The Environmental Impact of Populations


24 November 2007. Far From Beijing's Reach, Officials Bend Energy Rules. The New York Times--By HOWARD W. FRENCH. Excerpt: QINGTONGXIA, China - When the central government in Beijing announced an ambitious nationwide campaign to reduce energy consumption two years ago, officials in this western regional capital got right to work: not to comply, but to engineer creative schemes to evade the requirements.
The energy campaign required local officials to raise electricity prices as a way of discouraging the growth of large energy-consuming industries and forcing the least efficient of these users out of business. Instead, fearing the impact on the local economy, the regional government brokered a special deal for the Qingtongxia Aluminum Group, which accounts for 20 percent of this region's industrial consumption and roughly 10 percent of its gross domestic product.
Local officials arranged for the company to be removed from the national electrical grid and supplied directly by the local company, exempting it from expensive fees,
...national officials aimed to cut energy use by 20 percent per dollar of output within five years. China's energy consumption has more than quadrupled since 1980. The environmental toll is staggering. The country is already the world's largest user of coal, the dirtiest type of energy. China's coal consumption alone is projected to double in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency.
...Even before the national energy consumption campaign began in 2005, Ningxia officials worked to get around environmental regulations that could hinder growth. Although Beijing issued rules in 2002 trying to limit the number of new coal-burning power plants, Ningxia has built at least three that either did not have the required permission, or failed to meet new environmental standards, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration.
... "To get reforms implemented, two things have to be done," said Lin Boqiang, director of the China Energy Research Institute at Xiamen University. "One is to rate the local government's performance on compliance, and if they don't comply telling people they have to go. The other is introducing financially meaningful penalties. We haven't seen either of these yet."

26 September 2007. Can Earth's Plants Keep up with Us? by Stephanie Renfrow. Excerpt: ...as global population and incomes rise, will plants be able to keep up with the human appetite? And if they cannot, which regions will be short on food and other plant-based resources, and what will that mean for nations as they try to assure food security for their citizens?
Marc Imhoff, a biophysical scientist with NASA, has been exploring these questions with colleagues from the University of Maryland's Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Food Policy Research Institute for six years. He said, "Our primary motivation has been to find out where we stand relative to our survival on the planet, and what our needs are compared to the capability of the biosphere to sustain them.
...To measure net primary production, Imhoff used an index, or scale, of vegetation based on satellite data from the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) instrument. ...He combined the monthly vegetation data with temperature, humidity, rainfall, and land cover type in a model that simulates plant growth. The model provided Imhoff and his colleagues an estimate of the planet's net primary production....
...Imhoff's next step was to measure the amount of net primary production that humans use worldwide in an average year, and then tie it to cultural consumption habits. To do that, he turned to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on food and fiber consumption by country, taking the data from 1995 as a typical year that matched the satellite timeline....
...To Imhoff, a ... surprising finding was the importance of technology in helping balance the equation between supply and consumption. "We found that using improved technology-especially in harvesting and storage techniques-can actually halve the amount of waste in agricultural production," he said. "Take logging. Without the benefits of improved harvesting technology, you might literally lose a tree for every one that you use."
...Asia's per-capita consumption is on the rise," he said. "If consumption begins to match Western levels, there will be a significant increase in demand for food and fiber products. If technology improvements do not come with that growth, then you'll see populations that are outstripping their regional food production capacity. ...Although citizens in industrialized countries may not find the rising population in developing nations of immediate concern, poverty has been connected to terrorism, war, underemployment, border pressures, disease, and political unrest....

10 April 2007. Millions Face Hunger From Climate Change. By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Excerpt: MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Rising global temperatures could melt Latin America's glaciers within 15 years, cause food shortages affecting 130 million people across Asia by 2050 and wipe out Africa's wheat crop, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday. The report, written and reviewed by hundreds of scientists, outlined dramatic effects of climate change including rising sea levels, the disappearance of species and intensifying natural disasters. It said 30 percent of the world's coastlines could be lost by 2080. ...Polar ice caps will likely melt, opening a waterway at the North Pole and threatening to make the Panama Canal obsolete, IPCC member Edmundo de Alba said. Warmer waters will spawn bigger and more dangerous hurricanes that will threaten coastlines not traditionally affected by them. Latin America's diverse ecosystems will struggle with intense droughts and flooding and as many as 70 million people in the region will be left without enough water, according to the report. ''What's clear is places suffering from drought are going to become drier, and places with a large amount of precipitation are going to see an increase in precipitation,'' de Alba said. Many Latin American farmers will have to abandon traditional crops such as corn, rice, wheat and sugar as their soil becomes increasingly saline, and ranchers will have to find new ways to feed their livestock, scientists said. ...In Asia, nearly 100 million people will face the risk of floods from seas that are expected to rise between 0.04 inches to 0.12 inches annually, slightly higher than the global average. The report suggests that a 3.6-degree increase in mean air temperature could decrease rain-fed rice yields by 5 percent to 12 percent in China. In Bangladesh, rice production may fall by just under 10 percent and wheat by a third by the year 2050. The drops in yields combined with rising populations could put close to 50 million extra people at risk of hunger by 2020, 132 million by 2050 and 266 million by 2080, the report said. ...On the Net: http://www.ipcc.ch/

