Climate change: Key factors COP26 ignored at Glasgow

By Dr Emmanuel Okoroafor

The turnout at the recently concluded climate summit was impressive and loaded with declarations and pledges for net zero emissions. However, whether (and how fast) countries redeem their pledges has nothing to do with what their diplomats said in Glasgow and everything to do with each country’s domestic politics, which have their logic and are only faintly affected by international politics. This is because what was demanded of countries to achieve the net zero emissions or Green Age is not realisable in the short to medium term without a lot of sacrifices. Not to mention the potentially huge infrastructural expense that will be involved. It would have made more sense to demand what will be acceptable to all, particularly the “poor countries.”

The 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP26) of the UNFCCC was hosted in Glasgow in 2021

Climate change has been attributed to human activities like deforestation, burning of fossil fuels, gas flaring, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere and so on; and perhaps rightly so. Surprisingly, though, naturally occurring events on our planet like volcanoes (about 200 of them currently active to various extents) that spew a vast amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere have not been included. Not to mention the wildfire seasons in Western USA and Australia.

Wildfires are beconing a global seasonal normal

Now, an abundance of greenwashing technological solutions is being proposed to replace fossil fuel: the burning of natural gas, currently used in many applications, produces greenhouse gases, but to a lesser extent than fossil fuels, and hence considered as the transition path from fossil fuel. Hydrogen produced from water by electrolysis using renewable energy is termed “green hydrogen.” The problem is green hydrogen is expensive. Currently, most hydrogen is made from natural gas or even coal. This is cheap but it produces lots of greenhouse gases. However, if you capture those greenhouse gases and bury them in the ground, you are allowed to call it “blue hydrogen”. Again, they say the technology to capture and store greenhouse gases is unproven and will be expensive. So, for now, the blue hydrogen process continues to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Thus, it will not be surprising that the hydrogen drive hides major pollution risks.

A new hydrogen power plant in Japan

We forget we are where we are today because of technological solutions to cater for growing human population demand and lifestyle. Those technologies damaged the world in two main ways: pollution and depletion of natural resources.

Consider the following.

  • The main sources of air pollution relate to technologies that emerged following the industrial revolution such as the burning of fossil fuels, factories, power stations, mass agriculture and vehicles. The consequences of spewing harmful or excessive quantities of gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitric oxide and methane into the earth’s atmosphere, include negative health impacts for humans and animals and global warming, whereby the increased amount of greenhouse gases in the air trap thermal energy in the Earth’s atmosphere and cause the global temperature to rise.
  • Water pollution on the other hand is the contamination of water bodies such as lakes, rivers, oceans, and groundwater, usually due to human activities. Some of the most common water pollutants are domestic waste, industrial effluents and insecticides and pesticides, which can lead to the destruction of ecosystems and negatively affect the food chain.
  • Technology made possible the consumption of a natural resource faster than it can be replenished. There are several types of resource depletion, with the most severe being aquifer depletion, deforestation, mining for fossil fuels and minerals, contamination of resources, soil erosion and overconsumption of resources. These mainly occur because of agriculture, mining, water usage and consumption of fossil fuels, all of which have been enabled by advancements in technology.
  • Due to the increasing global population, levels of natural resource depletion and degradation are also increasing; large-scale mineral and oil exploration has been increasing, causing more and more natural oil and mineral depletion. Combined with advancements in technology, development and research, the exploitation of minerals has become easier, and humans are therefore digging deeper to access more which has led to many resources entering a production decline.
  • Deforestation has become severe, with the World Bank reporting that the net loss of global forest between 1990 and 2015 was 1.3 million square kilometres (km2). Encouraged by increasing population pressure, deforestation is primarily for agricultural reasons, logging for fuel and making space for residential areas. Not only does this result in a loss of trees which are important as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thousands of plants and animals also lose their natural habitats and have become extinct.
Industrial emission causes atmospheric greenhouse effect

Many believe that new environmental technology, such as renewable energy combined with cleaner fuels, smart logistics and electric transport, has the potential to bring about the rapid decarbonisation of our economy and the mitigation of further detrimental harm. The question is: will these be sufficient, and not hide other, perhaps unknown pollution risks?

One is reminded that the conversion of hydrogen to energy produces water vapour, which is a major greenhouse gas. Imagine a situation whereby hydrogen fuel cars only run in already congested cities like London, New York and Lagos, the air will be saturated with water vapour. That means high humidity, with consequences for the environment and human health. The situation then is akin to moving from one problem to another.

