Thursday, July 11, 2013

World Population Day and Curbing Co2 Emissions on a Per Capita Basis

Thursday, July 11th, is World Population Day. The issue of population growth is highly contentious as many want to point their fingers at the developing world where we are seeing the largest population increases. This is particularly true of Africa. However, rather than look solely at population increases we need to consider the significantly lower national per capita Co2 emissions profiles of developing nations as compared to developed countries.

Growing population is undeniably a serious environmental issue. The earth has a finite carrying capacity which we are already exceeding. The more people there are on this earth the greater the demands we make on the planet's limited resources.

There are currently 7 billion people on the planet and this is expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050. The growing population will put even more strain on our finite resources. More people means more demand for water, food, and energy as well as associated increases in waste and emissions.

Even if we use conservative per capita Co2 emissions estimates of 3 tonnes per person per year, we see that 2 billion more people will generate at least 6 billion tonnes of additional annual Co2 emissions.

Much of the increase in emissions can be offset through the expanded use of renewables. Renewable energy generates a tiny fraction of the emissions associated with burning fossil fuels for energy. 

When we look at per capita emissions it is important to acknowledge the massive gulf that separates the developed and developing world. For example, China, is the world leader in total emissions (6018m metric tonnes of Co2) since it overtook the US (5903m metric tonnes of Co2) in 2007. But as assessed on a per capita basis the US generates more than four times China's Co2 emissions on an annual per capita basis (the average American is responsible for 19.8 tonnes per person, while the average Chinese citizen generates 4.6 tonnes).

The discrepancy between developed and developing countries is far worse in other places. The annual per capita Co2 emissions are 16.5 times higher in the US than in India which generates 1.2 tonnes per capita. Even though India's per capita emissions are on the rise, by 2040 the country is expected to have a Co2 emissions profile below 3 tonnes per person.

As the leading continent for population growth Africa is often unfairly singled out. To illustrate this point, the annual US per capita Co2 emission are 66 times higher than in the African country of Kenya which generates 0.3 tonnes per capita.

We are seeing very promising signs of sustainable development in Africa. The tremendous growth of renewable energy in Africa will enable the continent to keep its per capita emissions relatively low. For example, a report from the African Development Bank (AfDB) said that wind power is expected to increase by a factor of 10 over the next few years.

The prodigious growth of renewable energy in Africa and other developing nations is promising. It is clear that we will not be able to reduce global emissions if the developing world follows the same fossil fuel driven path that the developed world has taken.

Renewable energy can enable developing nations to leap frog past fossil fuels that same way they have established wireless communications without going through a stage of hard wired phones and the same way they are adopting electric vehicles without the heavy reliance on fossil fuel powered cars.

While we expect to see a reduction in annual per capita Co2 emissions in the developing world, they are still expected to be significantly higher than in developing nations. It should be obvious that if we are to curb global emission the developed world must significantly reduce their per capita emissions beyond current forecasts. Further, the developed world must assist the developing world with technology transfer and financial support to help them avoid our environmentally ruinous developmental path.

World population is a serious problem, but as we continue to seek an elusive deal on global emissions reductions, we must factor per capita emissions.

For more information on per capita Co2 emissions click here.

© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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