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Population Growth: Addressing the Real Problem

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

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  • Oct 3, 2013

Global Population Growth Impacts

Getting people to produce fewer babies – they already are – is a far less important challenge than getting them to consume and produce energy more rationally. It is time we worried more about rich people driving luxury cars than poor people having more babies.

Hummers Babies

Uncertainty. Those skeptical about whether climate change is occurring and that we should do something about it are rather fond of it. Uncertainty of course goes in two directions and the rather one sided interest of many of these so called skeptics betrays their lack of genuine skepticism. We are now being told that we should relax a little because the sensitivity of the atmosphere to the carbon dioxide we are dumping in it might be slightly lower than we previously thought. Even if this is true, to relax would be to ignore the whole equation. Consider this rather simple fact. In 1998 the International Energy Agency issued a forecast for China’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 and 2020. These emissions were expected to be 5.3 billion tonnes in 2010 and 7 billion tonnes in 2020, instead China was already emitting over 7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide as early as 2009.

The Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997, and the impact of it on the global energy system was insignificant. Since 1997 the world has seen a surprising and unpredicted return to coal. 43% of the increase in global primary energy consumption between 2000 and 2010 was in coal. In the 1990s it was only 10%. There is over 1.2 TW of new coal power plants in planning globally, a figure almost two times higher than China’s current capacity. And as for the regular wishful nonsense we now read about China taking serious efforts on climate change, consider that it is now building large numbers of plants that convert coal to synthetic gas, which will have even higher carbon dioxide emissions than simply burning the coal. The world is now carbonising much faster than expected, so if there is lower sensitivity of the atmosphere to carbon dioxide we seem to be in much the same spot as before.

There is much to be uncertain about, but one thing we can be relatively certain of is that we are much more uncertain about levels of future carbon dioxide emissions than their potential impacts on the atmosphere. And aren’t climate change “skeptics” also people who tend to be very doubtful about our ability to reduce emissions? This point can be laboured a little further, but I will instead turn to what I actually want to discuss: the role of population growth in driving future carbon emissions. 

There are now seven billion people living on earth, a number that is inevitably going to increase this century. More people equals more carbon emissions, and in the eyes of some we should be doing much more to stop increases in population. It has now become rather cliched to call this subject the elephant in the room, as it has become a cliche to open a piece about population growth by mentioning the disproportionate of emails you have received on the subject (a probable reason for many avoiding the subject).

Any discussion of complex issue requires clarity up front about what is actually being discussed. What follows is a discussion about population growth, not absolute population levels. In trivial terms the environmental problems we face would be much easier to solve if there were a few hundred thousand, or a few million, humans on the planet. However we cannot act as if history did not occur. There are seven billion of us and we need to honestly appraise what can be achieved by limiting our numbers in comparison with other approaches.

To clarify the discussion I will focus on two of the key drivers of global carbon emissions from energy production (and in turn our overall environmental impact): population growth and changes in patterns of consumption. The atmosphere does not care whether we have energy democracy (a curious concept, in general it is the rich who benefit) or generate energy locally (another curious concept, a solar panel made in China is not local), the essential element is how much pollution we dump into it. With this in mind I will focus purely on the subject’s quantitative aspects, and will return to the qualitative aspects in a future piece.

Global Impacts of Population Growth

A simple thought experiment. Imagine that global population increases this century as expected, or at least as the UN’s Population Division expects it to, and that the citizens of each country continue to produce carbon dioxide emissions as they do today. This simple scenario is a dreadful way to forecast the future of carbon emissions – they all are – but is a valuable illustration of why a single minded focus on population growth is misplaced.

Global population increases from 7 billion to 10.5 billion in 2010 (in the UN’s central scenario), an increase of 50%.


Carbon dioxide emissions however do not increase throughout the century. Instead they peak mid century, a peak that is only 15% higher than today. The reason for this is that the populations of many large emitters are now expected to be in decline by mid century. China, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Russia and Brazil are among the fifty five countries expected to have declining populations by 2050.


And most of the growth in future population will be in countries with low current per capita carbon emissions. A total of 13 countries are expected to see population growth of greater than 50 million people between now and 2050, and their total population growth of 1.5 billion makes up more than half of the expected global population growth. Consideration of their per capita carbon dioxide emissions is revealing. The United States saw per capita carbon dioxide emissions of 17 tonnes in 2008. Of the other countries Indonesia has the highest per capita emissions at 1.9 tonnes, an order of magnitude lower than in the United States. These disparaties are even greater for some other countries. Per capita emissions are two orders of magnitude higher in the US than in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo and Niger. These countries are expected to rise in population by 400 million between now and 2050, but if per capita emissions stay where they are these 400 million people will produce as much carbon dioxide as 4 million Americans. So, I would less about Tanzanians breeding like rabbits (an awful phrase, but still used by some of the population concerned), and worry more about Americans driving hummers, or for that matter academics writing comment pieces on population growth.


(Relationship between Population Change between now and 2050 and current per capita emissions)

Peak Child

The long term existence of human populations has certain fundamental requirements. Among them is that enough babies are born to replace dying adults, commonly referred to as replacement fertility. The exact number varies slightly, it is thought to be approximately 2.1 babies per woman for developed countries. However it is rather clear that women need to produce at least two babies on average to prevent long term population decline and eventually extinction.

