A remarkable speculation is now circulating in the cybersphere to the effect that global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel combustion may have peaked in 2019. Considering that recent formal projections generally indicate increasing emissions through 2030 or longer, this assertion is striking. It matters because CO2 emissions determine the growth in the atmospheric CO2 concentration, which in turn influences the magnitude of global warming.
The atmospheric CO2 concentration is currently 415 ppm (up from a preindustrial value of around 280 ppm) and is rising at a rate of 2-3 ppm per year. The consensus among climate scientists is that rapid greenhouse-gas-driven climate change will be harmful to the human enterprise on Earth. It would be good news indeed if CO2 emissions were on the way down.
Estimates for annual global CO2 emissions are produced by assembling data on consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as data on production of cement, which also releases CO2 (the sum is termed Fossil Fuel & Industry emissions). Deforestation is another significant anthropogenic source of CO2, but it is not considered in this blog post except to say that reducing deforestation will further reduce total CO2 emissions.
The suggestion that we are passing peak fossil fuel emissions is based on several observations.
1. The rate of increase in global emissions has been low in recent years, averaging less than 1% per year for 2010-2018. CO2 emissions are falling in the US and the EU, and the annual rate of increase in emissions is declining in India.
Covid-19 related reductions in global fossil fuel consumption for 2020 will be 7% or more. Emissions will likely rebound to some degree as the pandemic recedes but perhaps not fully.
3. Peak oil use may have occurred in 2019. Global demand in 2020 will fall about 10% because of Covid-19. Structural changes such as reduced commuting and business-related flying mean that some of the demand reductions will be persistent. Vehicles powered by electricity and hydrogen rather than gasoline are on the ascendancy, sparked in part by governmental mandates to phase in zero emissions vehicles.
4. Even a near term peak in natural gas consumption is being discussed. Again, the price advantage of renewable sources will increasingly weigh against fossil-fuel-based power plants. Ramped up production of renewable natural gas could substitute for fossil natural gas in some applications.
Surprisingly, it appears likely that a long-term decline in total fossil fuel use will be driven more by lack of demand than lack of supply.
Emissions from cement manufacturing are still climbing and amount to about 4% of total fossil fuel emissions. However, a recent study suggests that the CO2 uptake from slow weathering of aging cement around the world is providing a large offset (more than half) to current cement manufacturing emissions. Innovative uses of wood and geopolymers can potentially replace cement in many construction applications.
The election of Biden to the U.S. presidency is also relevant. Biden’s leadership will return the U.S. (largest cumulative CO2 emissions on the planet) to the international fold with respect to climate change mitigation. President Xi Jinping of China (largest CO2 emitter on the planet) has also displayed leadership (in words if not deeds) on the climate change issue. A revitalized collaboration between the U.S. and China on climate change mitigation could push the needle on global emissions reduction.
Currently about half of fossil fuel CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere, with the remainder sequestered on the land (e.g. in vegetation and soil) and in the ocean. Once fossil fuel emissions begin decreasing and fall by half − and assumingthenet effect of increasing CO2 and climate warming is still substantial carbon uptake by the land and ocean − the atmospheric CO2 concentration will peak and begin to decrease. The year of peak CO2 concentration could be as early as 2040 (see carbon cycle projection tool below).
There is of course plenty that might go wrong. The net effect on the land and ocean sequestration just referred to could be a decline in carbon uptake. On land, carbon sources such as permafrost melting and forest fires will be stimulated by climate warming. In the ocean, warming will intensify stratification, thereby reducing carbon removal to the ocean interior.
Whatever specific years do turn out to be peak CO2 emissions and peak CO2 concentration, they will be remembered as historic hallmarks in humanity’s effort to address an existential threat of its own making.
Recommended: Interactive CO2 Emissions and Concentration Projection Tool.
In the discipline of Earth System Science, a useful analytic approach to sorting out parts and wholes is by reference to the earthly spheres. The pre-human Earth system included the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. With the biological and cultural evolution of humans came the technosphere. In a very aggregated way of thinking, these spheres interact.
