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After the Copenhagen conference: carbon is not the planet's greatest threat.

CARBON footprints, greenhouse gases, carbon trading and global warming currently dominate the media and political arenas, with the Copenhagen Climate Conference in early December taking centre stage for a human population that is concerned for its future. Representatives from one hundred and ninety-two nations gathered and attempted to reach an agreement on a plan of action. The discussions were imbued with the full spectrum of human character: pride, passion, fear, greed, political manoeuvring and suspicion. Following a last-ditch effort by a small subset of these nations, a document was produced on the final morning which recognized global warming as a problem, and which expressed the need to keep temperatures from rising too high--not exactly original, provocative nor legally binding.

The spectre of rising oceans, melting ice-caps and dramatic changes in rainfall patterns has been vividly set before us in recent times. The climate is changing, it's all to do with carbon dioxide, and we need to act now to reduce emissions. It all seems straight-forward enough, although the political and socio-economic consequences are anything but simple, as can be seen by the varying messages coming from governments across the globe.

While the implications of the rise in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide are debated, the rise itself is generally accepted. Investigation into the cause of the rise points to humans. By using coal, oil, and products derived from them, we release carbon dioxide. These deposits were originally plants that converted the sun's energy into sugars, absorbing [CO.sub.2] from the ancient atmosphere. The process is simple:

Sunlight + [CO.sub.2] + water [right arrow] coal [right arrow] energy + [CO.sub.2] + water

The energy and the [CO.sub.2] are like a young pair of lovers, inseparable! We can't have one without the other. So we burn these fossil fuels, which re-release the energy and the carbon dioxide trapped many millions of years ago. The carbon was stored under the ground and below the oceans, and now is returning to where it came from. However we are not burning coal in some magnanimous attempt to liberate the carbon after its long incarceration within the crust of the planet. What we want is the energy. And this brings us to the crux of the matter.

The biggest threat to the planet is the energy itself. It is not the colour of the energy per se. For example, the increasing market for green fuels has devastated the island of Borneo, with vast tracks of land cleared in order to develop oil palm plantations. This has had significant impacts on the already threatened indigenous species, including the orangutan, the Sunda clouded leopard and the flat-headed cat. It is the energy that we directly use for survival that is the key to the planet's future. Fundamentally, the greatest crisis facing the human race is the result of one thing, our need for chemical energy to maintain us. Almost seven billion mouths cry out, like Audrey II in The Little Shop of Horrors, 'Feed me!' It doesn't really matter what other energy efficiency measures we make, it is the food production that threatens the Biosphere. In order to allow the growth of the global human population to continue, we need more and more energy.

Robert Malthus, who in 1798 published, originally anonymously, his magnum opus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, realised that as the human population increased geometrically, their demand for resources would outstrip supply, visiting great misery and hardship upon us all. Every population has a carrying capacity (literally the population capacity that can be carried by a given habitat), beyond which the demands placed upon resources prevent further growth. The only way to increase this carrying capacity is to increase the flow of energy through the system. It has been estimated that if humans were still hunter-gatherers, reliant on what resources they came across in a nomadic existence, the carrying capacity of the planet would be around 100 million people. Today, with modern agriculture, estimates range from 2 to 40 billion. The range in values is due to the vastly different ways that humans live their lives. If we all ate only what we needed for survival and used only the water necessary for our existence, there could be 40 billion of us. However the average Western lifestyle utilizes over three times the food required and 250 times the clean water required for survival. So if everyone lived like this, the carrying capacity would be only two billion people.

Worryingly, increased wealth in developing countries leads to increased resource use. In other words, the world is moving towards greater, rather than less resource use per person. This, combined with a continuing expansion of population, spells double trouble. The cruel truth is that while the alleviation of global poverty is an honourable aspiration, without a concomitant decrease in population, this aspiration will quicken our demise.

A final point on carrying capacity is worth a mention. Carrying capacities do not stay constant through time. As we continue to degrade the Biosphere, the human carrying capacity will decrease. Long-term cyclical change also can lead to decreases in carrying capacity, and so even living close to the maximum sustainable population size can be extremely risky. It is much more sensible to live well within your means! Thus we should be targeting a population much lower than the present sustainable maximum. The point here is that future sustainability does necessarily not equate to current sustainability.

Ultimately, all of our food comes from the sun. Photosynthesis (the conversion of light energy to sugars) is the only way in which we can get this energy. Plants don't grow in multi-storey car parks, and so bungalows are the only way ahead. Thus, if we want to increase the amount of photosynthesis, then we must increase the area of land set aside for this. Over recent decades, this has led to a huge destruction of habitats, clearing vast areas for agriculture. Wetlands have been drained, forests felled and grasslands ploughed in this pursuit.