In 1970 only seven countries had fertility rates below two babies per woman. However by 2012 this has risen to seventy four countries. In fact added together the countries with below replacement level fertility represent approximately half of humanity, and the median fertility rate has changed from 5.5 to 2.2 babies per woman between 1970 and 2012.


This decline in fertility means that we are now probably witnessing what Hans Rosling has referred to as Peak Child. Global population is expected to continue growing, at least for a few decades, however the number of children on the planet is not expected to. Below I have animated how the UN projects the age distribution of the global population to evolve over this decade. As you can see global population is now expected to increase not because of more babies, but principally because more babies are surviving to adulthood.


 (Projected evolution of global age distribution. UN central forecast.)


An Unequal World

Disparities in global commercial primary energy consumption are profound and saddening. More than half of commercial energy is consumed by less than 20% of the global population.  Another saddening detail is the 10% of countries which consume essentially 0% of global primary energy. These are countries where commercial energy consumption is so low that major energy statistics centres do not bother collecting data for them. It should be an uncontroversial statement that the graph below straighten out significantly in future.


A more or less identically shaped graph can be drawn for the global distribution of greenhouse gas emissions. A simple and obvious conclusion is that you could remove about a quarter of the global population without any significant impact on carbon emissions. Again, this needs to be considered when we are weighing up the influence of future population growth.

The Weak Relationship Between Population Growth and Carbon Emissions Growth

Throughout the last one hundred years population has increased continually in almost every country, as have carbon dioxide emissions. However the relationship between the two is surprisingly weak. I show this relationship below for the period between 1998 and 2008.


Countries with similar percentage increases in population see very different changes in emissions, often over orders of magnitude. The reasons for this are clear. Reconsider that wildly inaccurate IEA forecast for China’s 2010 carbon dioxide emissions. Between 2000 and 2010 China’s carbon dioxide emissions increased by 140% , however its population only increased by 5.6%. The massive increase in China’s emissions was almost entirely driven by the coal fired boom in its economy.

Consumption Matters More Than Population Growth

Compare the United States and Canada on the one hand and France and Sweden on the other. No one could possibly claim that the lives of North Americans are objectively better than those living in France or Sweden. In fact a more objective comparison would indicate the opposite. North Americans don’t live longer, aren’t healthier and aren’t better educated (think of the percentage who believe the earth is a few thousand years old). However, last year the average North American produced three times more carbon emissions than the average French or Swedish citizen.

These stark differences have two simple causes. North Americans consume excessive levels of energy – think of those Hummers going from red light to red light in cities – and France, Sweden and Switzerland have largely decarbonised their electricity supply. And differences in energy consumption extend to almost all modernised countries. North Americans consume two times more energy than those living in most other modernised countries, yet the evidence of any benefits of this excessive consumption is non-existent.

However significant long term declines in carbon emissions in the eyes of some American climate change “skeptics” are going to lead to inevitable declines in quality of life. Yet if North America simply consumed and produced energy like France and Sweden its emissions would be three times lower. I don’t imagine it would be so bad to live a Swedish lifestyle. If you ignore political incompetence, ignorance – how many people actually realise how excessive North American consumption is – and greed, then it should not be that difficult to reduce North American per capita emissions to French levels in a few decades. Discussions over whether massive technology breakthroughs are needed for the US to significantly reduce its carbon emissions come across as a rather curious sort of American exceptionalism, at least from this side of the Atlantic.

In conclusion getting people to produce fewer babies – they already are – is a far less important challenge than getting them to consume and produce energy more rationally. Now this is not to say we should do nothing about population growth. However the principal arguments for reducing birth rates are no longer environmental. The improvement of female education, reduction of infant mortality and dismantling of reactionary religious attitudes are desirable in themselves and will inevitably lead to significant long term reductions in fertility. The promotion of the demographic transition around the world is a necessary one on simple humanitarian grounds, and recent trends indicate that this is being very successful. The same cannot be said about our attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Recommended Reading

Peoplequake by Fred Pearce

Population 10 Billion by Danny Dorling

Why population policy will not solve climate change by Barry Brook

The Unprecedented Shift in Japan’s Population: Numbers, Age, and Prospects by Vaclav Smil

Getting Better by Charles Kenny

Are there too many people on the planet? by Peter Kareiva

Data Sources

United Nations Population Division


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Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Oct 2, 2013

The 2 are actually equally important.  We are already well above the global population carrying capacity as evidenced by the use and depletion of stored energy sources.  Energy sources stored over geological ages one might add.  Thus any population growth exascerbates the problem.  Add to that the billions who now seek to improve their standard of living to that enjoyed in the developed world and consumption is sky-rocketing and will continue to do so as more people enter the world.  Thus both are essential elements to address!  One as you point out is somewhat in progress, though there is a LOT more work to be done regarding population REDUCTION, the other is spiraling out of control.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 3, 2013

Robert, I had to stop reading when I reached your blanket assumption that “more people equals more carbon emissions”. This is simply not the case, and a prescription for failure.

A  largely nuclear-powered world could provide massive benefits for developing countries and maintain lifestyles in others with a substantially increased population while reducing atmospheric carbon. All that’s missing is the will.

