Population: one planet, too many people? (report)

January 20, 2011

From the press release:

A groundbreaking Population report (Wed 12 January) by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has revealed the world is hurtling towards population overload placing billions at risk of hunger, thirst and slum conditions.

Population: One planet, too many people? is the first report of its kind by the engineering profession. Unless the engineering solutions highlighted in the report are urgently implemented then the projected 2.5 billion more people on earth by the end of this Century (currently there is 6.9 billion) will crush the earth’s resources.

Urbanisation will soar. ‘Mega-cities’ of more than 10 million people will rise to 29 by 2025 and the urban population will increase from 3.3 billion (2007) to 6.4 billion (2050). Food will also become an increasingly precious commodity and developed areas such as the UK will be forced to stamp out its ‘throwaway’ lifestyle. Water consumption will increase by 30% by 2030 and there is projected to be a 50% hike in water extraction for industrial use in Asia. This, the report states, could create civil unrest and land battles for resources as climate change looms.

Unless the engineering solutions recommended throughout the report are brought in now, there could be devastating consequences not only for developing nations – but right on our own doorstep. “The challenge is how to apply engineering knowledge, expertise and skills around the world to build a new sustainable future.” (p16)

“To have the public knowledgeable about it (the report) is crucial. Political actors in every country should bring this to the attention of their government. Societal infrastructure cannot keep up, in fact it is crumbling,” said Dr John Bongaarts, Vice President of the Population Council in New York. He worked along with Dr Fox and a 70-strong delegation of engineers around the world to compile the research.

Energy, food, water, urbanisation and finance are the five areas which will be significantly affected by the effects of population growth. These are dubbed Engineering Development Goals (EDG) and should be the next step for the UN’s Millennium Goals (MDG), the report says.

Lead Author, Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy, Environment and Climate Change at IMechE, said: "In less than four years, the MDGs will expire and to date there is nothing, except the recommendations in our report, to replace them."

“Population increase will be the defining challenge of 21st Century, a global issue that will affect us all no matter where we live. Britain is in a currently in a prime position where it has, at its fingertips, some of the most groundbreaking engineering solutions in the world – and the brightest and most educated engineers. We need to work right now with the Department For International Development to set up a knowledge ‘swap-shop’ of engineering skills with other countries. This is not altruism. This is self defence."

"Up to 1 billion people could be displaced by climate change over the next 40 years and we are likely to see an increase in unrest as resource shortages become clear. The term Nimbyism will become obsolete. No-one’s back yard will be immune from these effects."

From the Executive Summary:

Increasing Pressure
The human population of the world is undergoing unprecedented growth and demographic change. By the end of this century there will be an estimated 9.5 billion people, 75% of them located in urban settlements and striving for increased living standards. Meeting the needs and demands of these people will provide a significant challenge to governments and society at large, and the engineering profession in particular.

In rising to this challenge, the engineers of today, and the future, will need to be innovative in the application of sustainable solutions and increasingly engaged with the human factors that influence their decisions. They will need strong, visionary and stable support from governments around the world.

There are four main areas in which population growth and expanding affluence will significantly challenge society in the provision of basic human needs, and create increased pressure on current resources and the environment:

1. Food: An increase in the number of mouths to feed and changes in dietary habits, including the increased consumption of meat, will double demand for agricultural production by 2050. This will place added pressures on already stretched resources coping with the uncertain impacts of climate change on global food production.

2. Water: Extra pressure will come not only from increased requirements for food production, which uses 70% of water consumed globally, but also from a growth in demand for drinking water and industrial processing as we strive to satisfy consumer aspirations. Worldwide demand for water is projected to rise 30% by 2030, this in a world of shifting rainfall patterns due to global warming-induced climate changes that are difficult to predict.

3. Urbanisation: With cities in the developing world expanding at an unprecedented rate, adding another three billion urban inhabitants by 2050, solutions are needed to relieve the pressures of overcrowding, sanitation, waste handling and transportation if we are to provide comfortable, resilient and efficient places for all to live and work.

4. Energy: Increased food production, water processing and urbanisation, combined with economic growth and expanding affluence, will by mid-century more than double the demand on the sourcing and distribution of energy.

This at a time when the sector is already under increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (on average across the globe to 50% of 1990 levels), adapt to uncertain future impacts of a changing climate and ensure security of future supply.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers recognises the scale of these issues and that there is a need to begin implementing the early phases of routes to sustainable solutions. The long timescales involved in many of the engineering-based projects required to meet these challenges, often measured in decades of construction and implementation, mean that if action is not taken before a crisis point is reached there will be significant human hardship. Failure to act will place billions of people around the world at risk of hunger, thirst and conflict as capacity tries to catch up with demand.

The Five Engineering Development Goals
As we progress towards the UN’s Millennium Development Goals completion date of 2015, to achieve a successful outcome in meeting future population growth and demographic change, governments across the globe should strive to adopt the following five engineering-focused development goals:

1. Energy: Use existing sustainable energy technologies and reduce energy waste. Access to abundant sources of energy and affordable techniques for its use and distribution, coupled with reducing the environmental impact of fossil fuel consumption, are essential for meeting the challenges of population growth and changing demographics in the 21st century.

Rather than waiting for development of new techniques with long and costly paths to commercial maturity, we must urgently focus our prime effort on correcting market failures to drive the deployment of the clean technologies known today. Furthermore, we must prioritise research funding to accelerate demonstration of those close to exploitation.

