Peak Oil and Population Issues
Talk to the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Peak Oil and Climate Change, 14 July 2009
Rosamund McDougall, Policy Director, Optimum Population Trust
Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today. I’m not going to give a slide presentation, but I’ve
distributed some key information, and there’s a great deal more about the effects of expected
population growth on resource depletion, climate change and the environment on our website at
Nor am I going to go over ground that’s been covered by other speakers here recently. First, the
prospect of peak oil (half way through known reserves), possibly in less than five years time at
current rates of consumption, and second, depletion of known gas reserves in 40-70 years’ time. I
don’t need to add to these the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% or more by
2050. In the UK we’ve also pledged to cut them by a third [from 1990 levels] in the next decade.
When Thomas Homer Dixon spoke to you in May about the converging crises of the 21st century he
identified population growth as one of five ‘tectonic stresses’ which are building up to [planetary
systems] overload. But like so many others he identified severe population pressure without
suggesting what could be done about it. Population policy is the one key variable that policymakers
alarmingly seem to want to do nothing about, but prefer to accept in a laisser-faire way - as if
adding nearly a billion people to the planet in the next two decades makes no difference. Or
adding another 16 million to the population here in the UK by 2050, as officially projected. It
makes a huge difference, so population policy should surely be one of the most important
ingredients of any sustainable solution to these mounting problems.
Energy efficiency is improving and billions of dollars have been channelled into investment in
renewables, but this has done little to reduce the demand for oil. And the ruthless hand of
economic recession which so cruelly defeats the poorest – those who need energy to survive – has
had little impact on total energy consumption. There’s just less to go around the rising numbers of
people who need it.
In 2008, according to BP, world primary energy consumption grew by 1.4%. Oil prices rose to a peak
$147 a barrel in July, fell back to below $40 by the end of that recession year but have since
bounced back up to around $60. Oil consumption last year fell by just 0.6% to 84.4 million barrels a
day. With population growing by 1.2% a year, the world’s energy consumers increasing by nearly 80
million a year, and the vast populations of India and China rising up the energy-consumption
ladder, it was no surprise that natural gas consumption rose by 2.5% and carbon-dirty coal
consumption by 3.1%.
Global energy consumption, according to the US Energy Information Administration, is expected to
rise 44% by 2030, with oil – if it’s there to consume – being used up at 107 million barrels a day. If it
is there, it’ll take more energy inputs to bring up from underground to our power stations and cars
than it does today. New fields, self-propelling gushers and the best light sweet crudes may be hard
to find and if reserves under a melted Arctic ice cap are exploited, we’ll all be heading for
extinction. Heavy sour crudes need more refining – more energy input - to produce oils that
perform as well as the lighter varieties.
Have a look at what happens to population at the point at which oil supply peaks – say 2015 - and
begins to decrease. The number of energy consumers is still rising, and if nothing happens to curb
growth, there would be an extra 709 million people worldwide needing energy by 2025, just a
decade later. That’s 200 million more than the entire population of the EU 27, with most of them
in the developing world and quite rightly wanting to better their standard of living. Which means
even more additional demand. Without rapid substitution from gas, nuclear and renewable sources,
oil prices will rocket, because oil is liquid, portable, high-yielding in energy terms and still works
when the wind isn’t blowing or an overheated nuclear reactor has to shut down.
A White Paper on The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan will be published tomorrow. Here in the UK
we may have to build another 7,000 wind turbines by 2020 if we are to meet a government target
of generating 15% of energy from renewables, and there are also testing targets for producing
vehicle fuel from biofuels. Last year the UK managed to generate 5.5% of its electricity from green
energy sources, but renewables such as wind, solar, wave and tidal power accounted for just 2.25%
of total energy consumption. Meanwhile we’re having to import more than a net million barrels of
oil and oil products a year as North Sea oil supplies run down.
Blackouts, rationing, industrial shut-down… No fuel to keep tractors ploughing the fields and fill
the tankers going to petrol pumps… No petrol for the vehicles that deliver food and other essential
supplies to 61 million of us in the UK every day? Oil would probably have to be rationed in such a
way that agriculture, food distribution and essential industries had priority supplies. As Robin
Maynard of the Soil Assocation pointed out at a recent OPT conference, during the fuel protests of
2000 London came within three days of running out of food, invoking an MI5 concept of society
being only nine meals away from anarchy.
Let me just relate the energy prognoses to demographic trends and suggest that with
environmentally sustainable population policies as well as sustainable energy policies we can help
to alleviate the very serious energy shortages we will soon face. We have a very short window in
which to solve the problem. If we are to deal with both energy depletion and energy security, with
an urgent shift to alternative energy sources and a worldwide Green New Deal, part of the Green
New Deal surely has to be a policy to stabilise and reverse population growth.
It’s a no-brainer that population cannot grow indefinitely. It’s a mathematical and environmental
impossibility for a finite and already stressed planet. At the fertility rates of just 10 years ago,
human numbers would theoretically reach 234 trillion by 2300. Fortunately fertility rates have
continued to fall, but the latest UN projection, which shows today’s world population of 6.8bn
growing by another 2.4bn by 2050, already assumes that family planning provision continues to
improve - and that fertility declines from an average 2.56 children per woman today to 2.02 by
2050. Population momentum – the effect of past population growth on future growth – is huge.
Although family size will fall to near ‘replacement size’ in this main projection, population
continues to grow because of the huge numbers of people already born who are of fertile age –
more than a quarter of today’s population is under 25.