We need to look beyond the erroneous assumptions of 20th century neo-Malthusians for answers to 21st-century problems.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 3, 2013


This is a very bizarre comment.

Perhaps you should do me the courtesy of reading what I have written before accusing me of being a neo-Malthusian. If you actually did read it you would have realised it thoroughly challenges neo-Malthusians. You however have decided to not bothered reading a single argument I have made about population growth before voicing your disagreement with me. This is simply an act of unthinking prejudice, and a far better example of “erroneous assumption” than my piece is.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 3, 2013

Robert, frankly it’s a bizarre article. You make the blanket statement that “more people equals more carbon emissions” and imply population is “the real problem”, then go on to suggest the connection is “surprisingly weak”.

In truth, more people don’t have to equal more carbon emissions. Americans use a lot of energy because it’s cheap here, and I’d immediately challenge the notion that that’s somehow genetic or even cultural – one only need to look at per capita carbon emissions in Saudi Arabia to see why. Because of that use we have an outsized responsibility to do something about the waste we’re creating, and we’re not doing enough. This is something on which we’re thoroughly in agreement.

India and China have made it clear in climate negotiations that they will not concede to limits on emissions at the expense of growth – consumption-wise, America will soon be swallowed by other parts of the world. We obviously have no business dictating consumption/efficiency habits to the rest of the global community, but at this point I’m not convinced that it’s a practical possibility to put binding limits on consumption. That leaves pursuing the lowest-carbon ways of meeting this demand, and that’s where our focus should be.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 3, 2013


Again, it is very clear you are judging the article based purely on the title and your own prejudices. Have you considered that by the “real problem” I mean consumption?

Your comment also implies that I hold opinions that are not expressed by my article. You really should ask yourself why you think reading an article from beginning to end is going to take up too much of your time, but commenting on it will not. It’s a rather bizarre impulse.


Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 3, 2013

Population REDUCTION.

How would do you propose we go about reducing human population? And I would be curious about what the global population carrying capacity is.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 3, 2013

Robert, I have read the article all the way through. You make many good points, but I think you’re taking this all too personally and not considering it’s possible the title and overall focus of your article are somewhat ambiguous.

Knowing you consider the real problem to be consumption, I’ll re-start this conversation by noting that it’s not consumption which is trapping energy in the earth’s atmosphere, which is acidifying the oceans, and which is driving species at a perilous rate to extinction. It’s the byproducts of our current methods of consumption, and the distinction is significant.

There’s no evidence to suggest limiting human consumption in coming decades will be a less intractable problem than implementing new sources of energy which don’t pollute, and much to suggest otherwise.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Oct 3, 2013


You will get no disagreement from me on the following point:

However significant long term declines in carbon emissions in the eyes of some American climate change “skeptics” are going to lead to inevitable declines in quality of life. Yet if North America simply consumed and produced energy like France and Sweden its emissions would be three times lower. 

It is self evident that we need no technological breakthroughs to emulate the way that France, Sweden and Switzerland produce their power, though we need to recognize that our terrain limitations are more similar to France’s than to Sweden and Switzerland. We use hydro where possible and should use reliable nuclear reactors for nearly all of the rest.

We should electify more of our transportation infrastructure, especially in the form of intercity rail (electric trains are a more useful investment than “high speed trains”) and intracity subways and surface trolley systems. We should replace oil burning furnaces with electric heat pumps, perhaps supplemented with natural gas heat for the days too cold to allow heat pumps to be effective.

You and I agree. There are best practice examples that we can follow. It is past time to get started. It is a good thing that we started building commercially competitive nuclear electricity generation plants in 1963 and have learned to operate them quite reliably. It is a shame that we have lost several decades worth of building experience and infrastructure development to ill advised opposition efforts combined with really poor nuclear industry project management and promotional efforts.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 4, 2013


I agree with you that an expansion of nuclear power is essential to combat climate. Of course where I disagree with you is that an expansion of renewable energy (or unreliables as you rather disagreeably refer to them) is also necessary.

That aside, the implicit point of the piece is that attempts to lower per capita consumption in the US is perhaps much more important than either. Certainly the prospects of nuclear reducing US emissions at all in the medium term now appears to be close to zero. This is simply the way it is. In contrast simple regulations to force people to drive more sensible cars or install triple windows could. Excessive US energy consumption is a much more important elephant in the room than population groth.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 4, 2013

Again Bob, I am not taking this personally. All I am asking is that you actually read the piece before commenting. This is something you appear incapable of doing, simply drawing conclusions based on your own prejudices.

I didn’t think what I wrote was particularly ambiguous. I compared US emissions with France and Sweden and said the reason was lower energy consumption and the decarbonisation of electricity in France and Sweden. Perhaps you simply skipped those sentences before commenting.

You openly stated that you criticised the piece without bothering to read it, and now continue to criticise it without reading it properly.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Oct 4, 2013

@Robert Wilson

I am sorry that you find my accurate term for wind and solar energy to be “disagreeable”. I cannot help the fact that systems using those naturally variable forces are inherently unreliable and uncontrollable by humans or human designed control systems. That is simply the way it is.