However, increasing the area is not the only way to increase photosynthesis. The sun's energy can only be converted efficiently if there are sufficient nutrients and water available. Intensive agriculture demands more than a natural soil can deliver. Nutrients act as the security guards of energy flow. While the incoming energy from the sun remains relatively constant, nutrients determine how much of it can be converted into sugar. Low nutrient habitats have low productivity, whereas high nutrient habitats can capture lots of energy. So, obviously, since the name of the game is to increase sugar production, the answer seems straightforward. Thus we have poured fertilizers and water onto our fields in order to improve crop yield.

In 2009, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Yet a much more important event passed almost unnoticed: the one hundredth anniversary of one of the key events in human history. In 1909, at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, Fritz Haber showed how ammonia, the key nitrogen fertilizer, could be synthesised from dinitrogen [N.sub.2], the most abundant gas in the atmosphere (almost 80 per cent of the air we breath is made up of di-nitrogen). He received the Nobel Prize in 1918.

This discovery opened the door for mass production of nitrogen fertilizers, and a huge increase in agricultural productivity. Industrialized by Carl Bosch, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize of 1931, today it is estimated, by Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, that, such is our reliance on nitrogen fertilizers, on average, 50 per cent of the nitrogen in our bodies comes from the Haber-Bosch process, and 40 per cent of the world's population is dependent on this process for their very survival. That's 2.72 billion people, or nine times the population of the United States of America.

We have doubled the global liberation of nitrogen and phosphorus in the last fifty years. The problem with pouring fertilizers on our fields is that they do not stay there, but leach into our fresh and coastal waters, leading to an enrichment of nutrients in natural ecosystems. Natural ecosystems are like fine Swiss watches, highly sensitive and delicate multi-species entities, and the impact of these synthetic nutrients is devastating. You might think that this is strange, as surely more nutrients means more energy and happier organisms. However the opposite is true. Increasing the energy flow through these ecosystems leads to a dramatic reduction in diversity, and to extremely unbalanced systems. In fact, fertilizers are now recognized as one of the key causes of diversity loss over the last hundred years.

The consequence of all of this is that, to sustain the human population, we must continue to clear habitats and release fertilizers. Progressing along this path may be argued to be a justifiable direction. The thought of starving children, let alone the reality of it, is not something that we should accept. We can choose to convert our planet into a life support system for the human race, terraforming our world into a huge agroecosystem. Yet the costs of this are undeniable: the degradation of the Biosphere and the extinction of many of our co-habitants on planet Earth.

Given our relative intelligence within the Biosphere, and the moral responsibility that comes with this, is this an acceptable direction? Furthermore, the impact of our continued manipulation of the planet for our own ends will, ultimately, come back to haunt us. Aldo Leopold, the American founder of wildlife ecology, in his classic book, A Sand County Almanac (1949), stated that the actions of humans are embedded into an ecological network that should be ignored at our peril, and so if our approach damages the Biosphere, it will inevitably be very bad for us.

The consequences of a nutrient-rich, degraded Biosphere are manifold: toxic algal blooms, polluted drinking water, anoxic rivers (leading to fish death), shortening of the lifespan of lakes and a dramatic drop in diversity. Species diversity isn't just about lots of pretty butterflies in your garden, or the opportunity to see a red squirrel in the park. Diversity maintains ecosystem structure. Reduced diversity can lead to the collapse of ecosystems, due to increased susceptibility to disease, drought and floods. We are part of these ecosystems. Diversity is serious stuff, and decreasing it, as we are doing, will have significant consequences. Increased carbon doesn't dramatically decrease diversity; increased nutrient levels do. Unlike the previous five major extinctions in the history of life, which involved a dramatic drop in energy, the earth's sixth great mass extinction will be caused by an excess of energy.

What then of genetically modified crops? Surely they offer the miracle cure to our problems? Unfortunately this is unlikely to be the case. Firstly, they still require fertilizers and surface area on which to grow, and so the original problems still persist. Secondly, recent research has shown that they do not, in reality, increase food production. Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington DC, has reported that herbicide-tolerant corn and soybean failed to increase intrinsic (i.e. in the best possible conditions) and operational (i.e. in the real world) yields, while insect-resistant corn showed only a 3-4 per cent increase in operational yield. This is not going to solve the problems facing us and does not address the energetic issues that sit at the heart of the matter. Indeed Wayne Parrott, a staunch defender of genetic modification, based at the University of Georgia, admits that the current modified crops are designed merely to maintain yield rather than increase it.

So if we do not wish to head down this broad road of energetic overdose, with all of its disastrous consequences, then what are our options? We must decrease the energy flowing through our ecosystems. This means less fertilizers and less habitat destruction. Both of these mean less food. Ultimately, there is only one way to address the growing crisis on planet Earth: less people.

