A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet

Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century

Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife.

This dual process of accelerating human development while shrinking the human footprint is called decoupling and it is this concept that underlies a radical ecological vision presented at last month’s Breakthrough Dialogue and further elaborated in a forthcoming paper from the Breakthrough Institute.

There are precedents for decoupling: over the past 50 years, even though diets have become richer, humans have nearly halved the per capita amount of cropland globally, which includes land used to grow feed for livestock. The amount of pasture per capita has gone down, too, from nearly one hectare per capita to around half a hectare. The per capita area of production forest has decreased as well.

This intensification has not necessarily come at the cost of more pollution. The amount of nitrogen pollution per unit output in the United States, for instance, has declined by about one-third since the mid-1970s. Thanks to better efficiency, the amount of water embodied in an average global diet peaked around 1960 and has since declined by about one-quarter.

“It is fair to say that, in many respects, the average person today treads much more lightly on the land than the average person 20 or 50 years ago,” argued Blomqvist.

Decoupling isn’t a natural, inevitable process: historically, the reason we have been able to decouple environmental impacts from human development is stepwise technological progress in which higher-footprint technologies are replaced by lower-footprint technologies.

In agriculture, the switch from tilling with draft animals to tilling with tractors in the United States spared an area of land the size of California. The switch from natural to synthetic rubber is sparing on the order of 10 to 15 million hectares of land. Feedlot production requires far less land than grazing, and we’ve begun to spare wild fish by growing fish intensively in closed-system aquaculture.

“Substitution has been one of the most, if not the most important driver of relative decoupling over the past decades and centuries,” said Blomqvist.

The obvious answer to speeding up decoupling, it would seem, is to invent and diffuse more and more low-footprint substitutes. But that’s not the end of the story, argued Blomqvist:

In virtually all of these cases, decoupling has been made possible with higher inputs of energy. Growing vegetables in greenhouses takes more energy than growing them in a field, but it takes less land. Making synthetic rubber is far more energy-intensive than harvesting rubber trees. Practically every significant new technology in agriculture over the last millennia has involved higher energy inputs, but also higher yields.

To shrink the human footprint on the environment, then, might require much more energy, as energy allows us to economize our natural resources. Blomqvist offered the metaphor of a pressure washer, which gets much more cleaning done with less water than if one simply threw buckets of water on the ground.

How might we guide and accelerate the decoupling processes that have occurred over the past several decades? Blomqvist offered several points: first, we will need to accelerate the transition from high-footprint to low-footprint technologies. To enable this acceleration, the price of energy services like vegetable production in high-rise greenhouses and freshwater from desalination plants will need to come way down. To power these low-footprint technologies, we’ll need a lot more energy, which makes investing in energy sources that are abundant, low-carbon, and minimize land use critical to moving toward a high-energy, low-footprint planet.

A future where cheap, low-carbon energy allows us to leave more room for nature sounds good on paper, but the obstacles to its achievement are real, argued Paul Ekins, professor of energy and environment policy at the University College of London and panelist at the Dialogue. If humans had access to a greater abundance of energy, he said, it in no way guarantees that we will use it toward land sparing.

“We are a supremely inventive species when it comes to using energy: we build artificial ski slopes in Dubai,” said Ekins. “If we had abundant energy, we might well not use it to save nature. We might well use it less responsibly.”

In order to use energy to save nature, according to Ekins, societies would need policies that directed them toward that goal, and such policies would only come about if people came to prioritize saving nature over potentially more destructive activities. “This socio-cultural transition would have to give specific value to nature, not necessarily through monetary valuation, and it would have to ensure that this value was expressed in political and economic decision-making,” said Ekins.

Ekins also questioned the viability of nuclear power as a primary source of cheap, abundant, low-carbon, low-footprint energy. In the United Kingdom, the public was promised nuclear energy that was “too-cheap-to meter” as far back as the 1950s. But the economics of nuclear never improved, and since then, the United Kingdom has been saddled with an industry that has been called “an absolute classic example of the government picking losers.” Determining the actual prospects for a nuclear renaissance, or the expansion of other cheap, reliable, low-carbon energy sources will take hard, pragmatic thinking.

“Before I start dreaming about ‘limitless, cheap, low-carbon energy,’ I would like to find a policy means of moving toward ‘enough, not-too-expensive, low-carbon’ energy and put together the political collaborations necessary to go up against the biggest, most hostile set of vested interests that humanity’s ever had,” said Ekins.

The ecomodernist vision of decoupling human development from environmental impacts will not benefit all humans equally either, cautioned Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. The increasing extraction and production of energy is one of the biggest drivers of indigenous peoples being driven off their land, Suckling pointed out, and the people who are most negatively affected disappear from the discourse.

“You will not see energy extraction in places like Marin County,” he said. “That happens ‘somewhere else,’ and that somewhere else is primarily in two places – where animals live and where poor people live.”

Furthermore, the relative decline in land use over the past several decades may not be the best index for protecting biodiversity. “It’s perfectly logical for species to keep going extinct at a rapid rate while we are decreasing our relative land use,” Suckling said. “The honey badger doesn’t care about our relative footprint. The honey badger cares about acres.”

Blomqvist agreed: just because we have decreased the area needed for growing crops, for instance, does not necessarily mean that we have reduced our total impact. However, slowing population growth – catalyzed by better access to energy, education, and other factors – will also relieve pressure on the planet. The hope is that if we decrease per capita impacts, while population growth continues to decelerate, then the two trends combined will reduce our overall impact.

“I’d say that in this century, [peak impact] is more likely than not,” said Blomqvist. “But when this happens and at what level is going to be determined by the pace of modernization and technological change in the right direction. Kieran’s fear is justified: if those two processes are too slow, then we’ll have lost many more forests and species before we can turn things around.”