If we can get Europe, Africa and the island nations on board, I don’t think it would take too long for China and India to follow suit.

  6. 2011-12-15 11:35 AM

    Report this comment #34154

    Michael Lerman said:
    I do not subscribe to the concept of global warming induced by human activities. About a 1,000 years ago Greenland was green and cows brought by the Vikings polluted the clean Arctic air. Instead of global warming Greenland got frozen till today. I often go to The Canadian Arctic and indeed can testify that the mean temperatures in July are higher than previously (~10 years ago), and though my Inuit friends blame the US government, I argue and try to persuade them their view is wrong. Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.

  7. 2011-12-18 06:28 AM

    Report this comment #34314

    Karin Green said:
    I find this comment in the article troubling: “Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt”, especially when you say something like ” there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed”.

    To me, this bodes ill for an open minded and unbiased editorial policy!

  8. 2011-12-19 06:47 AM

    Report this comment #34516

    Jeffrey Eric Grant said:
    The COP people have been at it for a long time! I would think that if the science is solid, then the arguements would have moved foreward, at least a little. Instead, we are still talking about the evidence of global warming, and how to mitigate against it.
    AGW is all based on atmospheric rise in CO2 that was put there by human activity.So, now we have closed the talks in Durban, still with no agreement on the cause of the increased CO2 that will, someday, maybe, eventually, turn the world temperatures a little warmer. Not in my lifetime; maybe not even in yours!
    I challenge anyone on this thread to answer either of the following two questions:
    1) direct me to a recent empirical scientific study that concludes that increased atmospheric CO2 caused the inclease in atmospheric temperatures more than about 2C/100yr?, or
    2) Since water retains less CO2 when it is heated, how can the worlds oceans be both warmer and more acidic at the same time?

World population hits 7 billion

World population hits 7 billion on Oct. 31, or thereabouts – latimes.com.

It took only a dozen years for humanity to add another billion people to the planet, reaching the milestone of 7 billion Monday — give or take a few months.

Demographers at the United Nations Population Division set Oct. 31, 2011, as the “symbolic” date for hitting 7 billion, while acknowledging that it’s impossible to know for sure the specific time or day. Using slightly different calculations, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the 7-billion threshold will not be reached until March.

Under any methodology, demographers agree that humanity remains on a steep growth curve, which is likely to keep climbing through the rest of this century. The U.N.’s best estimate is that population will march past 9.3 billion by 2050 and exceed 10.1 billion by the end of the century. It could be far more, if birthrates do not continue to drop as they have in the last half-century.

Nearly all the projected growth this century is expected to occur in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, while the combined populations in Europe, North America and other wealthy industrialized nations will remain relatively flat. Some countries, such as Germany, Russia and Japan, are poised to edge downward, their loss made up mostly by ongoing growth in the United States, which is bolstered by waves of immigrants.

The buildup to Monday’s milestone has briefly turned up the flame on long-simmering debates about growth on a finite planet: Whether a growing population or growing consumption remains the biggest environmental challenge, how best to help lift a billion people out of poverty and misery, whether governments should provide contraception for those who cannot afford it.

The new leader of the United Nations Population Fund, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, a Nigerian obstetrician-gynecologist, stepped gingerly into the fray. His agency remains a favorite punching bag of antiabortion activists in the United States for its role in supporting family planning clinics in developing countries.

“Instead of asking questions like, ‘Are we too many?’ we should instead be asking, ‘What can I do to make our world better?’ ” wrote Osotimehin in the annual State of the World Population report. The report chronicles disparities between rich nations and poor ones. Poor countries continue to have low education levels and startlingly high rates of teenage pregnancy and maternal and child deaths due to complications from childbirth.

“In many parts of the developing world, where population growth is outpacing economic growth, the need for reproductive health services, especially family planning, remains great,” Osotimehin concluded.

Some have used the occasion to celebrate the unrivaled success of the human species. Population grows when births exceed deaths. The 7-billion mark was reached because people are living longer and the number of infant deaths has dropped, because of a more secure food supply and because of advances in sanitation and medicine.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will hold a news conference Monday to mark the date and talk about challenges ahead, particularly how to reduce poverty, invest in the world’s 1.8 billion youth and help countries develop in a sustainable way.

In 1999, his predecessor, Kofi Annan, designated a boy born to refugee parents in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as Baby 6 Billion. He had been plucked from the hundreds of thousands of babies born that day to put a face on global population growth. Adnan Mevic, now 12, has become something of a celebrity.

None of the estimated 382,000 babies born Monday will have such an honor.

There is no word yet on how the United Nations will handle the next milestone, when the globe’s population hits 8 billion — about 14 years from now.

Is the world cracking up?

Is the world cracking up? | Daniel W. Drezner.

Posted By Daniel W. Drezner Share

[WARNING:  THE FOLLOWING IS A VERY PESSIMISTIC GLOBAL POLITICAL ECONOMY POST]

So, just to sum up the past week or so of global political economy events:

1)  U.S. government debt got downgraded by Standard & Poor;

2) Global equity markets are freaking out;

3) The eurozone appears to be unable to solve its sovereign debt problem

4) London Britain is burning;

5) The Chinese are pissed that they appear to be underwriting downgraded, debt-ridden train-wrecks… and this is on top of being pissed about their own train wrecks.

This all sounds very 2008, except that it’s actually worse for several reasons. First, the governments that bailed out the financial sector are now themselves the object of financial panic and political resentment. Second, the tools used to try and rescue the global economy in 2008 are partially to blame for what’s happening right now. Despite all the gnashing of teeth about the Fed twiddling its thumbs, it’s far from clear that a QE3 would actually stimulate anything besides a rise in commodity prices.

With both Europe and the United States unable to stimulate their economies, and China seemingly paralyzed into indecision, it’s worth asking if we are about to experience a Creditanstalt moment.

