The Struggle Against Climate Change May Cause Starvation

Posted on November 15, 2009

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(A Swedish version of this article is published in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, November 15, 2009. The translation to English was made by Michael Lardelli)

At about the same time as the climate meeting is being held in Copenhagen, the world’s population will pass 6.8 billion. We are now immensely more numerous than we were in 1950 when the world’s population passed 2.5 billion. The world’s new citizens since 1950 have experienced an era of development without equal and the fuel for this development has been the coal discoveries of the 19th century, gigantic discoveries of oil in the 1960s and, as icing on this cake, immense natural gas discoveries during the 1970s. We have been drenched in fossil energy and today’s globalised economy is completely dependent on this torrent. Today when you sit down at the dinner table and enjoy your food you should realize that it is soaked in crude oil and natural gas. The fact is that we, the world’s 6.8 billion inhabitants, would never survive without enormous quantities of fossil energy.

If we study our well-being in detail we can discern four important components. They are food, climate, the economy and peace on Earth. Each component is immensely important and is discussed continuously in various meetings around the world. However, the fact is that these components are coupled and dependent upon one another. “Humanity’s Well Being” (HWB) can be summarized in an equation that shows this and when we study the interdependence of these factors we see that they are all dependent upon energy (E):

HWB(E) = Food(E) + Climate(E) + Economy(E) + Peace(E)

The climate will be discussed in Copenhagen but it is obvious that the negotiators will fail, primarily because they have forgotten the importance of energy to food and the economy.

To move, think and work, and to maintain our body temperatures at 37 °C both rich and poor need the energy in food. Children and adults have different energy needs but, on average, we require 2500 kilocalories per day (kcal/day). This means that the world’s 6.8 billion inhabitants need large amounts of energy from food. Expressed in TWh it is 7100 TWh/y. Compared with the energy content of oil it is equivalent to 12 million barrels of oil per day.

Data on the world’s total agricultural production is collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. In total, the FAO lists 129 different crops. At the Global Energy Systems research group at Uppsala University in Sweden we have calculated the total energy content of these crops. If one considers the seed grain that must be set aside for next year’s harvest, storage and quality losses, processing refinement (e.g. when wheat is milled to produce flour) products supporting animal production and if you add fish from the oceans then we see that the energy that can be used to feed the world’s population is 7200 terrawatt hours per year (TWh/y) – or 9300 TWh/y if we also include edible products that are used for other purposes. The global production of food is thus sufficient to feed us all but it is distributed unequally [1].

The central issue for the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen is that our climate is affected by our use of fossil fuels and the consequent emission of carbon dioxide. The EU has as its new goal the reduction of emissions by 30% by 2020. The most decisive factor for the world’s future climate is the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the concentration target for 2050 varies between 350 to 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide.

The 50-90% reduction in fossil fuel use by 2050 that is currently discussed is clear evidence that our climate is affected by energy use. What is not mentioned is that this reduction will affect our food production and our economy.

When the world economy crashed gigantic stimulus packages were introduced and now it is said that “the economic wheels have begun to turn”. According to the USA’s energy authorities every form of economic growth requires increased energy use. We have never had global economic growth without a simultaneous increase in energy use. Economic growth projections of 30-50% by 2030 are commonly cited.

If one studies how much energy it takes to get food onto our plates this varies from nation to nation but, in general, it is fossil energy that is used. If one considers the energy used on the farm, in transport, processing, storage, purchase and preparation by the consumer then, in the USA, seven times as much energy is used to get the food to the table than is contained in the food itself. The energy used in the EU and the rest of the world is less but, on the whole, the world’s population uses mainly fossil fuel to provide this energy and then mainly oil and natural gas. At a global average of five times as much energy to put food on the plate as is contained in the food, the energy required is 36,000 TWh/year or approximately 30% of the world’s total fossil fuel use. With current farming and processing techniques, an increasing world population will require increased use of fossil energy while decreased fossil fuel use is needed for the sake of our future climate.

How will our well-being be affected by the expected growth in population? How will this affect our food supply, our climate, our economy and our hopes for peace? In Copenhagen the hungry will prioritise more food on the table before an unaltered climate. The poor nations want economic growth and we all know that this requires more fossil energy use. To see this we only need to study the development of China or India, or even Sweden from 1945 to 1970. In Copenhagen, this will mean that they will not want to sacrifice economic growth on climate’s altar. Ultimately, it comes down to we, the wealthy nations, not wanting to wear the cost of all the carbon dioxide waste we have dumped into the atmosphere without the poor and hungry also paying out.

In Copenhagen global emissions of carbon dioxide will be discussed and, for the sake of our future climate, it would be a good thing if emissions were reduced. However, according to the human well-being equation, it is not carbon dioxide but, rather, energy that is needed to produce food and to turn the wheels of the economy. By clever marketing of unrealistic future scenarios the IPCC has blinded the world’s politicians – particularly those in the EU – to these facts. Light was shone onto this issue when President Obama noted the importance of energy in a speech some days after his inauguration. He said, “No single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy” and I with many others began to hope for a brighter future when the Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Chu was appointed as the USA’s Secretary of Energy.

The USA is now making large investments in energy research to find positive solutions to the human well-being equation. The leaders of the conference in Copenhagen want to make the world respond to a “carbon dioxide stick” but we all know that it is easier to make progress with the aid of a carrot. President Obama has made it clear he does not intend to respond to the EU’s stick so it is time for Prime Minister Reinfeldt, leader of the EU-delegation, to put away the penalties and offer some inducements.

Kjell Aleklett
Professor of Physics
Globala Energy Systems at Uppsala University

[1] Detaljerade calculations will be published in Ambio, the journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Posted in: Dagsaktuellt