The biosphere is the sum of all living organisms on Earth; it is mostly powered by solar radiation and it drives the biogeochemical cycling of elements like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.
The technosphere is the sum of the human enterprise on Earth, including all of our physical constructions and institutions; it is mostly powered by fossil fuels and it has a large throughput of energy and materials.
Over the last couple of centuries, the technosphere has expanded massively. It is altering the biosphere (the sixth mass extinction) and the global biogeochemical cycles (e.g. the CO2 emissions that drive climate change).
The interaction of the technosphere and the biosphere is evident at places like wildlife markets where captured wild animals are sold for human consumption. Virologists believe that such an environment is favorable to the transfer of viruses from non-human animals to humans. The SARS-CoV-2 virus likely jumped from another species, possibly wild-caught bats, to humans in a market environment. Covid-19 (the pandemic) has now spread globally and killed over one million people.
The human part of the technosphere has attempted to stop SARS-CoV-2 transmission by restricting physical interactions among people. The summed effect of these self-defense policies has been a slowing of technosphere metabolism. Notably, Covid-19 inspired slowdowns and shutdowns have driven a reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and a decrease in the demand for oil. This change is of course quite relevant to another interaction within the Earth system − namely technosphere impacts on the global climate.
There are important lessons to be learned from technosphere response to Covid-19 about relationships among the Earthly spheres.
One lesson regards the degree to which the technosphere is autonomous.
If we view the technosphere as a natural product of cosmic evolution, then the increase in order that the technosphere brings to the Earth system has a momentum somewhat independent of human volition. The technosphere thrives on energy throughput, and humans are compelled to maintain or increase energy flow. It is debatable if we control the technosphere or it controls us.
In an alternative view, tracing back to Russian biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky in the 1920s, humanity controls the technosphere and can shape it to manage the Earth system. This view received a recent update with a vision of Gaia 2.0 in which the human component manages the technosphere to be sustainably integrated with the rest of the Earth system.
The fact that humanity did, in effect, reduce technosphere metabolism in response to Covid-19 supports this alternative view.
Admittedly, the intention in fighting Covid-19 was not to address the global climate change issue. And the modest drop in global carbon emissions will have only a small impact on the increasing CO2 concentration, which is what actually controls global warming. Nevertheless, the result shows that it is possible for human will to affect the whole Earth system relatively quickly. The Montreal Protocol to protect stratospheric ozone is more directly germane.
A second lesson from technosphere reaction to Covid-19 is that a technosphere slowdown was accomplished as the summation of policies and decisions made at the national scale or lower (e.g. slowdowns/shutdowns by states and cities, and voluntary homestay by individuals). The current approach to addressing global climate change is the Paris Agreement, which similarly functions by way of summation. Each nation voluntarily defines its own contribution to emissions reduction, and follow-up policies to support those commitments are made at multiple levels of governance. This bottom-up approach may prove more effective than the top-down approach in the unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol.
A third lesson from technosphere response to Covid-19 regards the coming immunization campaign to combat it. Many, if not most, people around the planet will need to get vaccinated to achieve widespread herd immunity. Success in addressing the climate change issue by controlling greenhouse gas emissions will likewise depend on near universal support at the scale of individuals. Education at all levels and media attention are helping generate support for climate change mitigation. Increasing numbers of people are personally experiencing extreme weather events and associated disturbances like wildfire and floods, which also opens minds. The political will to address climate change is in its ascendency.
The response of the technosphere to biosphere pushback in the form of Covid-19 shows that the technosphere has some capacity to self-regulate (i.e. to be tamed from within). Optimally, that capability can be applied to ramp up a renewable energy revolution and slow Earth system momentum towards a Hothouse World.
