Have Fossil Fuels Diminished the World’s Sustainability and Resilience?

By Indur M. Goklany – Re-Blogged From http://www.WattsUpWithThat.com

The recent Papal Encyclical on the environment’s endorsement of “changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat…warming,” and drastic reductions in carbon dioxide and other emissions is based on the notion that “it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society…” and that the “exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits” (paragraphs 23. 27). It also reflects the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences’ Declaration which asserts that “Unsustainable consumption coupled with a record human population and the uses of inappropriate technologies are causally linked with the destruction of the world’s sustainability and resilience” (p. 1).

But these assertions are fundamentally flawed. The world is not less sustainable and resilient today than it was before the Industrial Revolution. In fact, it is probably more sustainable and resilient today than previously. This is shown in the following, which is a lightly edited extract from the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s The Pontifical Academies’ BROKEN MORAL COMPASS, which addresses this and other claims found in both the Encyclical and Declaration.

Humanity’s sustainability and resilience

If the world were less sustainable and resilient today, global population would be smaller today, worse off than in the past, or both. But the world’s population is at a record level. Equally important, human wellbeing is at or near its peak by virtually every objective broad measure. Consider that:

  • Between 1990–92 and 2014–16, despite a global population increase of 35% (or 1.9 billion), the population suffering from chronic hunger declined by 216 million.[1],[2] Consequently malnutrition also declined. Since reductions in hunger and malnutrition are the first steps to better public health, age-adjusted mortality rates have declined and life expectancy has increased.[3]
  • Even in low-income countries, life expectancy, probably the single best indicator of human wellbeing, increased from 25–30 years in 1900 to 42 years in 1960 and 62 years today.3
  • People are not just living longer, they also are healthier. This is true in the richer as well as the poorer segments of the world. Healthy life expectancy — that is, life expectancy adjusted downward to account for years spent in a less-than-healthy condition (weighted by the severity of that condition) — was 53 years in 2012 in low-income countries, far exceeding their unadjusted life expectancy in 1960 (42 years).[4]
  • Between 1950 and 2013, the average person’s standard of living measured by GDP per capita, increased from $2100 to $8200 (in 1990 international PPP-adjusted dollars).3,[5] This statistic understates the relative increase in the standard of living because long term changes in GDP per capita do not properly account for the fact that some goods and services available today — e.g. cell phones, the Internet, personal computers — were simply unavailable at any price a few decades ago. Nor do they account properly for improvements in the quality of others; compare the bulky, grainy black-and-white analogue TVs of yesteryear with the light, 80-inch HD 3-D colour models of today.
  • More importantly, the global population in absolute poverty declined from 53% to 17% between 1981 and 2011.[6] There were about 847 947 million fewer people living in absolute poverty in 2011 than in 1981, although the developing world’s population increased by 2.5 billion.[7] Not accidentally, the most rapid reductions in poverty occurred in east and south Asia, the areas with the fastest economic growth, all fuelled by fossil fuels.
  • Education and literacy, once the domain of the clergy and the wealthy, have advanced. Between 1980 and 2012, enrollment in secondary schools in low-income countries increased from 18% to 44%.3
  • The average person has never had greater and faster access to information, knowledge and technology to help them learn, adapt and solve whatever problems they face. Mobile (cell) phone subscriptions have risen from 0% of population in 1997 to 55% in 2013 in low-income countries, while Internet users rose from virtually nil to 7% of the population over the same period.3
  • These indicators reflect the very factors that enhance resilience and adaptive capacity, no matter what the threat.[8] And as humanity’s vulnerability to adversity has declined, the negative consequences of climate and weather, in particular, have been reduced. Thus the more narrowly focused climate-sensitive indicators have, predictably, also improved. Specifically:
  • Global death rates from all extreme weather events have declined by over 98% since the 1920s.[9]
  • Crop yields have improved steadily across the world. From 1961 to 2013, cereal yields increased by 85% in the least-developed countries and 185% worldwide, and show no sustained sign of decelerating, let alone reversing.[10]
  • Despite population increases, which theoretically should have made clean water less accessible, the number of people with access to a safe supply has actually increased worldwide. Between 1990 and 2012, the population with such access increased from 75.9% to 89.3% (that is, by 2.3 billion additional people).3 Concurrently, an additional 2.0 billion people got access to improved sanitation.3
  • The global mortality rate for malaria, which accounts for about 80% of the global burden of vector-borne diseases that may pose increased risk under global warming,[11] declined from 194 per 100,000 in 1900 to 9 per 100,000 in 2012, an overall decline of 95.4%.[12],[13]