In contrast, our current prospects for using more nuclear energy are defined by human decision making in the form of either political or business decisions. Since the decisions are driven by humans, they can be influenced by humans. I will continue to believe that we can — and must — change course and speed in nuclear energy development.

I’m kind of a believer in the Serenity Prayer.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 5, 2013

Contrary to 19th century thinking, it is FAR easier to give the people clean energy than to reduce their numbers… It’s called nuclear power. I prefer the redevelopment of the molten salt reactor, and then a massive global scale up within a time frame of mere decades.

It’s also called electric transportation. I prefer the advanced machine automation of all the parts for battery storage, especially for electric cars. We should also apply such machine automation towards the eventual replacement of nuclear with space solar, but that’s far off…

Then (and only then) could we ever reduce America’s per capita to just a tenth. This means we could have TEN times the population and still have LESS carbon dioxide emissions. Cool, huh?

EDIT: (a few days later)…

I want to add that when the developing countries all go to the easiest source, it will probably be to late for the biosphere. Therefore, we should not have population growth UNLESS we go nuclear. There will be other peaks (not just of oil) but we can literally dig our way out of them all (except for phosphorus?) because the unlimited energy potential that the the fission process offers will be able to make ALL the infrastructure needed to carry on, and build up past mere future casts of limitation brought on by so called “experts”.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 5, 2013

“…attempts to lower per capita consumption in the US is perhaps much more important than either [expansion of nuclear or renewables]“.

Robert, it is not our fault that we are wealthy.  Modern automation, cheap & abundant land, an educated workforce, smart work practices, solid work ethic (including a high participation rate), and efficient management make us very productive in the work place, and our suppliers (including an army of low paid foreign and immigrant workers) provide us with goods and services that are extremely affordable.  And our profligate spending and aggressive borrowing produces a multiplier effect that strengthens our economy, and provides the economic stimulus that is pulling supplier nations like China out of poverty!  (I should also add that we have a low birthrate, which should please the zero-population growth people.  We are very successful at attracting immigration, so we’ve avoided dangerous population declines.)

So what would you have us do with our wealth?  Invest in the next stock bubble?  Spend it on health care? (wait, we already do that).  Travel more? (wait, that’s polluting too.)  

It’s great to require homes to be more energy efficient (e.g. insulated windows, ceilings, and wall), because that also makes them more comfortable.  Making cars more efficient with hybrid drive trains and light-weight materials allows them to be larger and more luxurious for the same energy budget.  

But telling people to buy smaller homes and cars than they can afford is a plan that is doomed to fail.  Our politicians and regulators work for the people and the businesses, and such plans simply cannot be implemented in the US (the automobile shrinkage that occurred in the 1970s was necessary for us to adapt to the new price of oil and the increase in miles driven, but the overshoot was “corrected” by the SUV boom in the 1990s).

Clean energy (along with recycling and sustainable practices) is the only viable solution for the US.  National austerity is bad for business and the people (it is a fringe right-wing concept that was never supported by sound economic analysis: it’s proponent have to rely on the unsupportable claim that the multiplier effect of spending is less than unity).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 5, 2013

Rod, as a resident of the “Saudi Arabia of Wind” (the central US), I must point out that the basis of your complaints about sun and wind are a bit off the mark, and as a result, likely result in turning readers against your otherwise excellent advocacy for nuclear power.

I don’t dispute their unreliability, but it’s the reliability of the grid that matters, not the individual energy producers.  Fair criticism of sun and wind include:

  • very high cost of energy, especially when energy storage replaces fossil backup
  • large negative environmental footprint
  • unsuitability for densely populated areas
  • short service life (compared to nuclear plants) contributes to high fleet-average cost of energy

As you may know, I’m an advocate of ammonia for transportation fuel (it’s like hydrogen, but easily storable and transportable).  In this application, the unreliability of sun and wind is irrelevant, in fact, when large-scale ammonia synthesis is a dispatchable load, wind becomes a viable source of high penetration electricity. However low capacity factor does increase the overall cost, and current costs for solar and wind are too high for economical fuel synthesesis anyway.


Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 5, 2013


Bold lettering aside,  this is a rather poorly argued and defensive response.  US per capita energy consumption is two times higher than in almost every other modernised country.  There is to my knowledge no evidence of any quality of life benefit from this,  but quite clearly a great deal of  environmental harm. 


You rather strangely ask what Americans should do with their wealth instead of spend it on excess consumption. I should remind you that there are about 50 million Americans on food stamps.  

If the entire planet consumed like Americans then we would need to produce 5 times more energy. The idea that we can do this and keep greenhouse gases to a reasonable level is close to delusional. 

Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Oct 5, 2013

Kudos to Robert for an exceptionally well written and researched article that significantly raises the bar for other contributors to The Energy Collective! I worry nonetheless that the huge growth in emissions from China may yet be emulated by other countries whose populations are still growing rapidly and may in aggragate eventually exceed that of China (India alone could do that trick). History, unfortunately, cannot be changed, and population momentum is not much easier to do anything about. Even more unfortunate, perhaps, is the fact that investments in carbon-intensive infrastructure also exhibit considerable momentum. As a result, I’m not much more sanguine about our future than is Gail Tverberg, although it might be worth noting that she thinks our emissions will presently be coming to an abrupt halt for entirely different reasons …

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 5, 2013

Thanks Tim

The situation in China shows very clearly why consumption matters more now than population growth. Many models are available to them. They could consume like Japanese or Americans. The former would be preferable, but the latter appears more likely. I’m all for renewable and nuclear,  but a China consuming like Americans by mid century almost certainly will be a fossil fuelled one.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 5, 2013

The only way to make it possible is by nuclear, right? Otherwise, the minimalist agenda MUST become reality to “fit” the similtaineous growing world and fossil fueled depletion. If we don’t scale up nuclear on the global level, there will simply not be enough energy resources to make life comfortable for very much longer no matter where one lives.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 5, 2013


This is simply pushing your preferred technology,  and not addressing what I was saying. And I am not pushing a minimalist agenda. Did you read my piece?  Or perhaps you can provide my with evidence that consuming two times more energy than French,  Germans or Japanese makes Americans much better off. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 6, 2013

If we give more money to the 50 million poorest Americans (and I agree that we should), they would simply spend it on consumption.  Moving the wealth/consumption around does not make it go away.

You’ve complained that you don’t like my argument, but your stated reason is simply is that less consumption seems fine in other countries.  Consumption in wealthy nations is tied to freedom of choice, as is birth rate.  You haven’t shown me that reducing American consumption can be any easier than reducing population.  You have provided no support for your implication that reducing consumption is easier than replacing fossil fuel use with nuclear (Yes, there are existence proofs for low consumption, but there are also existence proofs for nuclear power, and for switching to nuclear power.  Where is the existence proof for reducing consumption during peace-time in a free country?)

And you have not responded to my claim that American consumption directly improves the lives of people in developing countries by providing a market for exported goods.  Those goods are manufactured in factories with power tools which amplify worker productivity.  As a result, those workers are more productive and more prosperous than they would be as subsistence farmers.  With their factory wages, they can pay more for food, so the remaining farmers can buy power tools too, improving their productivity and prosperity.

You also have not addressed the central issue of the reason for our excessive consumption relative to other developed nations.  Do citizens of other nations consume only a small fraction of their income, or do they, like Americans, spend 90-102% of their income (by my estimation).  If people in other countries are also spending above 90%, then they must be less wealthy, as I have assumed.  So excess wealth really is the same as excess consumption. Please explain to me how you propose to convince people to voluntarily become less wealthy? (I would vote for a 30 hour work week or mandantory noon beer parties, but to be honest, I like the sense of accomplishment that I get from work.)

People have to spend most of their income, or the whole economy collapses catastrophically, unemployment soars, and secure retirement becomes impossible.  The only solution is to offer consumers goods and services that have minimal environmental impact (ie. clean energy and things made with clean energy).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 6, 2013

I am simply advocating the only tech that can do a 5x scale up over fossil fuels. I didn’t mean to say that you are pushing a minimalist agenda. I emphesized it only out of importance. I read and liked your post, especially because you make it clear that most of the world’s people are not nearly as CO2 intensive as Americans.

Perhaps, we can live with using just half the energy through efficiency and good ole conservation (I plan the errands driving to save gas, lower the thermostat, etc), but we still use too much FF energy no matter how much we conserve, because excess CO2 is still adding up, and a large percentage simply do not care, thus lowering the overall reductions. Efficiency is obviously a very good thing as even the masses who don’t care will be “conserving”, and thus there is NO evidence that using more energy is better.

Thus, we still need at least 2x current global power supplies to provide a decent standard for 7 billion people.

I’m just asking… is there any other way besides pushing for a properly planned scale up of nuclear especially, a meltdown proof concept for the majority of future global power?

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 7, 2013


Based on your assertion you seem to think Americans consume two times more energy than French, Germans or Japanese because they are two times wealthier. This is factually inaccurate. Instead of making sweeping assertions you should perhaps try making simple factual comparisons between countries.

You also seem to imagine that I am preaching austerity, as if Americans consuming French, German or Japanese consumption levels would be some kind of sacrifice. This is remarkably insular. Despite consuming two times more energy than Germans, Japanese or French Americans have lower life expectancy, higher child mortality, perform worse in all inter-country comparisons in education. In fact by almost all objective comparisons, other than consumption, the US comes out worse than these three countries.

It’s also blatantly incorrect that more wealth equals more consumption, with some naive linear relationship. US per capita energy consumption is lower today than it was in the late 1970s. And as far as austerity goes it is worth pointing out that the city that supposedly never sleeps, New York, consumes more than two times less energy than the rest of the US. Again, a more rational approach to urban planning could easily have seen the US having walkable cities instead of car dependent messes.

And your final paragraph is is remarkably silly. You seem to suggest that without excess consumption the US economy will collapse. Did the US economy not come remarkably close to collapse because of excess consumption? Or perhaps there is some mathematical law out there that shows that the US citizens consume the equivalent of seven or eight tonnes of oil each year or else there will be economic collapse. The citizens of New York and San Francisco consume much less than this, as are the citizens of most other modernised countries, and there is not a shred of evidence that they are any worse of than those consuming seven or eight tonnes of oil each year.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Oct 7, 2013

@Nathan Wilson

The unreliable nature of the wind and the sun is a huge contributor to their high cost. The other component is the fact that they are diffuse, weak energy sources. Their weakness necessitates very large collection systems, their unreliability means that those collection systems are often idle or producing at far less than their design capacity. Capital equipment that is idle does not produce revenue, so it must produce make up revenue at the times when it is not idle. If those productive times cannot be scheduled for times when prices are high, it adds to the challenge.