A key pursuit in the field of Earth System Science is measuring and monitoring global scale structures and processes. These measurements have led to the concept of the “Great Acceleration”, a name given to the period since around 1950 during which many global scale attributes related to the human enterprise (the technosphere) began rising in an exponential fashion. The increase in global population is the iconic example.
Intuitively, it seems unlikely that this level of population increase and associated resource consumption could continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Practically speaking, problems have begun to arise both with resource shortages and environmental degradation from excess waste production (e.g. global warming and ocean acidification from massive fossil fuel combustion).
Humanity clearly must transition to a more sustainable relationship with the rest of the Earth system. The way forward lies in bending those exponentially rising Great Acceleration curves for population and resources use, hitting the peaks, and engineering declines.
As noted by ecologists long ago, total resource use (Impact) is a function of the number of people (Population), their per capita use (Affluence), and the efficiency with which raw resources are converted to useful products (Technology).
Resource use per person obviously varies tremendously, hinting at the special responsibility of the more developed countries to limit population growth (the net effect of births minus deaths and immigration minus emigration). But all humans consume natural resources. Thus, the high projected population growth rates in less developed countries must also be brought down. The sooner global population peaks, the less natural capital (e.g. biodiversity) will be degraded, the less likely that competition for resources will lead to human conflict, and the less likely that climate change will trigger tipping points in the Earth system that precipitate extreme impacts on humans.
Past, Present, and Future Global Population
The global population size doubled between 1927 and 1974 and has nearly doubled again since 1979. It is now 7.8 billion.
However, the rate of annual global population growth has fallen in recent decades (from > 2% per year to 1.05% per year), mostly associated with a decreasing trend in fertility (children born per woman during her reproductive lifetime).
However, recent research points toward lower values, possibly a peak of 9.7 billion around 2064 and a decline to 8.8 billion by 2100.
Factors Influencing Demographic Projections
Projections of peak global population have significant policy implications. Relatively low estimates may have the effect that national commitments to stabilize population are downgraded and that overhyped media accounts of depopulation sap political will to continue family planning programs. Relatively high estimates for peak global population foster the impression that humanity it doomed to an overcrowded and overheated planet, hence favoring lifeboat ethics.
Despite the critical implications of their results, the models used to predict peak population are very sensitive to the assumptions made about trends in fertility.
The recent lower estimates for peak global population rely on continued or increasing reductions in fertility in the high fertility countries. But demographers in the past have sometimes overestimated declines in fertility, and may be doing so now as well. Historic trends of declining fertility have stalled in some high fertility countries, possibly related to falling support for family planning. The Catholic Church still formally prohibits artificial birth control.
Nevertheless, several emerging trends may support lower projected peaks in global population.
One is that efforts to shift cultural norms favoring large family size increasingly include family planning messaging in popular media (e.g. serial dramas), which are having significant success with both genders.
The Covid-19 pandemic could push birth rates down (at least in the more developed countries) because financial insecurity will dispose women in developed and developing countries to postpone or forgo having children.
Mortality rates may also be higher than expected. Life expectancy has generally increased in recent decades throughout the world. Much of that increase is associated with reduced child mortality but increasing longevity is also a factor. However, life expectancy in the U.S. went down from 2014 to 2017 because of increasing fatal drug overdoses and suicides. Climate change is expected to bring an increase in extreme weather events causing mortality directly (as in flooding), and indirectly by way of impacts on agriculture and possibly the incidence of war.
Implications Beyond Absolute Population Size
A leading concern about a rapid peak and then decline in national populations is the associated increase in the ratio of older retired people to younger working people. As the population ages, the number of active workers available to support each elderly person tends to decline. Hence, taxes may have to be increased to provide income and health care to the elderly. Various mitigating factors include the improving health of elderly people, significant intergenerational transfers of wealth, increases in labor force participation by the elderly, and volunteer efforts by the elderly.
A decline in the number of children per family can have many beneficial side effects including: 1) more resources (parental attention and ability to finance education) per child, 2) improved quality of life for parents (less stress and more free time), and 3) rising per capita income.
