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The True Cost of BAU — Why confronting the environmental crisis is going to be difficult.

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I was in the process of writing this post when a new paper by Paul and Anne Ehrlich was published on-line by Proceedings of the Royal Society.  The Ehrlichs, of Stanford University, have been making the case for the need to address the growth of the human population, and more generally the need to confront the environmental crisis we are causing, for the past 45 years.  This article is a well-written summary of the immensity of the problem before us.  It’s on open access, is readily downloadable, and is a clear and convincing summation of why we need to act.  I’d like you to read what I have posted here, but I urge you also to download and read this important article.

The Problem of BAU

It’s widely recognized that providing people with a picture of doom and gloom is no way to win them over and inspire them to promote the idea of fixing the environmental crisis.  Too often in the past, environmental scientists devoted most words to how bad things are likely to get under BAU, Business As Usual, and far too few words that gave any hope for a way out of this mess.  One remedy over the last couple of years has been to present the doom and gloom, but then focus on some tiny bright spots of good news as a way of saying, see, it is really possible to take action and achieve positive results.  We thought that might inspire people more effectively.  I’ve used this approach as have many others, but I’m becoming disillusioned by the frequency with which my own coral reef colleagues, ostensibly talking about the likely global loss of coral reefs as we know them within decades, end up with beautiful pictures of a pristine reef in a tiny MPA, or impossibly remote from humans.  The take-home message received is “the scientist told us about a bunch of complicated problems, but showed some lovely pictures of a coral reef.  I’d like to visit a reef one day.” The intended message about an enormous problem is lost!  At the start of 2013, this approach is not sufficient any longer, if it ever was.

Because there is a deep and dirty secret that we have been keeping hidden.

This is that finding a good exit from the global environmental crisis is going to require very substantial changes in our way of life, unless, of course, we are happy to promote a good solution for the very wealthy 1% at the expense of the vast majority of humanity. Very substantial changes; not something that will be fixed by recycling ALL our garbage, turning the thermostat down half a degree, eating a little less beef, and definitely not something fixed by wearing a think green tee-shirt or even a think green tattoo. As for actually saving the coral reefs, the sharks, rhinos and polar bears, the rain forests, the small island developing states, the Arctic, or the birds and butterflies that belong in an English country garden, forget it unless we undertake major change to our way of life.

It did not have to be this way.  If the countries of the world could have recognized this massive problem in 1992, put selfish short-term interests aside, and really undertaken to work together to solve it, we could have accomplished a lot with a lot less pain.  But not anymore, because the crisis is far more serious now than it was back then.  The good news, if there is any, is that despite the great cost to our way of life, taking action to achieve a good outcome remains far less costly than continuing with BAU.  Indeed, BAU may no longer lead to a long-term future that includes civilization.  When I talk of costs, I am thinking of quality of life as well as cost in real dollars spent.  The cost of BAU for the next few decades is unimaginable, ‘civilization collapse’ unimaginable.

So, let’s line up some assumptions.  Continuing with BAU means that nations will continue to have economies based primarily on trade in goods rather than trade in services.  Such economies exchange things among people and they are necessarily energy-intensive.  In fact the growth in the global economy (measured by GDP) has been very tightly correlated with the growth in the use of energy.

Global GDP vs various energy consumption indices (1980=100).  Figure taken from Low Carbon and Economic Growth – Key Challenges, 2011, report by IIER for DFID, UK.

BAU also means that the slight shifts within mature economies towards less energy-intensity in a service and knowledge economic system will be more than offset by the rapidly expanding resource-based economies of the developing world.  BAU also means that the concept of positive economic growth, and with it growth in consumption of resources and energy, remains a core principle for all nations.  BAU also means that the human population continues its growth from the present 7 billion to 9.2 billion or so by mid-century with further growth beyond, and that standards of living in at least some developing countries rise towards those of the developed world.  Most people who are not environmental scientists will see these as all acceptable, desirable, achievable, and perhaps even necessary changes over the next few years.  This is the BAU path we have been on for some time.

Now let’s look at where we are, and the environmental consequences of these trends over the next few years.  As the global population grows from 7 billion to about 8.3 billion in 2030 (en route to 9.3 billion in 2050 and 10.1 billion in 2100), the number of middle-class consumers is expected to increase by about 3 billion, and the demand for resources will rise exponentially due both to the growing numbers and the growing average lifestyles.  By 2030, humanity will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water (these estimates are considered low by some other experts).  Let’s consider each of these in turn, taking energy first.


Everything being said by economics ministers around the world indicates that economic growth, and the particular type of resource-based economy we have, are necessary into the future.  In any event, a modest slackening of growth will not alter the need for growing energy use very much.  While the global economic downturn did lead to a drop in energy use in 2009, the trend was back on track by 2010 while the economic malaise has lingered much longer.  Further, our sources of energy are going to continue to

Figure from EIA Key World Energy Statistics, 2012.  The drop in energy use in 2009 was modest.

be predominantly fossil fuel based, a fact made more certain than it was a few years ago by the Fukushima disaster’s impact on enthusiasm for nuclear energy, and by the invention of fracking and the vast new oil and gas reserves that technology has opened up.  Developing industrial-scale energy infrastructure – fuel extraction and fuel use — takes time, and we have a substantial global investment in using current fuel types.  Further, we have some exceptionally wealthy corporations invested in the extraction and marketing of fossil fuels.  Don’t expect the fossil fuel producers to voluntarily stop what they are doing while it remains a very profitable activity.