Coming up with process uses like ammonia production or water distillation does not solve the problem of unreliability since those processes are also dependent on capital investments and since most chemical processes are far more efficient if operated on a steady basis. Start up and shut downs of process equipment tend to be wasteful periods with poor quality output while piping is being warmed and flows are being balanced.

I am terribly sorry if pointing out these limitations offends people that promote unreliable power systems, but I do not expect to win any friends among competitors in the energy supply industry. Instead, I am aiming my messages at energy customers, the people that will benefit from making it easier to supply them with power that continuously falls in price per unit and that approaches a zero emission asymptote. Competitors don’t like the idea of selling power at lower and lower prices; that harms their profitability because they have already taken about as much action as they possibly can to reduce costs.

In contrast, nuclear fission power plant designers, manufacturers, builders and operators have a tremendous amount of scope within which to improve their cost structure. Most of them have operated within a “cost is no object” culture of adding redundant layers of “safety” systems, even though nuclear fission power plants constructed with 1960s vintage design standards have an enviable record of protecting the public from harm.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Oct 7, 2013

@Robert Wilson

You have identified the primary reason why the US consumes more energy per capita than France, German or Switzerland and it is not because Americans are naturally more wasteful than residents of those countries. Instead, it is primarily based on the fact that our country is much larger, with a population density that is quite a bit lower than any of your examples. As you pointed out in your comment, if you draw circles around urban areas in the US, you will find that we walk, live in smaller spaces and take public transportation enough to lower our average energy consumption to something that is close to that in your example countries.

You also point to measures like life expectancy, child mortality and education as measures of wealth. You ignore measures that seem important enough to people to attract them to the US and cause deep queues waiting for permission to emigrate here. On average, Americans that do not live in dense, walkable cities live in larger homes, have more property between them and their neighbors, have the freedom to travel on their own schedule, and can take advantage of entertainment and employment opportunities that are not within walking or biking distance. Our freedom to move requires less efficient, but often more comfortable transportation in the form of personal automobiles. Our larger homes require more energy to maintain at comfortable temperatures. Our employment flexibility often comes with an energy cost.

I think many of us are less wealthy today than we were when I was a child and gasoline cost about 25 cents per gallon. I lived on a suburban street with teachers, engineers, mechanics, retirees and airline employees. Three of my neighbors owned their own plane. About half had a swimming pool and/or a powerboat. Most had cars large enough to drive a carpool so we could get to swim meets, baseball games and wrestling matches in nearby cities. Most of us took annual vacations lasting at least two weeks that involved thousands of miles of travel in comfortable automobiles or campers.

I’ve been fortunate enough so that I have been able to provide my own children with some similar experiences, but I would bet that most teachers, mechanics and engineers have not been as fortunate as their earnings have failed to keep pace with the cost of liquid fuels that enabled many of those “luxuries” to be affordable for the masses.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 7, 2013


Again Rod, your attitude is perplexing, but revealing. You seem remarkably resistant to the idea that people should consume less energy, and act as if nuclear is a medium term solution. It is not. The US is shutting its old nuclear power plants early because they are not competitive with natural gas. We can be highly certain that US nuclear capacity will not be higher in 2030 than it is today, in fact it will almost certainly be lower.

My New York comparison was not to show that urban areas consume less energy. Silly car based cities like Houston have per capita energy consumption more than two times higher than those in New York, even after adjusting for climate differences. A more rational approach to urban planning could have prevented this. And of course city dwellers driving SUVs is fundamentally absurd.

On the other hand simple measures such as improved fuel efficiency and regulations to improve insulation in homes have a realistic prospect of reducing US carbon emissions. Instead of fighting every mitigation technique that does not help the prospects of nuclear power you should perhaps show a broader mind. The view that nuclear power is a climate change solution is deeply misguided.

My message here seems to be getting a lot of resistance, but why exactly? Is it not an optimistic one? The evidence shows that the US could easily reduce its carbon emissions with changes to energy consumption patterns that would not result in reductions in quality of life. Somehow people find this idea offensive, instead it should be welcomed. The prospects of a technical transition to low carbon energy by the middle of the century is close to zero, irrespective of what advocates of nuclear energy or renewables say. However a transition to Japanese levels of energy consumption combined with a ramp up of nuclear and renewables could reduce US emissions far more. The alternative is for people to continue behaving in irrational ways, and driving sports utility vehicles from red light to red light in cities.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Oct 7, 2013


What you should do is give us more information and statitics on the “Consumption” by Americans, The Hummers you have used as example is not typical of Americans, hence does not carry the message forward convincingly. For example, would you be satified if we drove around in electric Hummers, or should we make folks living in Colorado and Montana drive around in Smart ForTwo cars? or Should sports men give up SUVs for hunting/fishing?