The sooner global population peaks and begins to decline, the greater the possibilities for achieving global sustainability. Since about 40% of pregnancies globally are still unplanned, a primary tool for insuring children are born into a welcoming and opportunity-rich environment is continued and improved provision of family planning support in both the developing and developed world. More political will and contributions to NGOs are needed. At this point in human history, the local and global challenges (environmental, economic, and social) that arise from a stable or declining population are likely more manageable than those arising from high rates of population growth.
Earth’s biodiversity is under siege by the global human enterprise (the technosphere). Most species will survive into the distant future, possibly a future in which the human population has shrunk, and the value of biodiversity is more widely appreciated. But many species will go extinct along the way.
Biologist E.O. Wilson and others have evoked the image of a bottleneck in this context (Figure 1). A bottleneck implies a tightening of constraints on flow. In the case of the biodiversity bottleneck, flow refers to the survival of species through time.
As the future unfolds and the technosphere continues to grow, the possibilities for species to pass through the biodiversity bottleneck diminish. But there is a lot of room for maneuver here. A worthy project for humanity – especially over the next few decades − is to keep that bottleneck as wide as possible. After passing through it, global biodiversity may recover to some degree as the technosphere begins to weigh less heavily on the biosphere. It all depends on us.
Evidence of human impacts on biodiversity surrounds us. Comparisons of current rates of extinction and those in the fossil record indicate that vertebrate species are now going extinct at a rate 100 or more times faster than is observed in most previous geologic periods. The human-driven Sixth Extinction began perhaps 50,000 years ago when primitive humans arrived on Australia and wiped out many prey species that were unfamiliar with the new bipedal super predator. Anthropologists refer to the “Pleistocene Overkill” to describe the wave of mammal extinctions that occurred when humans first crossed from Asia to North America about 15,000 years ago.
Modern humans continue to exterminate species directly by overhunting for food (e.g. the passenger pigeon) but also by widespread trafficking in wildlife and animal parts for food, as well as for medicinal and prestige purposes. Various plant species are also endangered, notably several tropical hardwoods known as rosewood. Sustained pressure on wildlife habitat from land use change and disruptions in geographic ranges caused by climate change adds further stress on top of overexploitation. Genetic variation within many species is shrinking as their populations and geographic ranges contract, hence reducing their capacity to survive environmental change (formally termed a population bottleneck).
In essence, the expansion of technosphere capital (the mass of human made objects) is consuming biosphere capital (the biodiversity and biomass of the biosphere). This loss of biodiversity − usually defined in terms of diversity of species and ecosystems − will likely continue over the coming decades. As noted, though, the magnitude of the loss will depend heavily on human decisions.
There are pragmatic, aesthetic, and ethical rationales for conserving Earth’s biodiversity. Conservationists argue that retaining biodiversity maintains the functional integrity of ecosystems, and hence the full array of their ecosystem services. Each species has a unique niche and contributes to ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling and recovery from disturbances. With respect to aesthetics, the earlier mentioned Professor Wilson has suggested that humans have genetically determined biophilia − we get spontaneous pleasure from interacting with diverse forms of life. The ethical argument is made strongly by the Deep Ecology movement. For supporters, there is no human exceptionalism – all species have an equal right to survive and prosper on this planet.
Given the multiple rationales for wishing to widen the biodiversity bottleneck, what collective actions (besides the overriding one of limiting climate change) can help? Scientists and policy experts have identified biodiversity-friendly practices such as reducing pesticide use, buying certified products, reducing invasive species, and reducing water pollution. But here are four others that have high relevance.
1. Stop Trafficking in Wildlife and Wild Animal Parts
The global trade in wild animals and wild animal parts puts tremendous downward pressure on the populations of many species. Wild animals are commonly sold in Southeast Asian food markets despite laws against it. Tigers, rhinos, and pangolins continue to be poached for dubious medicinal purposes. Wild caught animals are sold as “bush meat” in parts of Africa and South America.