The start of the Great Depression is commonly assumed to be the October 1929 stock market crash in the United States. It didn’t really become the Great Depression, however, unti 1931, when Austria’s Creditanstalt bank desperately needed injections of capital. Essentially, neither France nor England were willing to help unless Germany honored its reparations payments, and the United States refused to help unless France and the UK repaid its World War I debts. Neither of these demands was terribly reasonable, and the result was a wave of bank failures that spread across Europe and the United States.

The particulars of the current sovereign debt crisis are somewhat different from Creditanstalt, and yet it’s fascinating how smart people keep referring back to that ignoble moment. The big commonality is that while governments might recognize the virtues of a coordinated response to big crises, they are sufficiently constrained by domestic discontent to not do all that much.

So… is this 1931 all over again?

There are three aspects of the current situation that make me fret about this. The first is the sense that developed country governments have already tapped out all of their politically feasible methods of stimulating their economies. This is the time when both politicians and voters start to ask themselves, “Why not pursue the crazy idea?”

The second is whether the Chinese government will do something to satiate their nationalist constituency. Neither Joe Nye nor James Joyner thinks this is likely, and I tend to agree that any effort at economic coercion will hurt China as much as the United States. When autocrats are up against the wall, however, then they might take risks they otherwise would never consider.

The third is this working paper on what causes societal unrest in developed economies (h/t Henry Farrell). The abstract suggests more trouble on the way:

From the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. In this paper, we assemble crosscountry evidence for the period 1919 to the present, and examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor.

So… there are, unfortunately, numerous reasons to think that we’re headed down a bad road… which is the pretty much point of this post.

Readers are encouraged in the comments to offer counterarguments for why things aren’t as bad as 1931. I’ll be offering some thoughts about why 1931 won’t happen again later in the week.

A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables

A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables: Scientific American.

In December leaders from around the world will meet in Copenhagen to try to agree on cutting back greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. The most effective step to implement that goal would be a massive shift away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources. If leaders can have confidence that such a transformation is possible, they might commit to an historic agreement. We think they can.
A year ago former vice president Al Gore threw down a gauntlet: to repower America with 100 percent carbon-free electricity within 10 years. As the two of us started to evaluate the feasibility of such a change, we took on an even larger challenge: to determine how 100 percent of the world’s energy, for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early as 2030. Our plan is presented here.

Scientists have been building to this moment for at least a decade, analyzing various pieces of the challenge. Most recently, a 2009 Stanford University study ranked energy systems according to their impacts on global warming, pollution, water supply, land use, wildlife and other concerns. The very best options were wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric power—all of which are driven by wind, water or sunlight (referred to as WWS). Nuclear power, coal with carbon capture, and ethanol were all poorer options, as were oil and natural gas. The study also found that battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles recharged by WWS options would largely eliminate pollution from the transportation sector.

Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.

Is it feasible to transform the world’s energy systems? Could it be accomplished in two decades? The answers depend on the technologies chosen, the availability of critical materials, and economic and political factors.

Clean Technologies Only
Renewable energy comes from enticing sources: wind, which also produces waves; water, which includes hydroelectric, tidal and geothermal energy (water heated by hot underground rock); and sun, which includes photovoltaics and solar power plants that focus sunlight to heat a fluid that drives a turbine to generate electricity. Our plan includes only technologies that work or are close to working today on a large scale, rather than those that may exist 20 or 30 years from now.

To ensure that our system remains clean, we consider only technologies that have near-zero emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants over their entire life cycle, including construction, operation and decommissioning. For example, when burned in vehicles, even the most ecologically acceptable sources of ethanol create air pollution that will cause the same mortality level as when gasoline is burned. Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered. Carbon capture and sequestration technology can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants but will increase air pollutants and will extend all the other deleterious effects of coal mining, transport and processing, because more coal must be burned to power the capture and storage steps. Similarly, we consider only technologies that do not present significant waste disposal or terrorism risks.

In our plan, WWS will supply electric power for heating and transportation—industries that will have to revamp if the world has any hope of slowing climate change. We have assumed that most fossil-fuel heating (as well as ovens and stoves) can be replaced by electric systems and that most fossil-fuel transportation can be replaced by battery and fuel-cell vehicles. Hydrogen, produced by using WWS electricity to split water (electrolysis), would power fuel cells and be burned in airplanes and by industry.

Plenty of Supply
Today the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts (terawatts, or TW), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that in 2030 the world will require 16.9 TW of power as global population and living standards rise, with about 2.8 TW in the U.S. The mix of sources is similar to today’s, heavily dependent on fossil fuels. If, however, the planet were powered entirely by WWS, with no fossil-fuel or biomass combustion, an intriguing savings would occur. Global power demand would be only 11.5 TW, and U.S. demand would be 1.8 TW. That decline occurs because, in most cases, electrification is a more efficient way to use energy. For example, only 17 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline is used to move a vehicle (the rest is wasted as heat), whereas 75 to 86 percent of the electricity delivered to an electric vehicle goes into motion.

Even if demand did rise to 16.9 TW, WWS sources could provide far more power. Detailed studies by us and others indicate that energy from the wind, worldwide, is about 1,700 TW. Solar, alone, offers 6,500 TW. Of course, wind and sun out in the open seas, over high mountains and across protected regions would not be available. If we subtract these and low-wind areas not likely to be developed, we are still left with 40 to 85 TW for wind and 580 TW for solar, each far beyond future human demand. Yet currently we generate only 0.02 TW of wind power and 0.008 TW of solar. These sources hold an incredible amount of untapped potential.

The other WWS technologies will help create a flexible range of options. Although all the sources can expand greatly, for practical reasons, wave power can be extracted only near coastal areas. Many geothermal sources are too deep to be tapped economically. And even though hydroelectric power now exceeds all other WWS sources, most of the suitable large reservoirs are already in use.