Where and why exactly are Americans consuming excessive energy (besides Hummers), why does this happen to be the case? This should be looked at in greater detail and objectivity. Simply pointing to Hummers does not satisfy my curiousity as to how Americans consume more energy per capita than France and Sweden.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Oct 7, 2013

Data for New York below. The horror stories of Phoenix and Houston show that car based and high energy use cities do not produce a better quality of living.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 8, 2013

I believe MOST Americans (as well as billions of other, less affluent people) are indeed, resistent to the idea of consuming less. I am not wealthy, therefore I WILL work harder, make more money, and subsequently, emit more CO2, too.

Granted, I don’t want it to be this way because I KNOW in theory, energy sources do not have to be fossil fueled. So, the object is to develop the least expensive, most abundant source.

It takes a lot of energy for economies to function, especially ones up to their heads in debt because even more energy is required to “make” more prosperity needed to counter the debt.

We do have the (technological) means to far exceed the limited potential of fossil fuels…

EDIT: America’s consumption of fossil fuels is now less than China’s and our efforts to conserve will appear to become trivial. However, that has occured because our consumption patterns are made possible in Chinese factories.The best way to reduce excess CO2 immediately is in conservation, consuming less goods and in efficiency. Every little bit helps in the cause for awareness… because “trivial” matters can become mainstream events. Eventually, “everybody” should know the difference between what’s really trivial, what’s worth the efforts and that we still need unlimited clean energy!

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 8, 2013

Wait, are you assuming by “consumption”, I mean, “energy consumption”?  That is not what I said or meant.  In the US, the environment movement has a saying: “use less stuff“.  The implication is that consumption of all goods has a detrimental impact on the environment.   [Consumer spending, as opposed to putting earnings “in a matress” is what I was referring to in the last paragraph.]

Because nuclear energy does not cause any significant depletion of resources (for all practical purposes, planet Earth can never run out of uranium-238, thorium, steel, concrete, or space for nuclear waste storage), I would argue that consuming nuclear energy is the least harmful way to spend our plentify wealth.  So the real problem with energy consumption in the US is that we use the wrong kind of energy, not too much of it.

As to whether Americans are wealthier than our peers in other countries: this article cites World bank data that says US per capita income is 21% higher than in France, and 7% higher than in Japan.  And this article compares purchasing power by country using OECD data, and finds prices are 16% higher in France, and 15% higher in Japan.  So we are not twice as wealthy, but the difference is substantial (20-30%), and could be part of the reason that our cars are bigger.

As to plausible improvements from “a more rational approach to urban planning” and “remarkably insular” comments: proposals that work in densely populated places won’t necessarily work in the majority of the US.  

For instance, in the 1970s, the government of Singapore forced people from their suburban home, so that the homes could be bull-dozed to make room for high rise apartments.  Today, the vast majority of people in that densely populated city-state live in apartments and travel by mass transit.  Only the wealthy have homes and cars, and their per-capital energy consumption is no doubt very low.

In contrast, in the US people are free to live where they choose.  We can choose to live downtown:  walking distance from jobs, mass transit, shopping, dining, and entertainment.  Most Americans instead choose to live in the ‘burbs, where we don’t hear the neighbors through the walls, and where our children can play outside (in our yards or in the neighborhood) without fear of crime or excessive traffic, and where we can get anywhere we need to go in minutes while enjoying the climate-controlled comfort and security of our cars.  Where I live, “urban planning” means including side-walks and neighborhood playgrounds in residential areas, and plenty of parking near restaurants and shopping.

In all US cities that I have visited that have subways or commuter trains, the pattern is the same: people only use mass transit if the roads are full to the limit  (I exclude buses, since these are most often used by people who don’t have cars).  People will boast about how convenient their mass transit is, but then will drive their car whenever they get the chance.  For cities with less than around 1 million people (e.g. everywhere except New York, LA, Houston, and a few others), cars work fine, and traffic jams are never severe enough to justify the inconvenience of mass transit. 

I’m not trying to argue that car-based cities are best.  I’m just trying to help you understand that convincing people to change (or “give up cars” as many would say) is nowhere near as easy as you seem to think.  We (in the US) are much more attached to cars that we are to fossil fuel (to the extent that cars can also be powered by batteries, H2, NH3, etc).

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Oct 8, 2013


Again your comments are perplexing. First you referred to Americans consuming energy like Germans or Japanese as austerity,  now you seem to equate attempts to increase urban density with forcing people out of their houses.

You suggest getting Americans to drive less or drive more sensible cars is doomed to fail,  but instead put forward ammonia as a fuel as some  kind of solution.  The US transport is just about the least efficient on earth, dealing with that should be a  priority instead of advocating fuels with no prospects of even niche take up in the medium term. Nuclear and ammonia for transport will do nothing to reduce US emissions in the medium term (the latter is unlikely to do anything in the long term). Getting people to drive more sensible cars could, but undoubtedly some would rather rather wait for clean energy to fuel their big and inefficient car instead of driving a smaller one now. 


Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Oct 8, 2013


People don’t ‘use energy’. Rather, people use goods and services which consume energy. Appealing to people to ‘reduce their energy usage’ is ineffective and confusing. It can even be counterproductive.

For example, I know some people who have ‘switched’ to burning wood in a fireplace in winter, rather than use their gas-fired central heating. Even while the gas heating is 90% efficienct versus 10% efficiency of burning wood in a fireplace. They think they are reducing their energy consumption, while in fact they are increasing it.

