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Doom and gloom for global pros­per­ity can be avoided, says researcher

pub­lished 25 Octo­ber 2013 | mod­i­fied 13 Sep­tem­ber 2014

With eco­log­i­cal via­bil­ity threat­ened, world resources drain­ing, pop­u­la­tion bur­geon­ing and despair run­ning ram­pant, the end is nigh.

Planet earth NASAOr not, says Lawrence M. Cath­les, Cor­nell pro­fes­sor of earth and atmos­pheric sci­ences. “In spite of our appar­ent envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, we stand a remark­able chance of achiev­ing solu­tions,” he says. “Soci­eties all around the world are liv­ing longer. We have more access to food, clean water and energy… and we’ve never been more healthy.”

Cath­les out­lines his opti­mism about the world’s prospects for sus­tain­ing the human pop­u­la­tion in an envi­ron­men­tally respon­si­ble way in his arti­cle, “Future Rx: Opti­mism, Prepa­ra­tion, Accep­tance of Risk,” in a spe­cial pub­li­ca­tion ofThe Jour­nal of the Geo­log­i­cal Soci­ety, released 24 October.

If we have the courage to do big things, all of human­ity has a fine future
« Lawrence M. Cath­les, pro­fes­sor of earth and atmos­pheric sci­ences, Cor­nell University

In the arti­cle Cath­les addresses food sus­tain­abil­ity, nat­ural resources and energy lev­els, and what he calls the “Grand Chal­lenge” of the next cen­tury for every­one to achieve a Euro­pean stan­dard of liv­ing. More­over, Cath­les pro­poses a path to achiev­ing that standard.

Today the world hosts 7.13 bil­lion peo­ple, and Cath­les says that while humans are liv­ing longer, the world pop­u­la­tion will peak at 10.5 bil­lion about 100 years from now. The most essen­tial resource is energy, and today most of the world uses less than 2 kilo­watts of power per per­son (for heat, light­ing, trans­porta­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing), while those at the Euro­pean stan­dard of liv­ing (the aver­age French or Ger­man cit­i­zen, for exam­ple) use 3.5 times more. The world cur­rently con­sumes energy at the rate of 15 tril­lion watts (15 ter­awatts), with 86 per­cent from hydro­car­bon sources.

Meet­ing the Grand Chal­lenge would require energy pro­duc­tion of 50 ter­awatts today and 75 ter­awatts 100 years from now, ide­ally all from zero car­bon energy sources, says Cath­les. Grow­ing from 15 to 75 ter­awatts over a cen­tury requires a growth rate of 1.6 per­cent per year, which is mod­est, he says, com­pared with the U.S. growth rate of 2.6 per­cent over the past 50 years and China’s recent 12 per­cent growth rate and their planned growth over the next 10 years of 7 per­cent annually.

The lion’s share of the power expan­sion could be met by wind, solar power pro­duced in deserts or nuclear; but by far the least envi­ron­men­tally intru­sive, fea­si­ble and real­is­tic option is nuclear, he says. The oceans have enough dis­solved ura­nium to sus­tain 10.5 bil­lion peo­ple at a Euro­pean stan­dard for more than 100 cen­turies, and the extrac­tion foot­print would be tiny.

“Every­thing is pos­si­ble with energy, noth­ing is pos­si­ble with­out it,” says Cathles.

The paper also exam­ines whether the sup­plies of other mate­ri­als are ade­quate to sus­tain 10.5 bil­lion peo­ple for hun­dreds of cen­turies – and Cath­les sees no major sus­tain­abil­ity prob­lems. Cath­les also argues that nat­ural gas pro­vides a nat­ural tran­si­tion from depen­dence on other fos­sil fuels to carbon-​free nuclear and other energy sources, although he cau­tions that the tran­si­tion can­not be stretched out too much due to oil and gas resource lim­i­ta­tions. Our most threat­ened resource may be soil, he says, but with enough energy this will not be a fun­da­men­tal bar­rier to prosperity.

Embrac­ing the chal­lenge of a Euro­pean stan­dard a cen­tury from now is “the most con­struc­tive goal imag­in­able,” he says, and one that is nec­es­sary for humans to have a future and, more impor­tantly, a com­mon future.

Says Cath­les: “We have plenty of resources; we do not need to fight over them.”

(Source: Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity press release, 24.10.2013)

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