The Plan: Power Plants Required
Clearly, enough renewable energy exists. How, then, would we transition to a new infrastructure to provide the world with 11.5 TW? We have chosen a mix of technologies emphasizing wind and solar, with about 9 percent of demand met by mature water-related methods. (Other combinations of wind and solar could be as successful.)

Wind supplies 51 percent of the demand, provided by 3.8 million large wind turbines (each rated at five megawatts) worldwide. Although that quantity may sound enormous, it is interesting to note that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year. Another 40 percent of the power comes from photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants, with about 30 percent of the photovoltaic output from rooftop panels on homes and commercial buildings. About 89,000 photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, averaging 300 megawatts apiece, would be needed. Our mix also includes 900 hydroelectric stations worldwide, 70 percent of which are already in place.

Only about 0.8 percent of the wind base is installed today. The worldwide footprint of the 3.8 million turbines would be less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). When the needed spacing between them is figured, they would occupy about 1 percent of the earth’s land, but the empty space among turbines could be used for agriculture or ranching or as open land or ocean. The nonrooftop photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants would occupy about 0.33 percent of the planet’s land. Building such an extensive infrastructure will take time. But so did the current power plant network. And remember that if we stick with fossil fuels, demand by 2030 will rise to 16.9 TW, requiring about 13,000 large new coal plants, which themselves would occupy a lot more land, as would the mining to supply them.

The Materials Hurdle
The scale of the WWS infrastructure is not a barrier. But a few materials needed to build it could be scarce or subject to price manipulation.

Enough concrete and steel exist for the millions of wind turbines, and both those commodities are fully recyclable. The most problematic materials may be rare-earth metals such as neodymium used in turbine gearboxes. Although the metals are not in short supply, the low-cost sources are concentrated in China, so countries such as the U.S. could be trading dependence on Middle Eastern oil for dependence on Far Eastern metals. Manufacturers are moving toward gearless turbines, however, so that limitation may become moot.

Photovoltaic cells rely on amorphous or crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, or copper indium selenide and sulfide. Limited supplies of tellurium and indium could reduce the prospects for some types of thin-film solar cells, though not for all; the other types might be able to take up the slack. Large-scale production could be restricted by the silver that cells require, but finding ways to reduce the silver content could tackle that hurdle. Recycling parts from old cells could ameliorate material difficulties as well.

Three components could pose challenges for building millions of electric vehicles: rare-earth metals for electric motors, lithium for lithium-ion batteries and platinum for fuel cells. More than half the world’s lithium reserves lie in Bolivia and Chile. That concentration, combined with rapidly growing demand, could raise prices significantly. More problematic is the claim by Meridian International Research that not enough economically recoverable lithium exists to build anywhere near the number of batteries needed in a global electric-vehicle economy. Recycling could change the equation, but the economics of recycling depend in part on whether batteries are made with easy recyclability in mind, an issue the industry is aware of. The long-term use of platinum also depends on recycling; current available reserves would sustain annual production of 20 million fuel-cell vehicles, along with existing industrial uses, for fewer than 100 years.

Smart Mix for Reliability
A new infrastructure must provide energy on demand at least as reliably as the existing infrastructure. WWS technologies generally suffer less downtime than traditional sources. The average U.S. coal plant is offline 12.5 percent of the year for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. Modern wind turbines have a down time of less than 2 percent on land and less than 5 percent at sea. Photovoltaic systems are also at less than 2 percent. Moreover, when an individual wind, solar or wave device is down, only a small fraction of production is affected; when a coal, nuclear or natural gas plant goes offline, a large chunk of generation is lost.

The main WWS challenge is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine in a given location. Intermittency problems can be mitigated by a smart balance of sources, such as generating a base supply from steady geothermal or tidal power, relying on wind at night when it is often plentiful, using solar by day and turning to a reliable source such as hydroelectric that can be turned on and off quickly to smooth out supply or meet peak demand. For example, interconnecting wind farms that are only 100 to 200 miles apart can compensate for hours of zero power at any one farm should the wind not be blowing there. Also helpful is interconnecting geographically dispersed sources so they can back up one another, installing smart electric meters in homes that automatically recharge electric vehicles when demand is low and building facilities that store power for later use.

Because the wind often blows during stormy conditions when the sun does not shine and the sun often shines on calm days with little wind, combining wind and solar can go a long way toward meeting demand, especially when geothermal provides a steady base and hydroelectric can be called on to fill in the gaps.

As Cheap as Coal
The mix of WWS sources in our plan can reliably supply the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors. The logical next question is whether the power would be affordable. For each technology, we calculated how much it would cost a producer to generate power and transmit it across the grid. We included the annualized cost of capital, land, operations, maintenance, energy storage to help offset intermittent supply, and transmission. Today the cost of wind, geothermal and hydroelectric are all less than seven cents a kilowatt-hour (¢/kWh); wave and solar are higher. But by 2020 and beyond wind, wave and hydro are expected to be 4¢/kWh or less.

For comparison, the average cost in the U.S. in 2007 of conventional power generation and transmission was about 7¢/kWh, and it is projected to be 8¢/kWh in 2020. Power from wind turbines, for example, already costs about the same or less than it does from a new coal or natural gas plant, and in the future wind power is expected to be the least costly of all options. The competitive cost of wind has made it the second-largest source of new electric power generation in the U.S. for the past three years, behind natural gas and ahead of coal.

Solar power is relatively expensive now but should be competitive as early as 2020. A careful analysis by Vasilis Fthenakis of Brookhaven National Laboratory indicates that within 10 years, photovoltaic system costs could drop to about 10¢/kWh, including long-distance transmission and the cost of compressed-air storage of power for use at night. The same analysis estimates that concentrated solar power systems with enough thermal storage to generate electricity 24 hours a day in spring, summer and fall could deliver electricity at 10¢/kWh or less.