Thus, trends in the broad indicators of human wellbeing and the narrower climate-sensitive indicators show that, despite population growth, sustainability and resilience have advanced markedly, in direct contrast to the academies’ claims. To illustrate, Figure 1 shows that, globally, both life expectancy and real GDP per capita — representing public health and the standard of living, and perhaps the two most important measures of human wellbeing — have been increasing in parallel with carbon dioxide emissions. Similar graphs can be produced showing improvements in the various indicators of human wellbeing with economic development. [14],[15]

But these are no mere correlations.

The improvement in human well-being have been enabled directly or indirectly through the use of fossil fuels or fossil-fuel powered technologies and economic growth.14,[16],[17],[18] This is because every human activity —whether it is growing crops, cooking food, building a home, making and transporting goods, delivering services, using electrical equipment for any purpose, studying under a light or going on holiday — depends directly or indirectly on the availability of energy (see below) and, in today’s world, energy is virtually synonymous with fossil fuels; they supply 82% of global energy used.[19] Even human inactivity cannot be maintained for any length of time without energy consumption. A human being who is merely lying around needs to replenish his energy just to maintain basic bodily functions. The amount of energy needed to sustain inactivity is called the basal metabolic rate (BMR). It takes food — a carbon product — to replace this energy. Insufficient food, which is defined in terms of the BMR, leads to starvation, stunting, and a host of other physical and medical problems, and, possibly, death.[20]


Figure 1: Long term trends in population, standard of living, health, and carbon dioxide emissions, 1760–2013. The GDP per capita (in real, purchasing power adjusted dollars) is probably the best measure for the standard of living. Likewise, life expectancy is probably the best measure for overall health. In general, longer lives have also translated into healthier lives. Sources: Updated from Goklany (2011).


Nature’s sustainability and resilience

It may, however, be argued that the increase in humanity’s sustainability and resilience has come at the expense of the rest of nature. Indeed, this was the case for millennia, with an approximately linear relationship being seen between land clearance on the one hand, and human population and standard of living on the other. This was because virtually everything humanity needed and used — food, fuel, clothing, medicine, mechanical power, and much of its housing, shelter, material goods, energy and transportation — was obtained directly or indirectly via the services or products of living nature. The slow rate of technological change meant that if living standards had to improve or the population increased then, barring favourable weather, the increase in demand for food, fuel or any other good would have to be met mostly through additional land clearance. Thus, initially the Industrial Revolution saw population increases accompanied by higher conversion of land per capita to agricultural use. However, this trend was eventually reversed due to a host of fossil-fuel-based technologies. Firstly, these technologies increased the productivity of land to provide the needed goods and services. Secondly, they began to displace the goods and services that humanity traditionally obtained from nature.14,[21] Specifically:

· Food. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels, non-existent in 1900, increased crop yields during the 20th century. Together they are responsible for at least 60% of today’s global food supply. Crop yields were also augmented by other technologies such as drilling, pumping and distribution of irrigation water, that were also fossil-fuel powered. The amount of food produced (or consumed) per acre of cultivated land was further stretched by reductions in post-harvest and end-use losses enabled through fossil fuel derived technologies such as refrigeration, faster transportation, plastic packaging and storage, and more efficient processing methods.14

· Fibre. About 63% of the world’s fibre production is of synthetic fibres, which are made from fossil fuels. Of the remainder 79% comes from cotton, which is also substantially dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.[22] Synthetic fibres were little more than curiosities until the 1900s. Synthetic fibres also diminished the need to hunt and trap various species for furs and skins helping defuse a major threat to biodiversity.[23]

· Fuel and energy. Biofuels (mainly wood) provided 52% of global energy in 1900. Today their share is down to 11%, whereas the share of fossil fuels has increased from 42% to 82% over that period.[24],[25] Along the way, fossil fuels displaced animal power for transporting goods, people, and doing other work on and off the farm. Feeding these animals used to consume a substantial share of agricultural produce. In the US, for instance, 27% of the land harvested for crops in 1910 was devoted to feeding the 27.5 million horses and mules. Thus displacing animal power with fossil fuels freed up land to feed people and limit habitat loss.14 Habitat loss is generally considered to be the single largest threat to biodiversity, although invasive species have been responsible for a large share of extinctions in the last few centuries, particularly in insular areas.

