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COMMENTARY: Energy gluttony could be humanity's undoing

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"All the data required by our smartphones, computers, etc., need to be collected, processed and transmitted. All of it requires huge amounts of energy," writes Cornelis de Vries. - 123RF Stock Photo

CORNELIS DE VRIES

When we talk about climate change, a significant segment of the population will immediately point out that the Earth has experienced some vast fluctuations in global temperatures before, without mankind’s help.

And there is plenty scientific data to back them up. Only yesterday.

Geologically speaking, vast stretches of the North American continent were covered with ice. Obviously, the temperature must have gone up a tad for these ice fields to disappear. Scientists speculate that changes in heat radiation from the sun have caused the large temperature fluctuations here on Earth, in the past. It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that if it happened previously, it could happen again.

Sure, but we don’t want to be the cause of it, do we?

In spite of considering ourselves to be the most intelligent inhabitants so far, our historical track record is dismal. Here’s hoping we collectively come to our senses and don’t add extinction to our list of accomplishments.

But let’s not talk about climate change for now. Let’s talk about pollution.

What person would want to argue that polluting the air, water and soil is a good thing? Well, we are polluting at an unprecedented rate and every man jack of us is responsible.

In spite of our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we spewed more of them into the air than ever before, globally, in 2018. Our nibbling along the edges of the problem by producing renewable energy, more energy-efficient machines (cars, planes, etc.) plus pollution abatement measures, was totally negated by other happenings, which we will talk about in a bit.

The filling of our atmosphere with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous dioxide, methane and even water vapour, is particularly problematic since these gases slow the Earth from radiating excess heat back into space. The so-called greenhouse effect.

Burning any fossil fuels – such as coal, diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, natural gas, etc. –  will produce carbon dioxide, with coal being the worst source. Methane is produced by burning natural gas and by landfills, cattle, manure, etc., and is, particle for particle, the most potent greenhouse gas. Nitrous dioxide is a byproduct of fertilizer use, and the warmer it gets, the more water vapour is sent up into the atmosphere.

Ever since the industrial revolution, starting in the 1850s, we’ve been producing these gases at an ever-increasing rate and the average temperature on Earth has been creeping up to keep pace,  to where it is now about 1.5 C higher than it was before that time.

That doesn’t seem like much, but the vast majority of scientists keeping track of these developments are telling us that we will be in serious trouble once the average temperature rise goes past the 2 C mark, and disaster will strike when it goes beyond that. We’ve seen some extreme weather lately, and in some parts of the world and we are warned that worse is to come.

A lot has been written about the problem, but very little has been said about what has to be done in order to reverse the present trend. We want governments to take action, but as soon as they announce any kind of initiative, howls of protest go up because it might cost us a few dollars and, God forbid, might hurt the fossil-fuel industry.

In the meantime, all the efforts to reduce our rate of pollution by using renewable energy sources and making machinery more fuel-efficient have not been nearly sufficient to reverse our present rate of pollution. So we have a serious problem.

You may ask, “Why it is that, in spite of many pollution abatement efforts, we still keep sending up more pollution?” Well, my friends, the answer is very simple: It’s our behaviour as a species. We may be a victim of our own success if we keep doing things just because we can.

Consider the following:

  • The global population is, on average, increasing by 83 million annually. That is equal to the population of Germany.
  • The average home size in 1950 was 983 square feet; today it is 2,500 square feet, and more and more people own more than one home. Bigger homes, higher energy use.
  • We have fallen for the siren song of the automobile industry, and many of us are driving cars and trucks bigger than we really need. Bigger vehicles, higher energy use.
  • In 2006, there were approximately 950 million cars and trucks on the road globally. In 2015, that number had gone up to 1.25 billion. More vehicles, more pollution.
  • Air passenger traffic is increasing by five per cent annually. That means that it has doubled since 2004 with the corresponding rise in air pollution.
  • In 1980, 1.4 million people enjoyed a sea cruise. In 2016, that number had gone up to 24 million, and it’s still rising fast. The cruise ships are getting ever bigger and are serious polluters since they burn heavy fuel.
  • All the data required by our smartphones, computers, etc., need to be collected, processed and transmitted. All of it requires huge amounts of energy. In 2017, the U.S. data centres consumed 90 billion kWh of electricity. With Canada’s population being roughly one-tenth of the U.S.’s, and our behaviour very similar to our neighbours’, one can safely assume that we required 9 billion kWh of power to fuel our electronic dependence. That’s the rough equivalent to the electricity requirement of close to a million families annually.

Because of our affluence, we have acquired many more toys and habits that add pollution, besides the things already listed above. The point is that we are doing all these things because we can, and to satisfy the quest to have an ever-growing economy.

Who is going to tell us that we can’t anymore? Who is going to tell us that we have to stop increasing the population, build smaller homes, drive smaller vehicles, travel less and severely limit our data use – just for starters? No government on this Earth is going to do that.

So, Earth, we’ve got a problem. The problem is the mindset of our species. We are marching headlong into troubles because we mindlessly are doing all these things without considering the consequences for ourselves, our children and our children’s children. We have been warned multiple times, but we have not made the connection to our own behaviour. Instead, we have pointed the finger at governments, fossil-fuel producers and other industries.

Consider this. The war on drugs has consumed untold billions of dollars without any noticeable results. Why? Because the demand for drugs never waned. As long as there is a demand – and money to be made – someone is going to satisfy it, regardless of the consequences.

It’s no different with energy use. If we as a species do not start to feel alarmed and guilty about our present behaviour and take immediate action to reduce our energy use drastically, I fear the worst.

We have identified the enemy and it is us.      

Cornelis de Vries lives in Rose Bay.

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