Transportation in a WWS world will be driven by batteries or fuel cells, so we should compare the economics of these electric vehicles with that of internal-combustion-engine vehicles. Detailed analyses by one of us (Delucchi) and Tim Lipman of the University of California, Berkeley, have indicated that mass-produced electric vehicles with advanced lithium-ion or nickel metal-hydride batteries could have a full lifetime cost per mile (including battery replacements) that is comparable with that of a gasoline vehicle, when gasoline sells for more than $2 a gallon.

When the so-called externality costs (the monetary value of damages to human health, the environment and climate) of fossil-fuel generation are taken into account, WWS technologies become even more cost-competitive.

Overall construction cost for a WWS system might be on the order of $100 trillion worldwide, over 20 years, not including transmission. But this is not money handed out by governments or consumers. It is investment that is paid back through the sale of electricity and energy. And again, relying on traditional sources would raise output from 12.5 to 16.9 TW, requiring thousands more of those plants, costing roughly $10 trillion, not to mention tens of trillions of dollars more in health, environmental and security costs. The WWS plan gives the world a new, clean, efficient energy system rather than an old, dirty, inefficient one.

Political Will
Our analyses strongly suggest that the costs of WWS will become competitive with traditional sources. In the interim, however, certain forms of WWS power will be significantly more costly than fossil power. Some combination of WWS subsidies and carbon taxes would thus be needed for a time. A feed-in tariff (FIT) program to cover the difference between generation cost and wholesale electricity prices is especially effective at scaling-up new technologies. Combining FITs with a so-called declining clock auction, in which the right to sell power to the grid goes to the lowest bidders, provides continuing incentive for WWS developers to lower costs. As that happens, FITs can be phased out. FITs have been implemented in a number of European countries and a few U.S. states and have been quite successful in stimulating solar power in Germany.

Taxing fossil fuels or their use to reflect their environmental damages also makes sense. But at a minimum, existing subsidies for fossil energy, such as tax benefits for exploration and extraction, should be eliminated to level the playing field. Misguided promotion of alternatives that are less desirable than WWS power, such as farm and production subsidies for biofuels, should also be ended, because it delays deployment of cleaner systems. For their part, legislators crafting policy must find ways to resist lobbying by the entrenched energy industries.

Finally, each nation needs to be willing to invest in a robust, long-distance transmission system that can carry large quantities of WWS power from remote regions where it is often greatest—such as the Great Plains for wind and the desert Southwest for solar in the U.S.—to centers of consumption, typically cities. Reducing consumer demand during peak usage periods also requires a smart grid that gives generators and consumers much more control over electricity usage hour by hour.

A large-scale wind, water and solar energy system can reliably supply the world’s needs, significantly benefiting climate, air quality, water quality, ecology and energy security. As we have shown, the obstacles are primarily political, not technical. A combination of feed-in tariffs plus incentives for providers to reduce costs, elimination of fossil subsidies and an intelligently expanded grid could be enough to ensure rapid deployment. Of course, changes in the real-world power and transportation industries will have to overcome sunk investments in existing infrastructure. But with sensible policies, nations could set a goal of generating 25 percent of their new energy supply with WWS sources in 10 to 15 years and almost 100 percent of new supply in 20 to 30 years. With extremely aggressive policies, all existing fossil-fuel capacity could theoretically be retired and replaced in the same period, but with more modest and likely policies full replacement may take 40 to 50 years. Either way, clear leadership is needed, or else nations will keep trying technologies promoted by industries rather than vetted by scientists.

A decade ago it was not clear that a global WWS system would be technically or economically feasible. Having shown that it is, we hope global leaders can figure out how to make WWS power politically feasible as well. They can start by committing to meaningful climate and renewable energy goals now.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030.”

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The New Geopolitics of Food

The New Geopolitics of Food – By Lester R. Brown | Foreign Policy.

In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family’s dinner table.

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we’ve seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval.

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year’s harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile — and a whole lot more contentious — than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

Until recently, sudden price surges just didn’t matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.

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In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather — a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today’s price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.

More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world’s largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can’t do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.

That’s why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90 percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics.

THE DOUBLING OF WORLD grain prices since early 2007 has been driven primarily by two factors: accelerating growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding production. The result is a world that looks strikingly different from the bountiful global grain economy of the last century. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity? Even at this early stage, we can see at least the broad outlines of the emerging food economy.

On the demand side, farmers now face clear sources of increasing pressure. The first is population growth. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million additional people, nearly all of them in developing countries. The world’s population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is headed toward 9 billion by midcentury. Some 3 billion people, meanwhile, are also trying to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock. (Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein. For now.)

At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars, even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year, is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union’s goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.

This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world’s food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which reduced the country’s grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.

While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?

Even as we are running our wells dry, we are also mismanaging our soils, creating new deserts. Soil erosion as a result of overplowing and land mismanagement is undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s cropland. How severe is it? Look at satellite images showing two huge new dust bowls: one stretching across northern and western China and western Mongolia; the other across central Africa. Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar, reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades. North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses; both countries face famine if they lose international food aid. Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves.

Beyond the changes in the environment that make it ever harder to meet human demand, there’s an important intangible factor to consider: Over the last half-century or so, we have come to take agricultural progress for granted. Decade after decade, advancing technology underpinned steady gains in raising land productivity. Indeed, world grain yield per acre has tripled since 1950. But now that era is coming to an end in some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, where farmers are already using all available technologies to raise yields. In effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists. After climbing for a century, rice yield per acre in Japan has not risen at all for 16 years. In China, yields may level off soon. Just those two countries alone account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest. Meanwhile, wheat yields have plateaued in Britain, France, and Germany — Western Europe’s three largest wheat producers.