It's so simple, yet so difficult. China has been brave enough to try enforcing this, yet an intriguing outcome emerged--a skewed sex ratio, with less females and more males, due to female infanticide and foeticide. It has been estimated that, by 2020, there will be as many as 24 million Chinese men of marrying age without a spouse. This is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. In countries without any birth control policy, male offspring are preferred. In many regions of India it is now illegal for doctors to tell expectant parents of the sex of their baby, as abortion rates of females have soared in recent years. It is an urgent requirement to mount a significant global study into gender issues, and attempt to address this through increased education. High birth rates globally are linked to high infant mortality, and so with improved infant survival, we should expect a decrease in birth rate. However to decrease the human population, we need to reduce the average number of offspring to less than two. Arguments over the need for a brother or sister could be met by micro-community family units, where two or three families would live in separate homes that shared some common living space, allowing children to benefit from surrogate siblings. Financial encouragement could be put in place to promote this. It may seem futuristic or idealistic, but we either confront the problems or face the consequences.

What else can we do? There are three, additional, key areas that we need to focus on.

1. Eat less meat

Animals eat plants, and so result in a less efficient use of land. At each stage in a food chain, energy is lost, and so eating plants is a more direct and efficient use of the light energy that we rely on. We lose 20 per cent of the energy in plants by eating meat. In other words, we use 20 per cent more land to gain the same energy. That is a lot of habitat and fertilizer. Furthermore, some 70 per cent of Brazilian rainforest destruction is caused by clearance for cattle ranching. This compares to only 3 per cent of the destruction due to logging. In Brazil alone, an area larger than France has been converted from rainforest to beef production. The pressure of meat demand places a significant burden upon our planet, particularly given the importance of rainforests in terms of diversity, pharmaceutical resources and carbon capture.

2. Responsible agriculture

We can reduce the amount of fertilizer leaching from our leaky agroecosystems by a number of approaches. Hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient solutions) prevents any leakage. Farm land can be bordered by natural or constructed barriers. Natural barriers utilize plants such as nettles, which have a high affinity for nutrients, and can be recycled as green mulch. Sealed fields, literally using walls to trap and then recycle drainage water, are another approach. To reduce fertilizer requirements, agroforestry can also be used, where nitrogen-fixing and phosphate-fixing trees capture and liberate these essential nutrients. This system is often used in third world countries, but why not increase its use in developed nations?

3. Reduce food waste

This is perhaps the most essential immediate step. From field to stomach, we waste around 40 per cent of the food that we produce. Ugly vegetables do not make it to the supermarket shelves because only supermodel specimens are tolerated. Perfectly conical carrots and parsnips are what we want. Let's celebrate the ugly vegetable! Last July the European Commission rescinded the ban on selling 'misshapen' fruit and vegetables. This not only reduced food waste but led in some instances to a lowering of price. However now a group of Spanish MEPs is trying to persuade the European Parliament to bring back this ban. One Tory MEP argued 'Food is food, no matter what it looks like. To try to stop stores selling perfectly decent food because of its shape or size is morally unjustifiable, especially when we are worried about global food supplies'. Domestic waste also contributes hugely to the problem, and more responsible buying and cooking can greatly reduce this waste.

So the choice is simple--continue pumping energy through the Biosphere and turn the planet into a big field, or lower the population and enjoy the diversity and wealth of the natural world.

Carbon is an important issue, but its importance is as a symptom of a deeper disease, our lust for energy. It is a shadow on the cave wall, outlining a much more significant malaise. While noteworthy, carbon is not the basis of the crisis facing the human race and our fellow passengers on planet Earth. Not only has the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference failed, abjectly, to produce a workable, enforceable and collectively agreed plan, but, from the outset, it has completely missed the point. The problems facing the Biosphere, and humankind in particular, stem from our thirst for energy and result from our need to maintain an artificially inflated carrying capacity.

Focusing on carbon is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to re-arrange them because they are sliding, but moving the chairs will not arrest the greater problem. Given the resilience of the Biosphere as a whole however, it is not a case of the entire ship going under. But if we want to enjoy the cruise, rather than spend it in an ever more uncomfortable hold, we need to face up to the energetic context within which the survival and continuance of the human race find themselves.

Dr Keith Skene is an evolutionary ecologist from the University of Dundee. His new book, Shadows on the Cave Wall: a New Theory of Evolution published by Ard Macha Press, is available from, or from the publishers directly at for [pounds sterling]9.99. Contact the author on
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Title Annotation:CARBON IS NOT THE PLANET'S GREATEST THREAT; 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference
Author:Skene, Keith
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Conference news
Geographic Code:4EUDE
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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