Climate change through human population control
The turnout at the recently concluded climate summit was impressive and loaded with declarations and pledges for net zero emissions. However, whether (and how fast) countries redeem their pledges has nothing to do with what their diplomats said in Glasgow and everything to do with each country’s domestic politics, which have their logic and are only faintly affected by international politics. This is because what was demanded of countries to achieve the net zero emissions or Green Age is not realisable in the short to medium term without a lot of sacrifices. Not to mention the potentially huge infrastructural expense that will be involved. It would have made more sense to demand what will be acceptable to all, particularly the “poor countries.”
Climate change has been attributed to human activities like deforestation, burning of fossil fuels, gas flaring, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere etc, and perhaps rightly so. Surprisingly, though, naturally occurring events on our planet like volcanoes (about 200 of them currently active to various extents) that spew a vast amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere have not been included. Not to mention the wildfire seasons in Western USA and Australia.
Now, an abundance of greenwashing technological solutions is being proposed to replace fossil fuel: the burning of natural gas, currently used in many applications, produces greenhouse gases, but to a lesser extent than fossil fuels, and hence considered as the transition path from fossil fuel. Hydrogen produced from water by electrolysis using renewable energy is termed “green hydrogen.” The problem is green hydrogen is expensive. Currently, most hydrogen is made from natural gas or even coal. This is cheap but it produces lots of greenhouse gases. However, if you capture those greenhouse gases and bury them in the ground, you are allowed to call it “blue hydrogen”. Again, they say the technology to capture and store greenhouse gases is unproven and will be expensive. So, for now, the blue hydrogen process continues to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Thus, it will not be surprising that the hydrogen drive hides major pollution risks.
We forget we are where we are today because of technological solutions to cater for growing human population demand and lifestyle. Those technologies damaged the world in two main ways: pollution and depletion of natural resources.
Consider the following: (a) The main sources of air pollution relate to technologies that emerged following the industrial revolution such as the burning of fossil fuels, factories, power stations, mass agriculture and vehicles. The consequences of spewing harmful or excessive quantities of gases such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitric oxide and methane into the earth’s atmosphere, include negative health impacts for humans and animals and global warming, whereby the increased amount of greenhouse gases in the air trap thermal energy in the Earth’s atmosphere and cause the global temperature to rise.
(b) Water pollution on the other hand is the contamination of water bodies such as lakes, rivers, oceans and groundwater, usually due to human activities. Some of the most common water pollutants are domestic waste, industrial effluents and insecticides and pesticides, which can lead to the destruction of ecosystems and negatively affect the food chain.
(c) Technology made possible the consumption of a natural resource faster than it can be replenished. There are several types of resource depletion, with the most severe being aquifer depletion, deforestation, mining for fossil fuels and minerals, contamination of resources, soil erosion and overconsumption of resources. These mainly occur because of agriculture, mining, water usage and consumption of fossil fuels, all of which have been enabled by advancements in technology. Due to the increasing global population, levels of natural resource degradation are also increasing; large-scale mineral and oil exploration has been increasing, causing more and more natural oil and mineral depletion. Combined with advancements in technology, development and research, the exploitation of minerals has become easier and humans are therefore digging deeper to access more, which has led to many resources entering a production decline.
(d) Deforestation has become severe, with the World Bank reporting that the net loss of global forest between 1990 and 2015 was 1.3 million km2. This is primarily for agricultural reasons but also logging for fuel and making space for residential areas, encouraged by increasing population pressure. Not only does this result in a loss of trees, which are important as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but thousands of plants and animals lose their natural habitats and have become extinct.
(e) Many believe that new environmental technology, such as renewable energy combined with cleaner fuels, smart logistics and electric transport, has the potential to bring about the rapid decarbonisation of our economy and the mitigation of further detrimental harm. The question is: will these be sufficient, and not hide other, perhaps unknown pollution risks?
One is reminded the conversion of hydrogen to energy produces water vapour, which is a major greenhouse gas. Imagine a situation whereby Hydrogen fuel cars only run in already congested cities like London, New York and Lagos, the air will be saturated with water vapour ― that means high humidity, with consequences for the environment and human health. The situation then is akin to moving from one problem to another. Recall also the switch to biofuels favoured by some is now among the greatest causes of habitat destruction, as forests are felled to produce wood pellets and liquid fuels, and soils are trashed to make biomethane.
To be continued tomorrow.
• Dr Okoroafor wrote from Lagos.