7 February 2007. China Says Rich Countries Should Take Lead on Global Warming. By JIM YARDLEY, NY Times. Excerpt: BEIJING, Feb. 6 - China said Tuesday that wealthier countries must take the lead in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and refused to say whether it would agree to any mandatory emissions limits that might hamper its booming economy. Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said ... "It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per capita emissions," she said, adding that developed countries have responsibilities for global warming "that cannot be shirked." ...China is the world's second largest emitter of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, .... Last November, the International Energy Agency in Paris predicted that China would pass the United States in emissions of carbon dioxide in 2009. ...Qin Dahe, chief of the China Meteorological Administration, told reporters ... "President Hu Jintao has said that climate change is not just an environmental issue but also ... ultimately a development issue." ..."As a developing country that's growing rapidly and has a big population, to thoroughly transform the energy structure and use clean energy would need a lot of money," Mr. Qin said, according to Reuters...


6 November 2006. China to Pass U.S. in 2009 in Emissions. By KEITH BRADSHER. NY Times. Excerpt: LONDON, Nov. 6 - China will surpass the United States in 2009, nearly a decade ahead of previous predictions, as the biggest emitter of the main gas linked to global warming, the International Energy Agency has concluded in a report to be released Tuesday. As a developing country, China is exempt from the Kyoto Protocol's requirements for reductions in emissions of global warming gases. Unregulated emissions from China, India and other developing countries are likely to account for most of the global increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the next quarter-century. Moreover, the biggest current emitter of the gases, the United States, has rejected the protocol in part because most lawmakers and President Bush say its exemption for rising powers like China is unfair. If nothing is done, global energy demand is projected to grow 53 percent by 2030, the energy agency said. As a result [of increased coal and oil consumption], energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will increase 55 percent, to 44.1 billion tons in 2030. Environmental officials from around the world began meeting Monday in Nairobi to discuss a new agreement after the Kyoto Protocol.

24 October 2006 Humans living far beyond planet's means: WWF. By Ben Blanchard. BEIJING (Reuters) - Humans are stripping nature at an unprecedented rate and will need two planets' worth of natural resources every year by 2050 on current trends, the WWF conservation group said on Tuesday. Populations of many species, from fish to mammals, had fallen by about a third from 1970 to 2003 largely because of human threats such as pollution, clearing of forests and overfishing, the group also said in a two-yearly report. ..."If everyone around the world lived as those in America, we would need five planets to support us," Leape, an American, said in Beijing. ..."If the rest of the world led the kind of lifestyles we do here in Australia, we would require three-and-a-half planets to provide the resources we use and to absorb the waste," said Greg Bourne, WWF-Australia chief executive officer.....

Spring 2006. Consequences of China's Growth. By Michelle Chan-Fishel. Friends of the Earth news magazine. Excerpt: ...At its current growth rate, China is expected to bypass Japan as the world's third largest economy by 2020. But although its economic growth has been astounding, it has also been very uneven, with about 800 million rural poor excluded from the benefits. As a result,millions have migrated to cities in search of work, creating a pool of 100-150 million underemployed in China's cities. ...China's economy shows no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, China's growth has also created an environmental crisis, marked by unchecked industrial pollution and acute public health impacts. The country's own State Environmental Protection Administration reported that breathing the air in China's most polluted cities is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and according to some sources, the water in five of China's biggest river systems cannot be touched, let alone drunk.... To help fuel China's growth, Chinese companies are actively purchasing timber, oil, gas and mineral assets around the world.... In many respects, it's ... about saving the world from what Lester Brown (in his new book Plan B, 2.0) described as the ... the Western economic model: the fossil-fuel-based, auto-centered, throwaway economy. "If it will not work for China," Brown states, "it will not work for India." Nor will it work for any country on our planet, including our own.

2 February 2006. High-Rises That Have Low Impact on Nature. By ROBIN POGREBIN, NY Times. Excerpt: With ... the Bank of America building rising at 1 Bryant Park in Manhattan ... it's not architecture with a capital A that makes the tower unusual. ...It is the double-wall technology that dissipates the sun's heat; ventilation that runs under the floor rather than through overhead ducts; carbon-dioxide monitors that assure adequate fresh air; and a system that collects and reuses rainwater and wastewater, saving 10.3 million gallons of water each year. ...Not so long ago, green construction was largely dismissed as prohibitively expensive and as just so much political correctness. But the arrival of the Condé Nast tower in Times Square in 1999, designed by Fox & Fowle ... sent the message that corporate America saw something to gain from the green model. "What we did was take it from a Birkenstock cultural environment into a pinstripe environment," said Bruce Fowle, of what is now FXFowle. ...Motion sensors will allow for lights and computers to be turned off when a room is empty, and the roof will collect rainwater, thus reducing runoff by 25 percent. Collected in two 14,000-gallon reclamation tanks in the basement, the rainwater will replace water lost to evaporation in the building's air-conditioning system and will irrigate plantings and trees inside and outside the building.... Building green used to add as much as 20 percent to a project's cost, by some estimates. That figure has recently declined to between 2 and 5 percent, largely because of the availability of new technologies and building materials...."It's almost become as American as apple pie now," he said.