Recall also the switch to biofuels, favoured by some, is now among the greatest causes of habitat destruction, as forests are felled to produce wood pellets and liquid fuels, and soils are trashed to make biomethane.

If we assume the green solutions will help with the climate crisis, we need to be mindful that if the level of demand for the solutions is as present or higher, then the solutions will become stressed, stretched, unsustainable and a source of concern towards the environment and the climate; just like what happened and still happening with fossil fuel. We should also recall what happened after the realisation that more mileage is gained with a diesel engine compared to a petrol engine: demand for diesel cars rose, the cost for diesel fuel rose and pollution from diesel engines increased drastically.

So, it looks like we are missing a basic important factor in the supposed climate change “equation”. When climate change has been attributed to human activities, then the basic starting point to manage human activities impact on the climate is to control the human population. Reducing global human population will reduce demand and allow for sustainable management of the resources.

According to Worldometers (a world statics website operated by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers), the world population has grown tremendously over the past 2,000 years: It hit the billion mark in 1804 and doubled by 1930. It doubled again in less than 50 years to about four billion in 1970. Between 1970 and 2020, a period of 50 years, the population doubled, and this is the cause of the rising DEMAND for resources.

Global urban congestion is worsening

Our species now extract 60 billion tons of resources each year, almost double the amount in 1980, though the world population has grown by only 70% in that time. The discharges are overwhelming Earth’s capacity to absorb them. More than 80% of wastewater is pumped into streams, lakes, and oceans without treatment, along with 300 million to 400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic slurry, and other industrial discharges. Plastic waste has risen tenfold since 1980, affecting 86% of marine turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals. Fertiliser run-off has created 400 “dead zones”, affecting an area the size of the UK. The human footprint is so large it leaves little space for anything else.

According to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the world’s population has been rising at a rate of roughly 83 million people every year, and the trend is expected to continue, even though fertility rates have been dropping in almost all regions of the world. The world’s overall fertility rate still exceeds the rate for Zero Population Growth. Whereas the population-neutral fertility rate is estimated at 2.1 births per woman, the world’s poorest countries have a fertility rate of 4.3 birth per woman. In contrast, the fertility rate in many developed countries is below replacement value as more loss of people than those born to replace them are recorded.

The increasing population has been a source of concern to many professionals, as it is difficult to understand and predict what will happen on a global scale when the world’s population reaches 10 or 15 billion. The issue is not so much about space as it is a matter of resources like food and water. According to author and population expert David Satterthwaite, the concern is about the “number of consumers and the scale and nature of their consumption that some lifestyles and cultures currently support.” When you’ve got a population growth rate of about 3%, that means less food on the table for many (and outright malnutrition for some), disease, poverty and overcrowded urban areas (with face-me-I-face-you type of living accommodations) with its accompaniment of crime, pollution, and epidemic.

There is a direct proportionality between human demand and activities on the one hand and the human population on the other. At the rate the world is going, if nothing is done, the global population may hit 11+ billion in 2060―the year India and some countries pledged to achieve net zero emissions. Just PLEDGES. Will those pledges be redeemed and in full? Time will tell.

On the other hand, a more realisable and measurable global objective will be to use the next 40 years (2021 – 2060) to bring down the world population―neither by genocide nor by any other means unacceptable―to the 1980 levels. Then in conjunction with the proposed green solutions, we will achieve net zero emissions faster. In other words, reduce population, and there will be a consequential reduction in human demands and activities, pillage and destruction of the earth, and consequently too, a reduction in the emissions that contribute to climate change.

World leaders should seek to reduce human population (and consequently human demands) by getting countries to pledge to population control until they reduce their population to sustainable levels. For example, a country like Nigeria, whose current population is about 200 million,  should aim to come down to 50 million. This will not cost much to achieve and is easily adoptable and implementable by all countries. Reducing the population will not cost taxpayers money.

A large population has nothing to do with the wealth and wellness of a nation, though some cultures still believe that having numerous children is better than silver and gold. So, teach and guide the poorer countries on how to manage their population. Global and local quotas may be introduced, with couples or individuals having to obtain permits before having a child. A One-Child Policy may also be considered for the next 20 to 40 years. While this may sound drastic or draconian, it will yield tangible results faster than the ‘pledges only’ to reduce emissions by x and y percentages in 2030, 2050 and 2060. 

A managed local and global population together with the green solutions currently being proposed will help limit and hopefully reverse the damage already done to planet earth, manage the available resources responsibly, and leave something for the generations to come.

* Dr Emmanuel Okoroafor is the Executive Director of Hobark International, an integrated energy solutions provider.

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