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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that human overpopulation isn’t such a big issue any more as numbers are expected to start declining in a few decades? – Melinda Mason, Boone, IA

The jury is still out as to whether human overpopulation will become a footnote in history or the dominant ill that stands in the way of all other efforts to achieve sustainability and a kinder, gentler world. Pictured: A crowded street in Kathmandu, Nepal

Photo credit: Pavel Novak

Ever since Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, positing incorrectly that humans’ proclivity for procreation would exhaust the global food supply within a matter of decades, population growth has been a hot button issue among those contemplating humankind’s future. Indeed our very success going forth and multiplying, paired with our ability to extend our life expectancy, has meant that we are perpetually pushing the limits of the resource base that supports us.

When Malthus was worrying about the planet’s “carrying capacity,” there were only about a billion of us on the planet. Today our population tops seven billion. While better health care and medicine along with advances in food production and access to freshwater and sanitation have allowed us to feed ourselves and stave off many health ills, some so-called Neo-Malthusians believe we may still be heading for some kind of population crash, perhaps triggered or exacerbated by environmental factors related to climate change.

But others are less concerned given projections that world population will likely start to decline once the world’s less developed nations urbanize and start lowering their birth rates, as has already happened in Europe, the U.S., Australia and parts of Asia. For example, Europe’s “fertility rate” between 2005 and 2010 was just 1.53 live births per woman (the standard replacement rate to maintain a stable population is 2.1). Without immigration, Europe’s population would already be shrinking.

Of course, the immigration that continues to fuel population numbers in developed countries is coming from somewhere. Indeed, population numbers are still growing in many of the world’s developing countries, including the world’s most populous nation, China, and its close rival, India. Also fertility rates in Africa continue to be among the highest in the world, as many countries there are growing fast, too. Poverty and health problems due to poor sanitation, lack of access to food and water, the low social status of women and other ills continue to cripple these regions. Overpopulation could plague us indefinitely if fertility rates don’t drop in these areas, especially as they ramp up their Western-style development.

Globally, the United Nations estimates that the number of humans populating the planet in 2100 will range from as few as 6.2 billion—almost a billion less than today—to as many as 15.8 billion on the high end. Meanwhile, other researchers confirm the likelihood of world population levels flattening out and starting to decline by 2100 according to the lower UN estimate. To wit, the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) recently unveiled research showing that if the world stabilizes at a fertility rate comparable to that of many European nations today (roughly 1.5), the global human population will be only half of what it is today by the year 2200, and only one-seventh by 2300.

It is difficult to say which way the global population pendulum will swing in centuries to come, given ever-changing cultural, economic and political attitudes and the development demographics they affect. As such the jury is still out as to whether human overpopulation will become a footnote in history or the dominant ill that stands in the way of all other efforts to achieve sustainability and a kinder, gentler world.

CONTACTS: Thomas Malthus, www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf; United Nations, www.un.org/esa/population/; IIASA, http://webarchive.iiasa.ac.at/Admin/PUB/Documents/IR-08-022.pdf.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: Might another possible source for ethanol be discarded pastries from bakeries? For that matter, wouldn’t fermenting unsold bananas, oranges and apples from grocery store produce departments be able to provide an ample supply of fuel? – Curious in Warren, PA

Diverting even just a portion of the world's food waste to waste-to-energy (WTE) systems could free up large amounts of landfill space while powering our vehicles and heating our homes, and thus putting a significant dent in our collective carbon footprint. Pictured: Three Anaerobic Digestion WTE tanks in Fenville, MI.

Photo credit: eXtension Farm Energy

Food waste is indeed an untapped resource with great potential for generating energy. Some one third of all food produced around the world gets discarded uneaten, and environmentalists, energy analysts and entrepreneurs are beginning to take notice. Diverting even just a portion of this waste to so-called waste-to-energy (WTE) systems could free up large amounts of landfill space while powering our vehicles and heating our homes, and thus putting a significant dent in our collective carbon footprint. Perhaps that’s why WTE is one of the fastest growing segments of the world’s quickly diversifying energy sector.

Currently there are some 800 industrial-scale WTE plants in more than three dozen countries around the world, and likely thousands of smaller systems at individual sites. Most employ anaerobic digesters, which make use of microorganisms to break down and convert organic waste into a fuel such as biogas, biodiesel or ethanol. With some 70 percent of food waste around the world still going into landfills, there is a lot of potential feedstock to keep this environmentally friendly carbon neutral fuel source coming.

“Waste-to-energy doesn’t involve drilling, fracking, or mining, and it doesn’t rely on scarce and politically-charged resources like oil,” reports RWL Water Group, an international company that installs water, wastewater and waste-to-energy systems. The waste from small slaughterhouses, breweries, dairy farms and coffee shops can power hundreds of typical homes each day if the infrastructure is in place to sort, collect and process the flow of organic material.

Navigant Research, which produced the 2012 report “Waste-to-Energy Technology Markets, which analyzes the global market opportunity for WTE, expects waste-to-energy to grow from its current market size of $6.2 billion to $29.2 billion by 2022. “With many countries facing dramatic population growth, rapid urbanization, rising levels of affluence, and resource scarcity, waste-to-energy is re-establishing itself as an attractive technology option to promote low carbon growth in the crowded renewable energy landscape,” says Navigant’s Mackinnon Lawrence. “China is already in the midst of scaling up capacity, and growth there is expected to shift the center of the WTE universe away from Europe to Asia Pacific.”

The question is whether governments and individuals will make the effort to support diversion of waste into yet another separate stream. In areas where such systems are working, individuals are incentivized to separate out their organic and food waste because it saves them money on their trash pick-up bills. And bakeries, restaurants, farms, grocers and other big producers of organic or food waste provide an endless source of feedstock for WTE systems as well.

“We’re barely scratching the surface of this potential—dumping over 70 percent of the world’s food waste into landfills, rather than harnessing it for fuel and electricity,” reports RWL. “Over the next 25 years, global energy demand will grow by 50 percent, while global oil supply dwindles at a rapid pace. Waste-to-energy is an obvious solution to meet the world’s burgeoning energy demand.”

CONTACTS: RWL Water Group, www.rwlwater.com; Navigant Research, www.navigantresearch.com.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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