It must be equally obvious that further population growth, along with raising living standards, is
environmentally unsustainable. Every extra person is both an energy depleter and a climate
changer. Can any of you tell me how adding 78 million more to our numbers every year (that’s
another country the size of Egypt or Germany) will help us to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Can
any of you cite any environmental problem that is made easier to solve by population growth?
Would we be at this dangerous climate change threshold now if we had a billion fewer people on
the planet? Would we have depleted our energy resources so fast? Probably not - we might have
bought ourselves more time if action had been taken 20 or 30 years ago.
So one has to cast aside the flawed arguments for “Breeding for the Planet” or “Breeding for
Britain” to create “more young people in future to support us as we age”, or, in a post-fossil fuel
age, “more young people to till the fields”. According to the Industry Task Force on Peak Oil and
Energy Security, “the energy locked into one barrel of oil is equivalent to that expended by five
labourers working 12 hour days non-stop for a year.” Without oil or enough renewable fuels, many
basic industries may revert to being highly labour intensive, but the labour will have to be sourced
from a stable or declining population, because the emissions created by past fossil fuel use are
going to hang around for a long time – too long to allow us to be lulled into a belief that it’s OK to
increase the number of climate changers because they’re not going to be changing the climate
quite as much as they did before.
If we reach 9.2 billion people in 2050, far more of them will be living at the edge of famine - the
amount of healthy land and water available to support human beings, as well as the energy to
enable them to stay warm, or cool, and mobile, will have shrunk considerably as a result of climate
change and oil depletion.
There may not be much the UK can do to slow population growth in the developing world, which is
going to account for most of the 2.4 billion increase to mid-2050, other than give generous support
and encouragement to family planning programmes. There are already more than 200 million
women unable to get access to modern contraception and will be many more if nothing is done.
Their governments can do more to provide the family planning that most women and men want,
and many countries with severe environmental problems and high population density or growth,
such as Bangladesh, are already doing their best in very difficult circumstances - such as illiteracy,
lack of women’s rights and insufficient funding for health programmes. DFID has I understand given
generously to international agencies such as the UNFPA. Fix-and-forget contraception will make
wider contraceptive use easier, but a big shift in cultural attitudes would also be needed if parents
are going to decide to have smaller families.The lower UN projection, which takes us to 8 billion in
2050, assumes that the average number of children per woman would drop to 1.52, which would
involve a radical change in attitudes to family size.
What we can do in the EU is to accept with relief that population will peak in 2025 at just under
500 million, and stop introducing incentives to people to have more children than they want.
Though stabilisation and decrease will cause Europe’s population to age, there are other ways to
deal with that perceived problem. Many of us have already worked beyond pension age – we have
to if we are to pay soaring energy bills – and in current conditions there is no shortage of
unemployed of all ages to fill labour market gaps, given greater flexibility in working conditions.
And for a long time to come there’ll be no shortage of young people from outside the EU to prevent
too rapid a population decline.
In the UK, we should be aiming to reverse population growth as soon as possible. Here, in almost
the most densely populated country in Europe, we are already discovering the disadvantages that
high population density and land scarcity pose in switching from imported oil to producing
renewables, which are low-yielding and land-hungry.
Where are we to put the thousands of wind turbines, the electricity transmissions lines and the
fields for biofuel crops when almost every square metre of the UK is already spoken for? How are
we to increase food productivity to feed another 16 million people from our small, crowded and
and finite area of agricultural land?
I recently heard a farmer compare farming in Kazakhstan with trying to raise yields in the UK. In
Kazakhstan you can take a few planes up in the air and spray a million square miles without
worrying about the people underneath, because there aren’t any. Then you drill the whole area
and relax until you get a million square miles of crops. They have green space – lots more. Try
doing that in Britain without spraying the population centres beneath. Imagine the inhabitants of
Wiltshire wilting, with sore eyes and runny noses, or even seriously ill. It can’t be done.
There’s another way. By a combination of encouraging small family size (voluntarily stopping at
two children or one) and numerically balanced migration, the UK could reduce its population by
about six million by 2050 instead of allowing it to grow by another 16 million (two more Londons).
Theoretically, this could re-green an area the size of Wales, alleviating the pressure we face on
land for renewables and providing our citizens with a better quality of life.
We at OPT have been sure for a long time that majority public opinion is on our side, but now we
have concrete evidence. The YouGov poll we released for World Population Day on 11 July (and
now on our website) showed that more than half of us think the UK population should be smaller,
not larger than it is today. Phil Woolas, an immigration minister who formerly held the climate
change portfolio, may understand the environmental and political necessities – he’s already
proposed a 70 million cap and is tightening the migration points system and citizenship
requirements which would be necessary to achieve that. Next month we’ll know if he’s succeeding,
when the population growth figures for 2008 are likely to be released. Maybe these measures and
the economic recession will soon bring an end to a decade of rampant population growth. Perhaps
then we can begin a gradual decrease to levels that would allow everyone a better, greener life –
easing down towards 30 to 40 million people.
For those of you here who are able to shape our future, I’d just like to say that I hope that recent
unsustainable population growth policies will never be repeated. It is far too important an issue
not to be dealt with now, and for the long term.