A numbers game

Architect Don Bunting

Architect Don Bunting examines the facts and figures underlying the current debate on climate change.

The UN graph (right) shows that the world population reached 7.7 billion people in April 2017. It took 200,000 years of human history for the world’s population to reach 1 billion, and only 200 years getting to nearly 8 billion.

New Zealand’s population increased from 2 million in 1950 to the current 4.8 million, growing at about half the rate of the rest of the world — and no surprises in that.

When discussing the challenge of climate change, population growth tends to be ignored as population pressure on the environment is a sensitive subject.

Nevertheless, more people means higher energy use and, in developing countries, more use of fossil fuels plus deforestation for fuel and farmland.

Glib answers

How often do you hear the call for more use of solar power and more wind farms? An article in the June Weekend Australian by Bjørn Lomborg, titled The Great Climate Myth, noted it would be very nice to point confidently to a single technology as the answer to climate change.

However, solar and wind energy deliver only 1% of global energy, and the International Energy Agency estimates that even by 2040 it will cover less than 4% of global energy needs. Mr Lomborg is a former director of the Danish government’s Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen.

Al Gore’s chief scientific advisor Jim Hansen agrees, saying: Suggesting renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the US, China, India and the rest of the world is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny.

Lomborg notes that we don’t emit CO2 just to annoy the greenies; it’s because today’s availability of cheap power has provided what we need and value in society: heat, light, cooling, transport, health, food and education.

The link is strong and clear — access to lots of cheap energy means a better lifestyle.

Lomborg offers no single answer to addressing climate change, but believes we need more research to find a viable, sustainable energy source, and not be seduced by companies such as Tesla saying the answer is to buy more of their products.

Declaring a “climate emergency” and banning plastics may have the feel-good factor, but this turns a crisis into a mere slogan.

Hydrocarbon man

Something often overlooked in the debate on climate change is whether the planet is running out of oil.

Back in 1957 geologist Marion Hubbard, who worked for Shell Oil, put forward the theory of Peak Oil — the point at which maximum extraction of reserves would be reached. This didn’t go down well with his employers and the matter was forgotten.

Aside from the politically-biased overstatement of reserves, oil, or at least cheap oil, is running out. For example, the US now produces only 2% of its own oil supply.

Oil and other hydrocarbons are cheap and super-efficient sources of energy. This makes it difficult for any government to campaign on a platform of radical change in our main source of energy.

They would need to sell the unpalatable truth that a change to alternative energy sources will be painful and expensive, with a significant reduction in quality of life. To kick the fossil fuel habit would not be easy and not easy to sell politically.

Whatever alternative energy source is considered — hydrogen, biomass, wind, solar, even so-called nuclear fusion — the first step is to persuade us to face a future without reliance on oil and oil-based products.

One positive thought — the sun’s energy currently hitting the earth’s surface is 20,000 times the energy currently produced using oil.

Reality check

The world’s major energy users — including New Zealand’s small but important 2% — need to take drastic action to reduce the use of fossil fuels and resulting emissions.

More solar, wind and a few electric cars (only 15,000 of New Zealand’s 3.5 million car fleet are electric or hybrid) just won’t cut it.

We need to accept a significant negative effect on our current lifestyles to make any real difference.

A few examples of what might make a real difference:

A significant move away from car use and towards (electric) public transport that is extensive, cheap and reliable 24/7. Banning private car parking in commercial centres.

All public and commercial vehicles (buses, taxis and Ubers, utes, trucks and trains) to be electric powered within 10 years. This is achievable, and would offer a strong lead to private car owners. Ban large SUVs and high-emission vehicles.

Develop medium-rise residential on all main urban transport routes to reduce urban sprawl, and make public transport more accessible to more people. A Melbourne study has shown that urban population could be increased by as much as 25% with a major saving in new infrastructure.

A serious look at the cost to the planet of carbon kilometres. This would mean a major move towards reliance on local products and food, and a significant reduction in international travel.

Sounds tough? Well, as Willie Nelson said: If I’m not cold, wet or hungry then these are the good times.

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