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Report on conference to find 10 best of 20 climate change solutions

By chance I noticed an article in the Guardian newspaper on Thursday and managed to attend an interesting conference at Manchester Town Hall this weekend 4-5 July. It was chaired by Lord Bingham, formerly Britain's top judge, and part sponsored by the Guardian, who will be running a feedback on the conference in a special supplement next Monday 13 July.

Advocates for 20 proposals to mitigate climate change were invited to speak. They covered scientific and engineering solutions to economic and social solutions. A couple of interesting solutions came from Australia. One of the delegates, Kirk Sorenson, has an interesting site on thorium reactors.

There was no pre-agenda and I went along expecting to lobby for why population was not included as a key solution. Climate and Energy Secretary, Ed Milliband, would be speaking at the Saturday session.

Population Sustainability Network

In the event, I found on the day that a talk on renewing commitments to reproductive health policies was included for the final Sunday afternoon session. This was given by Louise Carver of the Population Sustainability Network. It turned out to be fairly low key and was cautious on really highlighting the issues, but at least it was there. One interesting point was that she said family planning funding was at an all time low and had dropped by 30% in real terms since the mid-1990s.

Milliband waffling, out of touch on population problems in developed countries

I did question Milliband at the Saturday Q&A on how politicians and the media were neglecting and ignoring population as a key driver on Climate change and other key issues. Predictably he waffled, saying that he heard this issue raised quite often in relation to climate change, but really we were doing all that can be done and the key was to make reproductive health care easily available and improve the education of girls in developing countries in particular.

I replied that both politicians and many green groups were in denial on population as a key issue. The UK Government had no policy on population and we would not solve the critical problems ahead without going further and incentivising a move to smaller families through the tax system, instead of raising perverse incentives to increase our numbers as is happening in several developed countries like Germany and Australia.

He responded by saying that Australia was a big country well able to absorb a bigger population. Due to question time pressures, I did not have the chance to point out that in fact Australia was a very fragile country ecologically, much of it desert and unable to withstand further big population pressures, but his reply demonstrated how out of touch influential and supposedly well-briefed people can be on ecological and population pressures.

Even so, there were some very interesting presentations.

The aim of the Report is to narrow the best solutions (in the opinion of the panel) down to ten from the original twenty. These will be covered in more detail in the Guardian next Monday, but all will be mentioned.

Thorium and fission

As a nuclear skeptic, I found the presentation on the Thorium alternative to Uranium energy fission by Kirk Sorensen, an aerospace and nuclear engineer from Alabama USA, quite compelling. I spoke to him later and he is basically an advocate for developing the Thorium fission process as a far more effective energy performer than the uranium fission path. He said Thorium was ignored because the US Government wanted to make weapons grade material via Uranium and consequently went down the nuclear/uranium development path. His blogsite, he says, has all the details: www.energyfromthorium.com or www.thoriumenergy.blogspot.com

Improving grass to capture more Carbon gases

Another presentation of interest was by Tony Lovell on soil carbon and redefining grazing habits in arid areas to improve grass quality and consequently carbon capture. A further interesting presentation was by UK scientist, Mike Mason, who looked at an Australian company domestic ceramic fuel cell appliance called BlueGen. This seemed to promise a lot.

Cloud-seeding

A Professor Salter has also been trying to get £25m funding for 6 years to complete development for around 50 cloud seeding ships to reflect more solar energy back into space. Again, this was compelling in its simplicity. To find out more go to www.see.ed.ac.uk/-shs then browse to climate change.

Leggett on Solar

Jeremy Leggett of SolarCentury photovoltaic company made a good presentation on increasing solar power cells, claiming that 116% of UK power needs could potentially be provided by solar power, if north and south facing roofs of all UK properties were adapted to use solar voltaic cells. He also mentioned a WWF UK report coming out in late 2009 "Pathways to a one planet economy".

Economics

Andrew Simms of the (UK) New Economics Foundation gave a very assured presentation on Do Good Lives have to cost the Earth? It seems they are all following the UK Sustainable Development Commission's groundbreaking Prosperity Without Growth report published April 30, 2009. I hope to get in touch with him on several related issues.

Lifeboats and overpopulation

Andrew gave a good analogy on the thinking of many modern growth economists, quoting a now deceased economist Mesham. "A man falls from a 100 floor building. As he heads down the 99 floors they say look he's still fine. Then he suddenly smashes into the ground. Too late! Another one was on lifeboats - from another delegate. "We need to plug the hole in the lifeboat and bale it out." The hole in this case being population. Most green groups are busy concentrating on bailing it out!

