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Population, resources and climate change - making connections

By Jenny Goldie - posted Monday, 7 October 2013

Two reports were issued a week or so ago, one on population and the other on climate change. The first was the quarterly report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS Cat. 3101.0) and the second was the long awaited Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The ABS report revealed Australia is maintaining a population growth rate of 1.8 per cent. In one year, Australia passed the 23 million mark, gaining nearly 400,000 people. That's more than the population of Canberra.

The AR5 warned that Australia will be one of the worst affected countries by climate change. In 2100, we will experience an increase of 6oC on the hottest days, with inland temperatures generally 3-4oC higher. Rainfall patterns will change with soil moisture decreasing in the south of the country. Many reptile, bird and mammal species will be lost, as well as the Kakadu wetlands.


Meanwhile, Ian Dunlop has thrown his hat into the ring to be on the board of BHP Billiton. His resumé should have brought tears of joy to the existing Board: former Chair of the Australian Coal Association; former CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors; senior executive of Royal Dutch Shell Group with experience in oil, gas and coal exploration and production; and so on. Few in Australia know more about resources than Ian Dunlop.

Instead of putting out the welcome mat, however, current chairman Jac Nasser warned shareholders that Dunlop "would not add to the effectiveness" of the Board. Why? Because Dunlop had made it clear in his supporting statement that the greatest challenge the world, and BHP Billiton, now faces is global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human fossil-fuel consumption, with current policies leading to an average surface temperature increase of not 2oC but in excess of 4oC. Critically he added: "It is nothing less than suicidal to continue investment in fossil-fuel expansion."

No wonder they don't want him.

Nevertheless, Dunlop is right. As the AR5 notes, indeed as the World Bank has already warned, if we are to keep within the 2oC guardrail for so-called safe global warming, most known fossil fuel reserves (oil, coal and gas) must stay in the ground.

Most significantly, Dunlop, referring to a scenario of temperatures increasing in excess of 4oC: "This is a world of 1 billion people, not 7 billion, in which business as we know it is not possible." In other words, the carrying capacity of the Earth will plummet if we do not change from our current path.

Mainland Australian agriculture would largely be wiped out in such a world. Instead of feeding 60 million at home and overseas as we do now, we will have difficulty feeding an anticipated domestic population of 46 million by mid-century, let alone 100 million by 2100 if our current 1.8 per cent growth rate is maintained.


Population, be it Australian or global, has only been able to reach 23 million or 7.2 billion respectively, because of the ready availability of cheap energy, largely oil. Conventional oil, that which came easily out of the ground when a well was drilled, peaked in 2006. Oil supplies, however, have not declined because high oil prices have allowed the application of techniques, not least 'fracking' (fracturing rock in association with horizontal drilling), to extract oil from shale and other unconventional sources. Oil can now be produced in ultra-deep water and the Arctic, and from tar sands, heavy oil, and so on. According to author Richard Heinberg, however, this will only extend the peak by a decade. Maintaining industrial civilisation will become increasingly difficult as oil supply starts its inevitable decline.

Industrial agriculture and oil go hand in hand, of course, and it is food production that will be hardest hit unless oil is rationed and delivered to farmers in sufficient amounts to ensure production and delivery so people can eat. Yet, as Professor Paul Ehrlich will note at a conference in Canberra this week, the more people there are, the more you need to expand food production. Agriculture, however, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, and climate change is a major cause of biodiversity loss and critical ecosystem services to farming, especially pollination and pest control. Thus, through climate change, population growth is a serious threat to food production.

Other eminent speakers will make the links between population, resources (both renewable and non-renewable) and climate change at this conference, not least, Ian Dunlop. These issues can no longer be treated in isolation – we must take a holistic approach if we are to address the major challenges confronting us.

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Fenner Conference on Environment, Shine Dome, October 10, 11. "Population, Resources and Climate Change: implications for Australia's near future.

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About the Author

Jenny Goldie is currentatly national president of Sustainable Population Australia, president of Climate Action Monaro, and Canberra co-ordinator of ASPO Australia. She is a former science teacher and communicator.

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