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Population control may be the only solution to the global climate crisis

The Global Climate Meetings in Paris, Glasgow and subsequently in Egypt  were marked by high concern, expressed by leaders of every country  about the climate crisis and the need for strategies to protect the global climate from impending disaster. However,  subsequent to the  much publicised conferences, little  has effectively happened by way of positive results to prevent  the grave climate  issue  caused by a steady increase  in average global temperature, says N.S. Venkataraman. It is evident that the strategies evolved to reduce global warming during the earlier conferences have not yielded results, he points out

It was recognised during the several global climate conferences that reduction in the production and consumption of fossil fuel, particularly coal and crude oil, and, ultimately, total elimination of the use of these fossil fuels must be given the top priority. It was pointed out that fossil fuel is the culprit, as its use results in emission of noxious gases such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Further, it was stressed that methane emission during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and from livestock and other agricultural practices, and through the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills, should be curtailed to a significant level. Methane has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than CO2 (around 12 years compared with centuries for CO2) but it is a much more potent greenhouse gas, absorbing much more energy while it exists in the atmosphere.

However, the nations which largely produce fossil fuel have only increased the production of crude oil and coal, instead of reducing them. The consuming nations of fossil fuel have also increased the consumption level in the past so many years. As of January 2023, 20 countries have more than one new coal project planned.  India and China account for around 80 per cent of all active coal projects in the world. China plans to build some 100 new coal-fired power plants to back up wind and solar capacity, which goes against China’s stated intention to reduce the use of coal.  

In 2022, global crude oil production increased by a record 5.4 per cent, much above 2021 growth. Worldwide, there is little reduction in the generation of methane over the years. This despite 151 governments having pledged to achieve net-zero emissions – or no net emissions from 2050-2070. In effect, the decisions taken during the different climate conferences to prevent global warming have all virtually gone for a toss.

Strategies inadequate
Of course, as part of strategies to tackle the climate crisis, steps are being taken to build capacities for production of renewable energy such as solar power and wind power. However, the generation of renewable energy is seasonal and average capacity utilisation is less than 25 per cent, as against around 60 per cent for coal based thermal power plants and around 90 per cent for nuclear power plants. A green hydrogen economy is being highlighted as a possible alternative to the use of fossil fuel. Water electrolysis hydrogen projects are power-intensive and the power for the production of green hydrogen has to be from renewable energy source and not from fossil fuel based power plants, if they were to be christened as green hydrogen.

Considering that millions of tonne of green hydrogen production are required to replace fossil fuel as energy and feedstock source, it is not possible to have the level of renewable power required to produce green hydrogen on a massive scale globally. In any case, the production cost of green hydrogen is likely to be so high that green hydrogen would not be an economical substitute for energy produced from fossil fuel.  While R&D efforts are being made to optimise the process technology and production cost of green hydrogen, the efforts are in work-in-progress stage at present and have no certainty of success. One has to keep fingers crossed with regard to the future availability of green hydrogen at an economical price on a large scale.

Nuclear power is eco-friendly. However, there are many apprehensions about the safety issues due to radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes in nuclear power plants. As of now, all such measures and a few more to replace fossil fuel are unlikely to have any significant impact on the ground scenario in the foreseeable future.

The alternate strategy
It is high time that an alternate strategy has to be thought about and implemented to overcome the climate crisis and reach what is termed as ‘zero emission target’. As it is not possible to replace the fossil fuel largely by an alternate eco-friendly energy source, the only way is to ensure that the use of fossil fuel would be curtailed by reducing the demand for energy and consequently demand for fossil fuel. The only way to reduce the demand for energy and fossil fuel is to reduce the level of population in the world, which now appears to have increased beyond the critical point  as far as energy requirement is concerned.

Population growth itself causes ecological issues due to higher needs for production to meet the increase in consumption demand, consequently requiring more exploitation of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, coal etc, as well as causing other issues such as deforestation. There must be less demand on energy requirement/ fossil fuel, which can be achieved only by ensuring less population growth in coming years and possibly by reduction in the global population level significantly. Historical data shows that there is relation between growth of population and growth of global temperature (global warming).

World population trend – 1900 to 1950

YearGlobal population in billion

Average annual growth rate: 0.85 per cent

World population trend –1960 to 2022

YearGlobal population in billion
2021                      7.9
2022                      7.97

Average annual growth rate: 1.6 per cent  

Source: United Nations Population Division

World population has been steadily increasing over the years, primarily causing increase in the global temperature. From 1880 through 1970, the global average temperature increased roughly 0.03 deg C each decade.  Since 1970, that pace has increased dramatically to 0.13 deg C per decade.  Two-thirds of the increase of nearly 0.8 deg C in the global temperature since the 1880 has occurred in the last 40 years and 9 of the 10 warmest years happened in the last decade. October 2023 was the warmest October on record globally, with an average surface air temperature of 15.30 deg C, which is 0.85 deg C above the 1991-2020 average for October and 0.40 deg C above the previous warmest October, in 2019.

  Year   Global population  in billionAverage global temperature          Deg. C
   1900                1.65               13.9
   1930                2.07               14.1
   2000                6.15               14.2
   2010                6.92               14.63
   2020                7.84               14.9

The next global climate conference (COP 28/ United Nations Climate Change Conference) will take place in UAE from 30 November to 12 December 2023. Let global population control be the theme for the conference. During earlier Climate Conferences, it was decided that increase in global warming should be less than 2 deg C with all countries setting target to limit it to 1.5 deg C. Considering the ground reality today, it is evident that the strategies evolved to reduce global warming during the earlier conferences have not yielded results. The main reason is that neither the producers of fossil fuel nor the consumers of fossil fuel, have been able to reduce the level  due to lack of economically viable alternate options. 

In a scenario where such viable alternate options for fossil fuel are unlikely to see the light of the day in the near future, the only way is to reduce the demand for fossil fuel by reducing population growth.  Obviously, instead of fixing a target to limit the global temperature, it would be more appropriate to fix a target for global population in the coming years.  Reducing population growth and stabilising such growth at an appropriate level would result in reduction in demand for energy/ fossil fuel. This appears to be the sure way to protect the global climate from impending disaster.

(The writer is managing trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived. He is a chemical engineer and lives in Chennai.)