· Materials. Biomass was responsible for 74% of material use in 1900 but only 30% in 2009.24 This was enabled by the invention of new materials (e.g. plastics, new alloys) and the application of new, often energy-intensive processes to old and not-so-old materials (cement, iron, steel, engineered woods) to extract, manufacture, fabricate and transport them.

Thus, fossil fuels allowed humanity to vastly increase the quantity of goods and services that it obtained from the rest of nature while limiting land conversion. The trend towards greater land productivity is reinforced by the fact that higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase the rate of vegetation growth, and the efficiency with which plants use water. Nitrogen deposition from fossil-fuel and fertilizer use further increases the biosphere’s productivity. Together, these factors have enabled humanity to meet its growing needs without adding proportionately to its already considerable burden on the rest of nature. Consequently, as shown by Figure 2, the amount of land used for humanity’s needs per capita had peaked by the second half of the twentieth century: between 1990 and 2012, although global population increased 33%, the increases in global cropland (3%) and agricultural area (2%) were ten-fold smaller.10 That is, habitat conversion to crops and other agricultural land has almost plateaued globally.


Figure 2: Global habitat conversion to agricultural uses, 1760–2012. Agricultural uses, since time immemorial, have been the major cause of habitat conversion. Sources: Kees Klein Goldewijk et al., “The HYDE 3.1 Spatially Explicit Database of Human-induced Global Land-use Change over the Past 12,000 Years,” Global Ecology and Biogeography 20 (2011): 73–86; FAO, FAOSTAT, http://faostat.fao.org/, visited May 16, 2015.

Equally important, despite a 52% population growth10 and any land clearance and degradation, satellite data indicate that the productivity of global ecosystems increased 14% from 1982 to 2011. [26] They also show that 31% of the global vegetated area has become greener while 3% has become less green. All vegetation types — tropical rain forests, deciduous and evergreen boreal forests, scrubland, semi-deserts, grasslands and all other wild ecosystems —have increased their productivity. The IPCC Working Group II’s Fifth Assessment notes that, “[d]uring the decade 2000 to 2009, global land net primary productivity was approximately 5% above the preindustrial level, contributing to a net carbon sink on land … despite ongoing deforestation” and land-use change (emphasis added).[27] These increases have been attributed to higher carbon dioxide levels; nitrogen deposition from fossil-fuel combustion and fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer use, and possibly a more favourable climate.[28], [29] Thus, at least over the past thirty years, fossil fuels have helped the planet increase its productivity above its pre-industrial level; that is, the planet’s ability to sustain plant and animal biomass has increased.

To appreciate the scale of the positive effect of fossil-fuel technologies in limiting and reversing habitat loss, consider that fossil fuels currently are directly or indirectly responsible for at least 60% of humanity’s food and fibre. Thus, absent fossil fuels, global cropland alone would have to increase by at least 150% (or 2.3 billion hectares) just to meet current demand. This is equivalent to the combined land area of South America and the European Union.14,[30] That would have further exacerbated the greatest threat to biodiversity, namely, the conversion of habitat. To put into context the land saved by fossil fuels in this way, consider that the area exceeds the total amount of land set aside worldwide in any kind of protected status (2.1 billion hectares).[31]

Conclusion: fossil fuels have enhanced the world’s sustainability

Contrary to the Pontifical academies’ claim, empirical trends show that sustainability and resilience – both of humanity and of rest of nature — have advanced rather than diminished. Moreover fossil fuels have been an integral reason for these advances.

The divergence between the academies’ claims and empirical reality is due to their omission, for whatever reason, of any examination of a host of indicators of human wellbeing and global biological productivity. Less charitable souls may note that these indicators are not arcane, and that their favourable trends have persisted for decades and have been repeatedly noted by researchers. 15,[32],[33] They may therefore wonder if the academies’ oversight is wilful: a sin of commission. But it could also be due to wishful thinking rooted in confirmation bias, or to plain ignorance, although the latter seems implausible given the qualifications of the members of the academies.

Curiously, the academies claim to have demonstrated a causal link between this alleged decline and “Unsustainable consumption coupled with a record human population and the uses of inappropriate technologies”. This claim is obviously risible, given that one cannot establish such a link when the phenomenon concerned, namely the alleged reduction in the world’s sustainability and resilience, has not been observed.


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