24 January 2006. Official Release: Gridded Population of the World, Version 3.


4 October 2005, A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom. By ANDREW C. REVKIN, NY Times. ...The gross domestic product, or G.D.P., is routinely used as shorthand for the well-being of a nation. But the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying out a different idea. In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan's newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation's priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness. Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals. ...While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world's lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years. The country...requires that at least 60 percent of its lands remain forested, welcomes a limited stream of wealthy tourists and exports hydropower to India. "We have to think of human well-being in broader terms," said Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's home minister and ex-prime minister. "Material well-being is only one component. That doesn't ensure that you're at peace with your environment and in harmony with each other." ...It is a concept grounded in Buddhist doctrine, and even a decade ago it might have been dismissed by most economists and international policy experts as naïve idealism.

January 2005. Blue Oil. by Stephanie Pool, Terrain Magazine. The World Bank predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will be short of water. Private corporations capitalize on this imminent crisis by contracting with municipalities to provide water services. Water is redefined as a scarce commodity subject to market forces, with corporations controlling its price-and who is allowed to buy it.....

January 2005. Ecological Footprint Quiz - http://www.myfootprint.org/ - A tool to show your impact on Earth resources.


October 2004. The Ecological Footprint. A resource management tool that measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes, taking into account prevailing technology.

July 2004. Thoughts on Long-Term Energy Supplies: Scientists and the Silent Lie. Physics Today. [Must be AGU member for access.] The world's population continues to grow. Shouldn't physicists care? by Albert A. Bartlett. The most sacred icon in the "religion" of the US economic scene is steady growth of the gross national product, enterprises, sales, and profits. Many people believe that such economic growth requires steady population growth. Although physicists address the problems that result from a ballooning population-such as energy shortages, congestion, pollution, and dwindling resources-their solutions are starkly deficient. Often, they fail to recognize that the solutions must involve stopping population growth. Physicists understand the arithmetic of steady, exponential growth. Yet they ignore its consequences, including the first law of sustainability: "Population growth or growth in the rate of consumption of resources cannot be [indefinitely] sustained." (See Ben Zuckerman's letter to the editor, Physics Today, July 1992, page 14.) Sustainability requires solutions that will be effective over time periods much longer than a human lifespan. Indeed, Paul Weisz makes a case on page 47 of this issue that many time-honored 20th-century energy sources, such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal, have been reduced to the point that their longevities are now expected to be of the order of a human lifespan.... Among physicists, there is a growing recognition that we have a responsibility to become more directly involved in the scientific aspects of problems facing society. ...
Unchecked population growth as a source of problems is not news. More than 200 years ago, mathematician Robert Malthus (1766-1834) addressed the issue in his famous essay. He understood that populations had the biological potential for steady growth and that food production did not. Today, energy production does not have the capability of steady growth. Nevertheless, we are all aware of nonscientists with academic credentials who proclaim that our modern technology has proven Malthus wrong. The most egregious of the high priests of endless growth was the late Julian Simon, professor of economics and business administration at the University of Illinois and later at the University of Maryland. In 1995, he wrote: Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature.... We have in our hands now ... the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever?growing population for the next seven billion years. In the eyes of the general public, the silence of scientists on the problems of population growth seems to validate the messages of the politically appealing and influential Julian Simons of the world.... Researchers continue to debate when the peak of world petroleum production will be reached. Analytical estimates range from 2004 to about 2025. But from a per capita perspective, world petroleum production reached a peak in the 1970s. I believe future historians may identify this peak as one of the most important events in all of human history.

23 June 2004. NASA RELEASE: 04-201 NASA SCIENTISTS GET GLOBAL FIX ON FOOD, WOOD & FIBER USE -- NASA scientists working with the World Wildlife Fund and others have measured how much of Earth's plant life humans need for food, fiber, wood and fuel. The study identifies human impact on ecosystems.

13 January 2004. Consumer appetite erodes quality of life for all, By GreenBiz.com. The world is consuming goods and services at an unsustainable pace, with serious consequences for the well-being of people and the planet, according to the Worldwatch Institute's annual report, State of the World 2004.


2002 January 17. Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy. By Mathis Wackernagel et al., PNAS. Abstract: Sustainability requires living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere. In an attempt to measure the extent to which humanity satisfies this requirement, we use existing data to translate human demand on the environment into the area required for the production of food and other goods, together with the absorption of wastes. Our accounts indicate that human demand may well have exceeded the biosphere's regenerative capacity since the 1980s. According to this preliminary and exploratory assessment, humanity's load corresponded to 70% of the capacity of the global biosphere in 1961, and grew to 120% in 1999.


Articles from 2002–2007