IN THIS ERA OF TIGHTENING world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage, and countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial interests at the expense of the common good.

The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when farmers began having difficulty keeping up with the growth in global demand for grain. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, tripling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to control the rise of domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Vietnam, the No. 2 rice exporter, banned exports entirely for several months in early 2008. So did several other smaller exporters of grain.

With exporting countries restricting exports in 2007 and 2008, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market to supply the grain they needed, several countries took the novel step of trying to negotiate long-term grain-supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, for instance, negotiated a three-year agreement with Vietnam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind, but had no luck. In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.

Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, took the unusual step in 2008 of buying or leasing land in other countries on which to grow grain for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in Africa, where some governments lease cropland for less than $1 per acre per year. Among the principal destinations were Ethiopia and Sudan, countries where millions of people are being sustained with food from the U.N. World Food Program. That the governments of these two countries are willing to sell land to foreign interests when their own people are hungry is a sad commentary on their leadership.

By the end of 2009, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2010 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that a total of nearly 140 million acres were involved — an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect all downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries with which Egypt must negotiate.

The potential for conflict — and not just over water — is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and in most cases, the land involved was already in use by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted about nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little backing to bring their cases to court. Reporter John Vidal, writing in Britain’s Observer, quotes Nyikaw Ochalla from Ethiopia’s Gambella region: “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”

Local hostility toward such land grabs is the rule, not the exception. In 2007, as food prices were starting to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked, the public outcry — much of it from Filipino farmers — forced Manila to suspend the agreement. A similar uproar rocked Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to more than 3 million acres of land. Word of the deal helped stoke a political furor that toppled the government and forced cancellation of the agreement. Indeed, few things are more likely to fuel insurgencies than taking land from people. Agricultural equipment is easily sabotaged. If ripe fields of grain are torched, they burn quickly.

Not only are these deals risky, but foreign investors producing food in a country full of hungry people face another political question of how to get the grain out. Will villagers permit trucks laden with grain headed for port cities to proceed when they themselves may be on the verge of starvation? The potential for political instability in countries where villagers have lost their land and their livelihoods is high. Conflicts could easily develop between investor and host countries.

These acquisitions represent a potential investment in agriculture in developing countries of an estimated $50 billion. But it could take many years to realize any substantial production gains. The public infrastructure for modern market-oriented agriculture does not yet exist in most of Africa. In some countries it will take years just to build the roads and ports needed to bring in agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and to export farm products. Beyond that, modern agriculture requires its own infrastructure: machine sheds, grain-drying equipment, silos, fertilizer storage sheds, fuel storage facilities, equipment repair and maintenance services, well-drilling equipment, irrigation pumps, and energy to power the pumps. Overall, development of the land acquired to date appears to be moving very slowly.

So how much will all this expand world food output? We don’t know, but the World Bank analysis indicates that only 37 percent of the projects will be devoted to food crops. Most of the land bought up so far will be used to produce biofuels and other industrial crops.

Even if some of these projects do eventually boost land productivity, who will benefit? If virtually all the inputs — the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds — are brought in from abroad and if all the output is shipped out of the country, it will contribute little to the host country’s economy. At best, locals may find work as farm laborers, but in highly mechanized operations, the jobs will be few. At worst, impoverished countries like Mozambique and Sudan will be left with less land and water with which to feed their already hungry populations. Thus far the land grabs have contributed more to stirring unrest than to expanding food production.

And this rich country-poor country divide could grow even more pronounced — and soon. This January, a new stage in the scramble among importing countries to secure food began to unfold when South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, announced that it was creating a new public-private entity that will be responsible for acquiring part of this grain. With an initial office in Chicago, the plan is to bypass the large international trading firms by buying grain directly from U.S. farmers. As the Koreans acquire their own grain elevators, they may well sign multiyear delivery contracts with farmers, agreeing to buy specified quantities of wheat, corn, or soybeans at a fixed price.

Other importers will not stand idly by as South Korea tries to tie up a portion of the U.S. grain harvest even before it gets to market. The enterprising Koreans may soon be joined by China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other leading importers. Although South Korea’s initial focus is the United States, far and away the world’s largest grain exporter, it may later consider brokering deals with Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other major exporters. This is happening just as China may be on the verge of entering the U.S. market as a potentially massive importer of grain. With China’s 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest, cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming to an end.

No one knows where this intensifying competition for food supplies will go, but the world seems to be moving away from the international cooperation that evolved over several decades following World War II to an every-country-for-itself philosophy. Food nationalism may help secure food supplies for individual affluent countries, but it does little to enhance world food security. Indeed, the low-income countries that host land grabs or import grain will likely see their food situation deteriorate.

AFTER THE CARNAGE of two world wars and the economic missteps that led to the Great Depression, countries joined together in 1945 to create the United Nations, finally realizing that in the modern world we cannot live in isolation, tempting though that might be. The International Monetary Fund was created to help manage the monetary system and promote economic stability and progress. Within the U.N. system, specialized agencies from the World Health Organization to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) play major roles in the world today. All this has fostered international cooperation.

But while the FAO collects and analyzes global agricultural data and provides technical assistance, there is no organized effort to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies. Indeed, most international negotiations on agricultural trade until recently focused on access to markets, with the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina persistently pressing Europe and Japan to open their highly protected agricultural markets. But in the first decade of this century, access to supplies has emerged as the overriding issue as the world transitions from an era of food surpluses to a new politics of food scarcity. At the same time, the U.S. food aid program that once worked to fend off famine wherever it threatened has largely been replaced by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), where the United States is the leading donor. The WFP now has food-assistance operations in some 70 countries and an annual budget of $4 billion. There is little international coordination otherwise. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the reigning president of the G-20 — is proposing to deal with rising food prices by curbing speculation in commodity markets. Useful though this may be, it treats the symptoms of growing food insecurity, not the causes, such as population growth and climate change. The world now needs to focus not only on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water policies, each of which directly affects food security.