Energy policy in both developed and developing nations must encourage consumption to move downwards and reduce demand, through a combination of engineering and behaviour change. The deployment of energy management technologies, such as intelligent appliances and smart meters, together with reductions in waste through better-insulated buildings and effective use of heat, are examples of engineering initiatives that should be pursued in this regard. Priority must be taken in newly developing countries to engineer many of these approaches from the start, therefore ensuring that the fastest-growing populations in the world leapfrog over the unsustainable failings of the wasteful energy solutions embedded in the infrastructure of mature, industrialised nations such as the UK.

2. Water: Replenish groundwater sources, improve storage of excess water and increase energy efficiencies of desalination. If there is one common factor that can be seen in the issues relating to water around the world, it is the unsustainable abstraction of groundwater at a higher rate than natural replenishment allows. This is a major issue due to the importance of groundwater as a source.

Governments must improve groundwater management and accelerate the adoption of Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) techniques, where water is re-introduced into the aquifer either by the use of wells or by altering conditions to increase natural infiltration. The source of the re-introduced water can be treated wastewater, storm-water or rainfall. Currently most ASR projects are within the developed nations and efforts need to be made to both substantially extend its use and increase its uptake among suitable regions of developing nations.

Where and when water supply exceeds demand, such as in heavy rain activity, too little effort is placed on capturing and storing that excess supply for use as a source in drier times. Governments must provide separate sewerage and storm-water systems to allow the excess to be stored at the domestic and community level and used for domestic and commercial washing functions, lavatory flushing etc. In the developing world this approach should be taken from the outset, with provision for rainfall harvesting, aquifer replenishment and other forms of storage. In the developed world this means moving away from a culture that delivers water at a very high purity regardless of its intended use, and considers all wastewater to be highly contaminated.

In the past few decades we have significantly reduced the cost of desalination and increased its energy efficiency. However, it still remains one of the most expensive water supply options and is generally restricted to energy-rich nations. We must prioritise and accelerate research into reducing the cost of this technology, in terms of both energy and money, so that wider deployment can be realised at coastal and estuarine locations of rapidly growing populations in the South.

3. Food: Reduce food waste and resolve the politics of hunger. On average a staggering 25% of all fresh food is thrown away in the North after being purchased. In the South, post-harvest crop losses are as much as half of the entire production. If we are to feed the rapidly growing populations of the South, the huge potential for gains in this area must be made. For the nations of the North, substantial efficiency increases are possible from the consumer, largely through behavioural change that recognises the value of food. By contrast, in the South the challenge is that of implementing existing engineering solutions and techniques, many of which are relatively low-tech, to improve food handling, correct poor storage facilities and rectify inadequate management practice.

Malnutrition and undernutrition remain widespread in the poorest countries, despite significant levels of food waste and our technical capability to increase production further. Having the scientific and engineering capacity to produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population does not necessarily mean there will be no hunger. The politics and social issues of poverty, which results in lack of access for many, must be tackled if we are to successfully feed a larger number of people.

4. Urbanisation: Meet the challenge of slums and defending against sea-level rises. Of all the issues faced globally by urban-dwellers, both now and in the future, the most prevalent and pressing is that of informal housing areas in the developing world. Non-permanent structures account for 18% of all urban housing units, and one third of the world’s urban population live in appalling slum conditions with little or no access to clean water, sanitation or energy infrastructure. In dealing with this issue, society must recognise slums are a home and workplace to the people who live there.

It is not an engineering solution of decant-demolish-rebuild-return. Interventions need to recognise the established informal economy and neighbourhood values of the inhabitants, and be planned, decided and implemented in association with them.

Opportunities to build cities from scratch are few and far between, meaning that the expanding urban populations in the 21st century will be largely concentrated around existing sites. For historical reasons, many cities of the world are located in low-lying coastal areas and their people must be protected against the threat of extensive flooding from future sea-level rise related to global warming. Three quarters of the world’s large cities are on the coast and some of the biggest are based on deltaic plains in developing countries (such as Bangkok and Shanghai) where land subsidence will exacerbate the challenge. Given the long timescales that will be involved in agreeing and implementing strategies, such as engineered flood defence infrastructure or abandonment to the sea of areas currently occupied, assessment of the projected rises and potential solutions needs urgent attention in all coastal settlements around the world.

5. Finance: Empower communities and enable implementation. Within the newly developing economies of the South, where the greatest population growth will be experienced, the scale of infrastructure investment required to create energy, water and food sourcing and distribution networks similar to those in the developed world will likely be prohibitive. Local application of mature, understood clean engineering technologies will need to be incentivised. If significant levels of access to energy and water are to be realised and adoption of localised sustainable technologies encouraged, mechanisms such as innovative soft loans and micro-financing, ‘zero-cost’ transition packages and new models of personal and community ownership, such as trusts, must be put in place to reduce the capital investment.

Similarly, in the urban environment one of the most proven routes to success in the redevelopment of slum areas is the inclusion of the inhabitants in the decision-making and planning process. Instead of direct intervention by local or regional government, innovative programmes must channel infrastructure financing and housing loans direct to poor communities, who plan and carry out improvements, thus handing the communities a central role. Programmes in this style also have the benefit of altering the relationships between the community leaders and the administration of the cities, instilling confidence in the urban poor groups that they can influence solutions.

Tags: Food, Population, Resource Depletion