Another example. other friends told me that they use the bathroom in their homes while keeping the door open, which allows them to desist from switching on the light in the bathroom which is connected to an automatic ventilation fan. By not switching on the light, they also don’t switch on the fan, which helps them to reduce their energy usage. These same people have last week left on a two week vacation tour of Europe in a diesel fired camping van. Clearly, these people want to ‘reduce their energy usage’ but they have no clue what it means, and they are subsequently wasting their time and attention on trivialities, while casually continuing other activities which consume vastly more energy.

People generally don’t understand the link between using goods and services and the energy consumption that is caused by that, so environmentalists should not confuse and bother them with pleas to ‘reduce their energy consumption’. It never worked and it will never work. Most people don’t understand technology or thermodynamics so we should not bother them.

To reduce energy consumption effectively, there are only two options available to the sane policy maker:

1) make goods and services more efficient (this is not by itself enough to eliminate GHG emissions)

2) make goods and services less affordable (this is not socially unacceptable)

So the logical conclusion is that we need vast amounts of clean GHG emission free energy to substitute fossils.

Nuclear energy is the only one that can quickly do this. The other option are dependent on sustained and significant subsidies, which means they are worthless on the global scale.

Besides, I know at least one executive of a fossil fuel firm who actually admitted to me that fossil fuel sponsored public relations campaigns that champion ‘efficiency’ and ‘energy reduction’ as well as the building solar and wind energy systems are actually designed to increase the usage of fossil fuels. That is because efficiency and solar/wind power are simply not a solution to fossil fuel consumption, while they are very effective at causing people to disparage and fight the only technology that actually can displace fossils: nuclear power. Beware the fossil fuel salesmen who champion efficiency and solar/wind power. Their aim is not to reduce demand for their product. On the contrary.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 9, 2013

Ok, perhaps I’m making too many assumptions about what you propose.

How would you persuade Americans to use less gas?

How would you persuade Americans to live in denser cities?

As I’ve said, in a country like Sinagapore, the government can achieve these objectives by decree.  It is my opinion that these ideas would face popular resistance in the US, obviously your opinion is different.  Oh well.

By the way, I drive a Prius.  But in my town, Priuses are outnumbered about 10:1 by giant pickup trucks.  The drivers of these trucks are not “waiting for clean energy”; they’ll happily use whatever comes out of the pump.  If you ask them why they need such large (and inefficient) vehicles, they’ll give a number of reasons such as: for hauling cargo for work; cargo for home/acrage; for towing a boat, ATV, motor bike, or camper; for carrying family and friends; for driving on dirt roads/off-road; for crossing shallow streams; etc (note that a truck that cannot carry a stack of 4*8 ft. sheets of plywood is not taken seriously).  But the common theme is that a large and comfortable vehicle is an easily affordable luxury that people here will be resistant to part with.

And I do agree that ammonia fuel will not play a major role in the US for at least 40 years; but that is 40 years from when we start deployment, not 40 years from today.  Clearly sustainably produced ammonia is not competitive with gasoline today in the US (however, it is affordable with only modest efficiency improvements, and is more scalable than other sustainable alternatives), and it is more efficient to add all new sustainable electricity directly to the grid, until curtailment occurs, before starting to make fuel.  I believe there is some risk that at some point in the future, we’ll want/need our fossil fuel consumption to be much lower than it is today, while wanting more energy than we use today.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Oct 9, 2013

For what its worth, these are the numbers given to me by some experts i talked to years ago, who were involved in this very question:

Max carrying capacity if all currently known and economical efficiency measures and best practices are applied in installation and farming practices: 20 billion people.

Above estimates are based on complete efficiency utilisation of all arable land for agriculture, elimination of hunger and roll-out of meat-eating to Western standards across the globe.

If everyone becomes a vegetarian, the carrying capacity could become ~100 billion people.

Oscar Fleury's picture
Oscar Fleury on Oct 25, 2013

“However it is rather clear that women need to produce at least two babies on average to prevent long term population decline and eventually extinction”.

Sorry Mr Wilson, it’s not clear at all!!! You can’t infer a population growth rate from the average number of kids per woman. How come you are so negligent on this crucial factor? Have you ever heard of the average motherhood age?

Here’s an example: in a population women have 2 kids on average between their age of 19 and 21 (i.e. 20) — in another population the average number of kids is the same, but the average age at which women in this latter society produce offspring is between 39 and 41 (i.e. 40).

I’ll let you guess which population will grow at a (very much) faster rate…

It’s not because all over the world official institutions use the inept average number of kids per woman to predict population growth rates, that you have to believe them blindly — they have hidden reasons, e.g. more consumers for more GROWTH…

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 26, 2013

Oscar, from a mathematical standpoint it doesn’t matter what age a mother has children – if all women started having two or fewer children right now, population would continue to grow for awhile, then gradually decline.

It’s counterintuitive, but exponentially-expanding population in such a scenario would require an infinite pool of prospective mates to begin with. A good way to help understand this is to create a model of a limited population with equal males/females on a piece of paper, say twenty of each, then make a geneaological tree of their progeny, limiting each woman to two. Before long, you “run out of women”.

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