But that is not happening. Instead, as land and water become scarcer, as the Earth’s temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. Land grabbing, water grabbing, and buying grain directly from farmers in exporting countries are now integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.

With grain stocks low and climate volatility increasing, the risks are also increasing. We are now so close to the edge that a breakdown in the food system could come at any time. Consider, for example, what would have happened if the 2010 heat wave that was centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago. In round numbers, the 40 percent drop in Russia’s hoped-for harvest of roughly 100 million tons cost the world 40 million tons of grain, but a 40 percent drop in the far larger U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons would have cost 160 million tons. The world’s carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) would have dropped to just 52 days of consumption. This level would have been not only the lowest on record, but also well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the 2007-2008 tripling of world grain prices.

Then what? There would have been chaos in world grain markets. Grain prices would have climbed off the charts. Some grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food prices, would have restricted or even banned exports, as they did in 2007 and 2008. The TV news would have been dominated not by the hundreds of fires in the Russian countryside, but by footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and reports of governments falling as hunger spread out of control. Oil-exporting countries that import grain would have been trying to barter oil for grain, and low-income grain importers would have lost out. With governments toppling and confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could have started to unravel.

We may not always be so lucky. At issue now is whether the world can go beyond focusing on the symptoms of the deteriorating food situation and instead attack the underlying causes. If we cannot produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, many agricultural areas will cease to be viable. And this goes far beyond farmers. If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand. The time to act is now — before the food crisis of 2011 becomes the new normal.

The Myth of 9 Billion

The Myth of 9 Billion – By Malcolm Potts and Martha Campbell | Foreign Policy.

This week, the United Nations Population Division made a radical shift in its population projections. Previously, the organization had estimated that the number of people living on the planet would reach around 9 billion by 2050 — and then level off. Now everything has changed: Rather than leveling off, the population size will continue to grow, reaching 10 billion or more at century’s end.

Why is this happening? Put simply, fertility rates. Across much of the world, women are having fewer children, but in African countries, the decline is far slower than expected. Part of this shift was supposed to come from preferences about family size and better access to family planning to make that possible. Sadly, however, that access hasn’t come. Another factor, many expected, would come from the deleterious impact of high HIV/AIDS rates. But even Uganda — with one of the highest numbers of AIDS cases in sub-Saharan Africa — is projected to almost triple its population by 2050. In fact, outside a handful of countries, HIV/AIDS has only a tiny impact on overall population. Consider this: In the first five months of this year, the world population grew by enough to equal all the AIDS deaths since the epidemic began 30 years ago.

Rapid population growth is bad news for the continent, as it will likely outstrip gains in economic development. It’s also a wake-up call: If the world doesn’t begin investing far more seriously in family planning, much of our progress fighting poverty in sub-Saharan Africa over the last half-century could be lost.

Demographic projections are just that — predictions. They only tell us what can happen if we make a variety of policy decisions and investments. As is the case with these projections, they include a lower and higher estimate — and where we end up in that range depends upon what we do in the meantime. Hence, it would be a mistake to focus only on the medium U.N. projection of 9.3 billion people by 2050 as most commentators do. The high projection would take us to 10.6 billion in 2050. The low projection would mean 8.1 billion. (Just for a sense of scale: The difference between these high and low variants is equivalent to the entire global population in 1950.)

That 2050 figure is vital in determining how large the population will grow by 2100 — either as high as 15.8 billion or as low as 6.2 billion. With so many people reproducing, very small differences in family size have a dramatic impact over time. The difference between a world of 6.2 billion and 15.8 billion will depend on a change in the average number of children that women have — a change that is so small that demographers are reduced to using the odd image of “half a child” to describe it. Over the coming 40 years, however, if the average woman bears half a child more, on average, it will have an almost unimaginably profound effect on virtually everything else that happens in the 21st century.

Let’s imagine how different our world could look, depending upon its population. Already, we face a host of challenges: feeding growing numbers of middle-class meat-eating citizens, lifting the bottom third of the world’s people out of poverty, and ensuring that our ever-growing economies are environmentally sustainable. All these necessities will become more urgent and more difficult if the population grows quickly, particularly in poor countries where adequate food supplies and sufficient sources of water often can’t be taken for granted.

Some of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, especially those making up the Sahel bordering the Sahara desert, face particularly somber demographic problems. In Niger, the rate of population growth exceeds economic growth. Twenty percent of women there have 10 or more children, and only one in 1,000 women completes secondary school. Already, one-third of children in Niger are malnourished, and global warming will further undermine agricultural output in the desertifying Sahel. Even if the current birth rate is halved by 2050, the population will still explode — from 14 million today to 53 million by 2050. If the birth rate continues at current levels, the population could reach a totally unsustainable 80 million. Unless there is an immediate commitment to family planning, the scale of human suffering over the next three decades in the Sahel could equal or exceed that caused by HIV/AIDS in the past 30 years.

Why are some countries having such a difficult time reducing their average family size? Oddly, for a world in which information travels so quickly, access to contraceptives — and information about family planning — is extremely hard to come by in large parts of Africa. A poor woman who cannot obtain contraception will have many children, and often not by choice. Often, the contraceptives themselves simply aren’t in supply; other times, there are barriers — such as government or medical regulations and misinformation — that prevent access.

Ironically, the future problem stems from today’s success: Women are not having more children than in the past, but fewer of them are dying. Globally, the number of infant deaths per 1,000 births fell from 126 in 1960 to 57 in 2001.