Brian McGavin

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Comments

Climate and Energy Secretary, Ed Milliband, responded by saying that "Australia was a big country well able to absorb a bigger population". This is a misconception that fools so many people. We are actually a small country in a big area, with most of it with unreliable rainfall and hot temperatures. Our ecology is already under threat, and our waterways in southern states are under stress. Surely the condition of our Murray Darling Food Bowl should send alarm signals off!
It was due to "projected" population growth, over 45% increase on 1999 numbers, that Kevin Rudd could only commit to 5% reduction in ghg emissions by 2020!
Australia's population in 1990 was 19 million. It was predicted to be 21 million by 2010 but we have surpassed this already.
We need scientists, religious leaders, scholars, writers, politicians, NGOs and philosophers to discuss and debate how to limit the size of our population, humanely and ethically. We need to invite open and intelligent discussion on alternative ways we can still have the economic growth our governments and businesses relentlessly pursue and also have an equitable way of supporting developing countries.
As for addressing climate change, it is pointless trying to mop up the flood while the tap is still running!

If "Australia was a big country well able to absorb a bigger population", then we would have full employment and all governments would be in surplus and there would be no undue pressures on our economy, society or ecology. This is clearly not the case. Demand stress upon all resources is worsening and at its root, this demand is driven by the growth of human population and its proportionate demand for those resources.

What is needed to clarify the problem is to establish measures and benchmarks. The ‘best or most favourable’ population for Australia and each of its cities and regions will be its 'optimum population'. This is one key benchmark. It is a more appropriate measure than 'sustainable population', because 'sustainable' implies the maximum possible, which is a less than ideal outcome. If Australians want to live in congestion akin to Bangkok or Hong Kong, then even if our resources could be pushed further to the sustainable limit, Australia's 'sustainable population' would be a scary number!

But how do we measure the benchmark of 'optimum population'? The Optimum Population Trust (OPT) approaches this measurement by applying the test of ecological footprinting (or eco-footprinting) This seeks to measure the ecological carrying capacity of a district, province, country, global region and even the whole planet. Carrying capacity is defined by OPT as "the size of human population that can be supported in a given territory, in a specified life-style (for example 'Modest European'), without degrading its physical and ecological environment, and without imposing wastes on the global environment beyond a specified limit." OPT Research Co-ordinator Andrew Ferguson defines eco-footprinting as "the process of determining the bioproductive area that a person or a population needs in order to sustain a specified lifestyle."

So the test then comes down to one of lifestyle. This assumes lifestyle is inversely proportional to population - where the larger the population and faster the growth of that population the lower the standard of lifestyle - 'room to move', lower costs, opportunities, resource access, reduced competition, etc. In Australia, we apparently have one of the best lifestyles on the planet.

But this is relative and these days it depends on where one lives in Australia and one's socio-economic status. Back in the 1960's Australia was arguably a classless society. These days not so. In 1960 Australia's populatiion was 10 million. In 1970 it was 12 million. In 1980 it was 14 million. In 1990 it was 17 million. In 2009 it is 21.8 million and increasing exponentially currently at 300,000 per year and could reach $23 million by 2010. So in 50 years, Australia's population has more than doubled. With current government policy at both federal and state levels our population will likely double again to 50 million in less than 50 years. Based on policies and historical trends to concentrate population in Australia's capital cities, this means Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and other major cities will be twice the size they are now. Imagine that for a moment! This is the real risk. It is the frankly biggest problem facing Australia.

Some other useful measures to better define the population growth problem are:

'Ecological footprint' is defined by the World Wildlife Fund as "an ecological footprint compares countries' consumption of natural resources with the Earth's biological capacity to regenerate them," or "a measure of humanity's use of renewable resources."

'Ecological space' is "the biologically productive space available to each person on the planet. Divided into equal shares (i.e. divided by world population) it was 5 - 6 hectares per person in 1900 and decreased to 1.5 hectares per person by 2000. Ecological space can expand or shrink depending on resource consumption, technological innovation, population growth and other factors."

Hectare, global (gha) "In eco-footprinting, 1 hectare (10,000m2, or 100m x 100m) of biologically productive space with world-average productivity. In 2002 the biosphere had 11.4 billion hectares of biologically productive space corresponding to roughly one quarter of the planet's surface. These 11.4 billion hectares include 2 billion hectares of cropland, 3.5 billion hectares of grazing land, 3.8 billion hectares of forest land, 0.3 billion hectares of inland waters and 0.3 hectares of built-up land. One global hectare is therefore a hectare representing the average capacity of one of these 11.4 billion hectares. Thus a hectare of highly productive land represents more 'global hectares' than the same surface of less productive land. Global hectares allow the meaningful comparison of the ecological footprints of different countries, which use different qualities and mixes of cropland, grazing land, and forest."

Becoming familiar with these measures and benchmarks will enable us to be more definite on what population Australia can indeed 'absorb'.