, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 231-255

Population and the energy problem

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Abstract

When energy is scarce or expensive, people can suffer material deprivation and economic hardship. When it is obtained in ways that fail to minimize environmental and political costs, these too can threaten human wellbeing in fundamental and pervasive ways. The energy problem today combines these syndromes: much of the world's population has too little energy to meet basic human needs; the monetary costs of energy are rising nearly everywhere; the environmental impacts of energy supply are growing and already dominant contributors to local, regional, and global environmental problems (including air pollution, water pollution, ocean pollution, and climate change); and the sociopolitical risks of energy supply (above all the danger of conflict over oil and the links between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons) are growing too. This predicament has many causes, but predominant among them are the nearly 20-fold increase in world energy use since 1850 and the cumulative depletion of the most convenient oil and gas deposits that this growth has entailed, resulting in increasing resort to costlier and/or environmentally more disruptive energy sources. The growth of world population in this period was responsible for 52% of the energy growth, while growth in per capita energy use was responsible for 48% (excluding causal connections between population and energy use per capita). In the United States in the same period, population growth accounted for 66% of the 36-fold increase in energy use. In the late 1980s, population growth was still accounting for a third of energy growth both in the United States and worldwide. Coping with global energy problems will require greatly increased investment in improving the efficiency of energy enduse and in reducing the environmental impacts of contemporary energy technologies, and it will require financing a transition over the next several decades to a set of more sustainable (but probably also more expensive) energy sources. The difficulty of implementing these measures will be greatest by far in the developing countries, not least because of their high rates of population growth and the attendant extra pressures on economic and managerial resources. If efficiency improvements permit delivering the high standard of living to which the world aspires based on a per capita rate of energy use as low as 3 kilowatts—about a quarter of the current U.S. figure—then a world population stabilized at 10 billion people would be using energy at a rate of 30 terawatts, and a population of 14 billion would imply 42 terawatts (compare 13.2 terawatts in 1990). Delivering even the lower figure at tolerable monetary and environmental costs will be difficult; each additional billion people added to the world population will compound these difficulties and increase energy's costs, making everyone poorer.

Presented at the Symposium on Population and Scarcity: The Forgotten Dimensions.