Persistently high fertility yields some striking statistics, according to Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). Last month he called for urgent action to meet the needs of “some 215 million women in developing countries, who want to plan and space their births, [but] do not have access to modern contraception.” He added that “neglect of sexual and reproductive health results in an estimated 80 million unintended pregnancies; 22 million unsafe abortions; and 358,000 deaths from maternal causes — including 47,000 deaths from unsafe abortion.”

That so many women lack access to family planning may come as a surprise to many who have watched women’s rights improve throughout the world in recent decades. But after much attention to population control in the 1970s, interest began to wane in the 1990s. Below-replacement fertility levels in countries such as Russia and Japan suggested the much-heralded population explosion was over. Then, in 1994, an influential International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo emphasized the need to focus on the many needs of girls and women, including health care, education, economic opportunity, the ability to own property, and freedom from domestic violence, as well as access to family planning. It was a worthy goal to work toward these broader needs, but as a result of advocacy, the word “population” became tainted with the idea that improving access to birth control was tantamount to coercion. The term “family planning” was replaced by the broader phrase “reproductive health.” In the United States, in particular, passions over abortion eroded support for contraceptives assistance overseas.

That lack of attention may well prove to be one the worst foreign-policy mistakes of recent decades. Budgets for family planning have collapsed — despite the fact that they were yielding real results. When a modest investment was made in family planning in Kenya in the 1980s, for example, the average family size fell from eight to five. When the focus was taken off family planning, this decline stalled and even started rising again. In 1990, demographers had predicted the population of Kenya in 2050 would be 53 million. But now, the population in 2050 is predicted to be 65 million. This extra 12 million people is equivalent to twice the total population of the whole country in 1950.

In Kenya, the richest economic quintiles have three children, while the poorest have eight. Rich women use contraception more frequently than poor women, but the poor have almost three times the unmet need for family planning — women who report that they do not want another child in the next two years but are not using contraception. It is not that the poor want more children to help in the fields or look after elders as they age; they simply don’t have access to family planning options and information they need and deserve.

Rapid population growth inhibits many of the factors of development from proceeding apace — including education and health. In all our research, we have not found any country, with the exception of a few oil-rich states, that has developed or extricated itself from poverty while maintaining high average family size. Countries with high birth rates tend to find it difficult or impossible to expand their education systems or their health systems adequately to keep up with the need.

This matters beyond any one country or region. If we want to live in an ecologically sustainable world, we’ll have to meet the needs of the present without compromising the natural resources and services our children and grandchildren will need. Given time, and a great deal of scientific ingenuity, we might still be able to reduce our consumption and pull a world of 8 billion people back to a biologically sustainable economy by the end of the century. But a world of 10 billion more in 2050 could do irreversible damage to the planet. It’s just too many people.

We’ve now been warned. If measures are taken now, we could still keep the 2050 world population at around 8 billion. We have to ensure that the population can be slowed by purely voluntary means and within a human rights framework. We need to galvanize the political will to make it happen and invest now so that family planning options are universally available. Fail to do so, and we may give birth to a new, difficult era of poverty instead.

Climate change threatens global security, warn medical and military leaders

Climate change threatens global security, warn medical and military leaders.

ScienceDaily (Apr. 5, 2011) — Medical and military leaders have come together to warn that climate change not only spells a global health catastrophe, but also threatens global stability and security.

“Climate change poses an immediate and grave threat, driving ill-health and increasing the risk of conflict, such that each feeds upon the other,” they write in an editorial published on the British Medical Journal website. Their views come ahead of an open meeting on these issues to be held at the British Medical Association on 20 June 2011.

The authors point to several reports, highlighting the threat that climate change poses to “collective security and global order.”

For example, the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review to Congress stressed the potential for climate change to contribute to “poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments.”

The UK’s Ministry of Defence also states that “climate change will amplify existing social, political and resource stresses” and will shift “the tipping point at which conflict ignites,” while the UK’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, recently described climate change as “perhaps the 21st century’s biggest foreign policy challenge.”

A recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies concurs: “Climate change will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration, and civil conflict. These could lead to failed states, which threaten global stability and security.” It stresses the need for “sustained investment in infrastructure and new technologies” of which “a shift to renewable energy sources will be the most visible effect of efforts to mitigate emissions.”

“It might be considered unusual for the medical and military professions to concur,” say the authors. “But on this subject we do.”

They conclude: “Although discussion is good, we can no longer delay implementing tough action that will make a difference, while quibbling over minor uncertainties in climate modelling. Unlike most recent natural disasters, this one is entirely predictable. Doctors, often seen as authoritative, trusted, and independent by their communities, must make their voices heard in calling for such action.”

Such subjects will be discussed at a forthcoming open meeting “Climate change — how to secure our future wellbeing: a health and security perspective” to be held at BMA House on 20 June 2011.

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The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by BMJ-British Medical Journal, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.


Journal Reference:

  1. L. Jarvis, H. Montgomery, N. Morisetti, I. Gilmore. Climate change, ill health, and conflict. BMJ, 2011; 342 (apr05 1): d1819 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.d1819

Why Doesn't the World Care About Pakistanis?

Why Doesn’t the World Care About Pakistanis? – By Mosharraf Zaidi | Foreign Policy.

Somewhat stunning article on the Pakistani floods an global indifference to what is described as a crisis bigger than the 2004 tsunami and the haiti earthquake combined…

The United Nations has characterized the destruction caused by the floods in Pakistan as greater than the damage from the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. Yet nearly three weeks since the floods began, aid is trickling in slowly and reluctantly to the United Nations, NGOs, and the Pakistani government.

After the Haiti earthquake, about 3.1 million Americans using mobile phones donated $10 each to the Red Cross, raising about $31 million. A similar campaign to raise contributions for Pakistan produced only about $10,000. The amount of funding donated per person affected by the 2004 tsunami was $1249.80, and for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, $1087.33. Even for the Pakistan earthquake of 2005, funding per affected person was $388.33. Thus far, for those affected by the 2010 floods, it is $16.36 per person.

