Living in the United States, it’s easy to get the feeling that we are the at center of it all. But the population of the US is less than 5% of the global population. If all of humanity lived in the same area, only one out of every 25 people you met would be a U.S. citizen.
The following chart shows the population by continent.
The chart makes it clear that, when it comes to population, Asia is where it’s at.
The following two maps offer a more visual take on population distribution. They show country size in proportion to its population. The first one shows the population distribution today, the second one shows the population distribution forecast for 2100.
Population distribution today
As you can see, we live in the suburbs of a global population whose center of gravity is in Asia.
Population distribution in 2100
This chart shows that the population of Africa will approximate the population of Asia by 2100. This is the UN forecast. Other demographers have said that the African population will not grow this fast.
Since population is a major factor in determining energy consumption, the increase in the demand for global energy will come almost entirely from Asia, as the next chart shows.
All the increase in demand for energy comes from Asia. Although the population of Africa is expected to grow dramatically, it does not translate to much more energy consumption, which means that forecasters are not expecting to see much economic development in Africa. Energy consumption doubles while the population triples, which means a significantly lower quality of life for the African population. The contribution to energy demand by the rest of the world pales by comparison to Asia.
The other factor which determines total energy consumption is per capita energy consumption. The higher the per capita energy consumption, the higher the total energy consumption. The next chart shows per capita energy consumption for selected countries. These countries were selected either because they have a significant impact on global emissions (the US and China), or because they help to show the spectrum of per capita energy consumption, from high to low. There are a few countries with higher per capita consumption rates than the US, but their populations are small and so they don’t have much of an impact on global emissions.
By 未知との遭遇 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31190628
The global average per capita energy consumption (23,000 KWh) appears on the right side of the chart. Per capita consumption for developed countries is generally higher than the average. Per capita consumption for developing countries is lower than the average. The red line indicates an arbitrary per capita consumption target that seems achievable for developed countries in view of the fact that the UK and Italy are already operating at this level.
Total energy consumption for 2019 was 186,000 TWh. If all the countries of the world were at the target per capita energy consumption of 35,000 KWh, then total energy consumption would have been 272,000 TWh, 86,000 TWh higher than the actual amount. The energy saved by developed countries reducing their per capita consumption to 35,000 KWh is dwarfed by the additional energy consumed if developing countries raised their consumption to 35,000 KWh. It is simply because the population of developing countries is so much greater than the population of developed countries. This highlights the problem of equity in establishing global emissions targets. Developing countries cannot rise to the level of developed countries on a per capita energy consumption basis without making was is already a bad situation much worse.
If the world is to be successful at cutting global emissions, developing countries (except for very poor countries like Bangladesh) must keep their per capita consumption at current levels (even though they are not at the level of developed countries), and reduce their population growth. This will be a hard sell since the developed countries have not only benefited from their profligate emissions, but their growth was in large part due to their exploitation of less developed countries, ensuring that they would remain under-developed and at the mercy of their colonial masters. The price of the developed world’s success is being paid for by the developing countries. This makes for bad Karma.
Efficiency, austerity, and converting to nuclear and renewable sources of energy will help, but efficiency and austerity can only make marginal gains in countries where per capita energy consumption is already low, and nuclear and renewable energy sources can’t be rolled out fast enough to cut emissions anywhere close to zero by 2050, which is what the IPCC says must be done if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast is that fossil fuel use will actually increase by 25% by 2050, despite the headway being made by renewables. It predicts that renewable energy will produce 50% of all electricity by 2050. This sounds impressive until you realize that by 2050, electricity will represent 22% of all energy consumption, so 50% of electrical consumption is only 11% of total energy consumption. The hill that must be climbed is huge and with renewables we are only able to take baby steps.
The only way to make a serious dent in emissions is by reducing the population and per capita energy consumption. As the global population ages, fertility is dropping and so the rate of population growth is dropping, but population is still climbing, and with so large a base, the increases are prodigious. The implementation of family planning measures in all the cities and villages in the developing world would have an immediate positive impact, but all countries except China have been unwilling to push this agenda, instead leaving it to NGO’s whose effect absent government endorsement is limited. (China’s effort was procrustean and had some serious unintended effects.)
Here in the U.S. we must reduce our gargantuan appetite for energy, but even if we reduced our average per capita consumption from 82,000 KWh to 35,000 KWh, it would only reduce global energy consumption by 15,000 TWh – just 8% of total energy consumption. And the US with its high per capita energy consumption is capable of providing significant emissions reductions. Other developed countries with smaller populations and more modest per capita consumption rates are less well situated to provide major reductions in emissions.
But the real problem is not per capita consumption – it’s population. Developed countries represent only 16% of the global population. Developing countries represent the other 84% and so they are the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to climate change. Developed countries must continue to strive to reduce their emissions, but in the final analysis it won’t make any difference if the developing world doesn’t make drastic reductions in their emissions, and with growing populations and growing economies, that doesn’t seem very likely.
For 30 years we have ignored the increasingly dire warnings from the climate science community. Producers of fossil fuel energy continue to focus on quarterly earnings, and consumers of energy continue to act as though it’s the 1960’s when the love affair with the car was in high gear. Car companies make their big margins on their big cars, so we have the Ford Expedition which gets 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, we have the Toyota Sequoia which gets 13 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway, and we have the Chevy Suburban which gets 15 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. The companies selling these cars and the consumers buying them are either oblivious to the very serious problems they are creating for their children, or they don’t care. It will be seen in retrospect as criminal indifference and irresponsibility.
At root, the world’s problem, and especially ours, is that our culture has become decadent. We no longer appreciate the ideas that shaped our cohesive society – shared values and a sense of belonging to a group with which one can identify. A pluralistic democracy only works to the extent that people’s interests extend beyond themselves. When this attitude fails, the connective tissue that holds the society together begins to disintegrate. The population is at sea and grows listless, disconnected, and unmotivated. Disinterest becomes inattention in school, so education begins to fail, and new generations lack the historical perspective which enables them to see and appreciate the ideas that formed their nation. In the absence of context, social solidarity, and meaningful purpose, people turn their attention inward, become obsessed with themselves, and without an inspiring purpose, turn to self-indulgence. This is why the world did not respond to the warnings of climate scientists, why so many people still remain ignorant of the nature of climate change and the dimensions of the debacle we will face shortly, and why our actions have condemned our children to a nightmarish world of suffering and early death.
In the future, when the seas are flooding coastal cities; droughts, floods, and heat have reduced agricultural production; storms of unprecedented strength and frequency destroy the infrastructure so carefully constructed over the decades; and mass migration creates unimaginable havoc and violence, books will be written to explain the psychology that caused us to be so disconnected from reality and so attached to personal interests that they forgot to care about the future, you know, that place where their children will live.
Our noble experiment in government, one that for the first time in history was designed for the interests of its citizens and not designed by a distant pope or narcissistic king for their own purposes, may come to an end as a result of climate change. The worse conditions get, the more chaos reigns and the more governments will turn to autocratic rule to maintain order. This is standard fare in countries run by dictators, but it will also happen in the democracies of the world, and so it (democracy) will become yet another victim of climate change.