A global trade in live animals intended as pets also flourishes. Millions of songbirds are collected every year in the primary forests of Indonesia and sold as pets or trained as contestants in bird song competitions. Tropical fish are collected in the wild for marketing to aquarium owners.
Multiple international agreements aim to stem wild animal trafficking, especially the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Under its auspices, national law enforcement agencies regularly confiscate illegal shipments of wild animals, animal parts, and wood from endangered tree species. However, these efforts face deep resistance for cultural and economic reasons.
A new brake on wild animal trafficking is fear of zoonotic pathogens. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that is causing the Covid-19 global pandemic likely jumped from a wild animal host to a human in a market where wild animals are sold illegally. New legislation passed in China limits sales of wild animal meat. Unfortunately, enforcement is spotty, and the new law still allows sales of wild animal parts for medicinal purposes. Sustained international pressure on wildlife traffickers is needed.
The Covid-19 pandemic is apparently impacting wildlife protection in other ways. Conservationists fear that the loss of the tourist ‘halo’ or proximity effect, because of Covid-19 shutdowns, will increase the incidence of poaching in nature reserves. Resumption of tourism would help in that regard.
2. Expand the Size and Number of Protected Areas
A key driver of declining biodiversity is habitat loss. To bring as many species as possible through the biodiversity bottleneck will require protection of representative areas for all unique types of ecosystems.
The Rewilding Movement has argued for creating protected areas that are large enough to support the whole complement of native species characteristic of each ecosystem type, along with the entire range of abiotic processes such as floods and fires that help maintain it.
Presently, about 15% of global land plus inland waters is protected to some degree. For the oceans within national jurisdictions, the figure is about 13%. Not all ecosystem types are represented. For many types of ecosystems, the current protected area is quite small relative to its original geographic distribution (e.g. the Atlantic rain forest in Brazil).
Protected area plans can be developed over large domains, e.g. the entire United States. These plans rely on integration of different managed lands such as wilderness areas, national parks, national forests, urban areas, and private reserves.
An international scientific advisory body (IPBES, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) is dedicated to biodiversity assessment and conservation. Like the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change, IPBES produces periodic assessments and examinations of policy options. IPBES is supported by member countries, including the U.S., and sustained national contributions are warranted.
In the private sector, land trust organizations such as The Nature Conservancy have as their key strategy the purchase of lands for conservation purposes; contributions are encouraged. Public/private conservation partnerships are proliferating; participants are welcomed.
3. Design Sustainable Cities
The proportion of the global population that lives in an urban setting recently passed the 50% mark and is expected to keep climbing in the coming decades. A potential benefit to biodiversity conservation lies in the land that is abandoned as people supported by subsistence agriculture and nomadic herding move to towns and cities. The freed-up land can potentially be repurposed in part or whole for wildlife conservation. An underlying assumption is that agricultural intensification can take up any slack in food production and keep everyone fed.
Urban greenbelt areas, parks, and gardens may serve directly as another assist to biodiversity conservation. They support native and alien species and could serve as refuges for plant and animal species that are extirpated regionally by climate change and land use change. Urban rivers and streams can likewise be managed to protect and support wildlife.
4. Strategically Increase Ecotourism
In theory, the local economic benefits of nature-based tourism inspire local conservation efforts. However, high tourist demand produces pressure to increase supply. More local economic development (e.g. hotels and restaurants) plus more intensive visitor utilization of natural resources may end up degrading local ecosystems. The research literature contains ecotourism case studies of successes, as well as failures.
Ecotourism narrowly defined refers to tourism that allows visitors to experience local wildlife and landscapes, creates incentives to protect those organisms and landscapes, and supports local communities. More ecotourism is probably not appropriate in many places where it already exists because capacity is limited. Rather, it is needed where wildlife is under threat and conservation incentives might be effective.