Why has the most devastating natural disaster in recent memory generated such a tepid response from the international community? Something of a cottage industry is emerging to try to answer this latest and most sober of international mysteries.

There is no shortage of theories. It’s donor fatigue. It’s Pakistan fatigue. It’s because the Pakistani government is corrupt and can’t be trusted. It’s because the victims are Muslim. It’s because people think a nuclear power should be able to fend for itself. It’s because floods — particularly these floods — spread their destruction slowly, over a period of time, rather than instantaneously. It’s because of the tighter budgets of Western governments. It’s because of the lingering effects of the financial crisis.

There’s a degree of truth to all these explanations. But the main reason that Pakistan isn’t receiving attention or aid proportionate to the devastation caused by these floods is because, well, it’s Pakistan. Given a catastrophe of such epic proportions in any normal country, the world would look first through a humanitarian lens. But Pakistan, of course, is not a normal country. When the victims are Haitian or Sri Lankan — hardly citizens of stable, well-government countries, themselves — Americans and Europeans are quick to open their hearts and wallets. But in this case, the humanity of Pakistan’s victims takes a backseat to the preconceived image that Westerners have of Pakistan as a country.

Pakistan is a country that no one quite gets completely, but apparently everybody knows enough about to be an expert. If you’re a nuclear proliferation expert, suddenly you’re an expert on Pakistan. If you’re terrorism expert, ditto: expert on Pakistan. India expert? Pakistan, too then. Of South Asian origin of any kind at a think-tank, university, or newspaper? Expert on Pakistan. Angry that your parents sent you to the wrong madrassa when you were young? Expert on Pakistan.

This unique stock of global expertise on Pakistan naturally generates a scary picture. Between our fear of terrorism, nervousness about a Muslim country with a nuclear weapon, and global discomfort with an intelligence service that seems to do whatever it wants (rather than what we want it to do), Pakistan makes the world, and Americans in particular, extremely uncomfortable. In a 2008 Gallup poll of Americans, only Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, North Korea, and Iran were less popular than Pakistan.

The net result of Pakistan’s own sins, and a global media that is gaga over India, is that Pakistan is always the bad guy. You’d be hard pressed to find a news story anywhere that celebrates the country’s incredible scenery, diversity, food, unique brand of Islam, evolving and exciting musical tradition, or even its arresting array of sporting talent, though all those things are present in abundance.

How bad is it? Well, in 2007, when the Pakistani cricket team’s national coach, an Englishman named Bob Woolmer, was found dead in his hotel room, the first instinct of the international press was that a Pakistani team member must have killed him. This is the story of modern day Pakistan.

Contrary to what many Pakistani conspiracy theorists believe, the suspicion and contempt with which the country is seen with is not deliberate or carefully calculated. It’s just how things pan out when you are the perennial bad boy in a neighborhood that everyone wishes could be transformed into Scandinavia — because after 9/11, the world cannot afford a dysfunctional ghetto in South and Central Asia anymore. Or so goes the paternalist doctrine.

It is bad enough that the Pakistani elite don’t seem eager to cooperate with this agenda of transformation; now, nature also seems to be set against it. The floods in Pakistan are the third major humanitarian crisis to afflict the country in recent years. The 2005 earthquake and the massive internal displacement of Pakistanis from Swat and the FATA region in 2009 were well-managed disasters, according to many international aid workers. While international support was valuable in mitigating the effects of those disasters, most experts agree that it was Pakistanis, both in government and civil society, that did the heavy lifting.

The 2010 floods, however, are a game-changer. The country will not and cannot ever be the same. The loss of life, disease, poverty, and human misery themselves are going to take years to overcome. But the costs of desilting, cleaning up, and reconstructing Pakistan’s most fertile and potent highways, canals, and waterworks will be exhausting just to calculate.  The actual task of building back this critical infrastructure is a challenge of unprecedented proportions.

Last week, I visited a relatively well-to-do village called Pashtun Ghari in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pashtun Ghari is right off the historic Grand Trunk Road, and less than two miles from the river. Flood victims there did not feel abandoned by authorities, indeed they were quite satisfied with how they had been taken care of.  Still, there was inconsolable despair among residents. Why? The town’s entire livestock population, some 2,300 cows, had perished beneath waters that stood more than 10 feet high in the first wave of flooding. Those cattle are both assets and income generators for Pakistani villagers along the Indus River. There is no recovering from losing that quantum of livestock.

The fact that people in other countries don’t like Pakistan very much doesn’t change the humanity of those affected by the floods or their suffering. It is right and proper to take a critical view of Pakistani politicians, of their myopia and greed. It is understandable to be worried about the far-reaching capabilities of the Pakistani intelligence community and reports that they continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is even excusable that some indulge in the fantasy that a few hundred al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are capable of taking over a country guarded by more than 750,000 men and women of the Pakistani military, and the 180 million folks that pay their salaries.

But are the farmers of Pashtun Ghari, of Muzzafararh and Dera Ghazi Khan, of Shikarpur and Sukkur, really obligated to allay these fears before they can get help in replacing their lost livelihoods? Twenty million people are now struggling to find a dry place to sleep, a morsel of food to eat, a sip of clean water to drink — and the questions we are asking have to do with politics and international security. The problem is not in Pakistan. It is where those questions are coming from.

Pakistan has suffered from desperately poor moral leadership, but punishing the helpless and homeless millions of the 2010 floods is the worst possible way to express our rejection of the Pakistani elite and their duplicity and corruption. The poor, hungry, and homeless are not an ISI conspiracy to bilk you of your cash. They are a test of your humanity. Do not follow in the footsteps of the Pakistani elite by failing them. That would be immoral and inhumane. This is a time to ask only one question. And that question is: “How can I help?”