Population Growth, Energy, and a Case for the Humanities

Posted by on Nov 2, 2011


The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog follows trends related to population growth. “By 2050 or so, the human population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where, scientists say, humans are already shaping climate and the web of life,” the blog’s “About” section states.

A part of the challenge that population growth presents is the amount of energy needed to be produced for an additional 2 billion people.  The questions we face now about how to answer these challenges are at the heart of the Cultures of Energy initiative at Rice.

This past weekend, Dot Earth featured an interview with Jane C.S. Long, a principal associate director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and one of the writers of  “California’s Energy Future – The View to 2050.”  Here’s an excerpt of the interview that interested me. (The full interview can be read here.)

For fast-rising nations, if the entire world is brought to the point of using at least what China uses per capita — not a terribly high goal — what we do in the developed world will hardly matter. So, yes this is the most important issue. My guess is that increasing electricity supply in these countries with intermittent renewables might happen if the costs come down, but I wonder what would happen when they make a transition from being happy to have a little energy, to wanting reliable energy? We see what is likely to happen by looking at China and India. They will go to fossil and perhaps nuclear base load. This means that CCS [carbon capture and sequestration] is a critical technology from the perspective of climate and the developing world. (Interestingly, in California, I think CCS will most likely play a larger role in fuel than in electricity, for example by reforming methane to hydrogen and sequestering the resulting CO2) Second would clearly be passively safe, proliferation-resistant nuclear, and energy storage.

Long’s point on whether or not the Western world matters much strikes me as self deflating yet true.  With the majority of the world’s population living in India and China, the impact American towns have on the climate seems relatively small.

On the issue of energy transitions in these countries, I believe Long is right to say that there will be a point when the Indians and Chinese vie for energy security in the form of oil and nuclear. The political instability it seems will only exacerbate this transition.

However important India and China’s populations are, Long argues that the Western world — and America in particular — will be key to ensuring that the energy demands of underdeveloped societies don’t go unchecked.  Universities, I imagine, are central to her vision.  The technology coming from American universities, like carbon capture and sequestration, will ideally allow population to increase without detriment.  However, planning for and implementing these technologies in a responsible manner is a task for humanists to work on with their scientific counterparts in academia.


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