Building socio-ecological systems is an emerging route to local sustainability. These stakeholder groups optimally self-regulate to conserve the economic health and ecological health of the local environment. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom has developed principles for structuring and operating these groups. Monitoring the social, economic, and ecological dimensions of sustainability is a key requirement for successful ecotourism management.
Air travel is the foundation for much tourism, but it is especially difficult to decarbonize. Short hop electric airplanes and long-haul flights powered by renewable energy based liquid fuels are technically feasible. They could replace fossil fuel powered flights, but more government supported research is needed, and air travelers must be willing to pay an increased fare as these fuels are brought online. Airline-associated carbon offset programs − although varying in effectiveness and not a permanent solution − contribute significantly to biodiversity conservation. They help expand protected area and, by sequestering carbon, help slow climate change.
The human capacity to extinguish other species on this planet, and to pervasively alter wildlife habitat, means that we are in many ways responsible for which species and ecosystems will survive. As we move through peak human population this century and begin to more purposefully manage our impacts on Earth’s biota, let’s keep the biodiversity bottleneck of our own making as wide open as possible. Progress towards that goal would be both pragmatic and gratifying.
Earth Day in 2020 is the 50th Anniversary for this annual gathering of our global tribe. Historically, it has been an opportunity to note declines in environmental quality and to envision a sustainable relationship of humanity to the rest of the Earth system.
This year, in addition to the usual concerns about issues like climate change and ocean acidification, Earth Day is accompanied by concern about the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic. A glance at the geographic distribution of this virus is the latest reminder that interactions with the biosphere, in this case the microbial component, can link all humans in powerful ways.
Environmental issues that were on the front burner when Senator Gaylord Nelson initiated Earth Day in 1970 were mostly local − polluted rivers, polluted air, and degraded land cover. These issues were addressed to a significant degree in the U.S. by passage of the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). These were national level successes inspired by environmental activism.
Awareness of global environmental change in 1970 was only dimly informed by geophysical observations such as the slow rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration. But by the 1980s, climate scientists began a drumbeat of testimony to governments and the media that the environmental pollution issue extended to the global scale and might eventually threaten all of humanity.
To help matters, economic globalization in the 1990s began uniting the world in new ways. Huge flows in goods and services across borders fueled a truly global economy. The level of communication required to support the global economy was based on the rapidly evolving Internet. It provided the foundation for a global transportation/telecommunications infrastructure that now envelops the planet.
A political backlash to economic and cultural globalization has recently brought to power leaders like Donald Trump (U.S.) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil). Their inclination is much more towards nationalism than towards global solidarity on environmental issues.
However, humanity is indeed united – in fear of climate change and coronavirus pandemics if nothing else.
Each year, the growing incidence of extreme weather events associated with anthropogenic climate change negatively impinges on the quality of life of a vast number of people around the planet. This year, billions of us are locked down in one form or another to slow the spread of a virus that likely emerged from trafficking in wild animals. In a mythopoetic sense, it is as if Earth was responding to the depredations imposed upon it by our species.
Philosopher Isabelle Stengers refers to the “intrusion” of Gaia (the Earth system) upon human history. The message from Gaia is that she is no longer just a background for the infinite expansion of the human enterprise (the technosphere).
Humanity can reply to Gaia with ad hoc measures like building sea walls for protection from sea level rise. Or we can get organized and develop a framework for global environmental governance.
There are many impediments to becoming a global “we” that will work collectively on global environmental change issues. Nevertheless, the incentives for doing so are arriving hard and fast. The diminishment of the wild animal trade in China in response to COVID-19, and the unintended reduction of greenhouse gas emissions globally associated with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, signal that radical change is possible.
Fitting testaments to an emerging global solidarity about environmental issues would be eradication of commercial exploitation of wild land animals everywhere in the world, and stronger national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to current obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement.
Both initiatives of course face strong cultural and political headwinds. But Earth Day, as one of the largest recurring secular celebrations in the world, is an opportunity to think anew.