The IEA’s 2012 forecast is that the world’s total primary energy supply, 12,717 million tonnes oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2010, will grow to 16,961 Mtoe in 2035, about a 1/3 increase in energy amount, assuming all currently stated governmental plans for GHG emissions reduction are achieved. 

This could be reduced to 14,870 Mtoe in 2035 with the addition of certain efficiency improvements in order to stabilize CO2 in the atmosphere at 450ppm and limit warming to 2oC.  In either case, IEA projects that fossil fuels will continue to represent 60 to 75% of all energy sources in 2035.  Global CO2 emissions, currently 31.2 Gt, are projected to rise to 37.0 Gt in 2035 under the higher growth BAU scenario.  With real pressure from the people, governments may be able to achieve the 450ppm goal, but they are unlikely to do better than that unless the demand for real change is far stronger than seems likely given prevailing attitudes in developed countries, and in any event there are genuine limits to how quickly the mix of fuels can be shifted. 

With current levels of demand for change, governments may well not achieve their 450ppm commitment – just look at Canada’s abysmal performance in recent years.

This continued reliance on fossil fuel, and the increasing rates of emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that will result, ensure that climate will continue to change.  IEA projects that we are currently on track for a 3.6oC increase in average temperature by 2100.

All recent experience suggests that a truly substantial reduction in energy use can only be achieved with a substantial economic collapse far worse than 2009.  What is needed instead is a concerted move away from fossil fuels (and EIA suggests this can only be done relatively slowly) and/or a massive shift of the global economy so that it is no longer tied to energy consumption – a different type of economy.  This shift is beginning in the developed world, but it is moving slowly there and it is very difficult to see how this shift can even properly begin in the developing world where national objectives are to raise the population out of poverty.  Populations cannot be raised out of poverty without increases in material goods such as water and sewerage infrastructure, a functioning energy grid, roads and bridges, accommodation, transportation and the material possessions we all take for granted.  Developing economies can avoid the western pitfall of planned obsolescence, but they cannot succeed by focusing only on production of knowledge and services.  Non-OECD countries currently consume 57.5% of all energy and EIA projects this as rising to about two thirds of all energy in 2035.  The only conclusion to draw is that we must move aggressively away from fuels that emit CO2 (so carbon separation and sequestration as well as a shift to renewables must be explored), but we must also be realistic and recognize that climate is definitely going to change further, likely on the scale of a 3oC rise or more in average temperature by 2100 no matter how successful we are in reducing emissions.

Food and Water

Remember the (conservative) projections – we will need 50% more food and 30% more water by 2030.  We have consumed more food than we produced in 7 of the last 8 years so arranging to produce 50% more will not be an easy task.  There was some early optimism that climate change would help food production because increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will have a ‘fertilizing’ effect on crop plants, but this optimism has withered as we have begun to understand the impacts of climate change on the water cycle.  Warmer air leads to enhanced evaporation from soils and water bodies, and enhanced transpiration by plants.  The warmer atmosphere can hold more water, but even so, there will continue to be rainfall.  In effect, the cycle goes faster, the rain tends to come in fewer more intense downpours, and on average, many parts of the world become dryer.  A dryer world grows less food.

According to the World Bank’s report, Turn Down the Heat, we now have nearly all land that could be used for agriculture already under cultivation, and increases in yield will have to be achieved by using the land more efficiently.  But at the same time, climate change, and the continuous conversion of agricultural land into urban land make the task ever more difficult.  Sea level rise is projected to inundate 10.7% of arable land in South Asia while 10% more intense storm surges further exacerbate the situation there.  Warming in tropical regions is expected to reduce yields of grain crops substantially

Without Adaptation

With Adaptation

Spring wheat

-14% to -25%

-4% to -10%


-19% to -34%

-6% to -18%


-15% to -30%

-12% to -26%

Data from Turn Down the Heat

by 2050.  Adaptation by making changes to time of planting, and cultivar used can reduce these losses, but not eliminate them (see table above).  Globally, the total “drought disaster affected” land is now projected to be likely to Increase from its current 15.4% of all cropland to about 44% by 2050 given likely warming and changes in precipitation.  This is a particular problem in Africa and Oceania, where the amount of drought-prone land could reach 59% by 2100.  The World Bank report singles out two recent studies for China of the combined effects of warming, precipitation change, and possible CO2 fertilization on yields for maize both rain-fed and irrigated.  The first shows losses under all combinations, for all temperatures considered – under the warmest conditions examined (+3oC) losses range from -2% to -26%.  The second reports a significant increase in the risk of crop failure in the future arising from a combination of increased heat and water stress, after taking into account the CO2 fertilization effect.

Yes, we can use drip irrigation, but it seems unlikely that we can keep yields constant, let alone increase them sufficiently to provide the 50% more food that is needed.

When we add in the very likely continuation of a shift towards more meat consumption in developing countries, the difficulty in providing increased amounts of food becomes even greater.  Of course, it is also true that if everyone stopped eating meat, if food storage and shipping were made more efficient so that waste was eliminated, if pernicious farming subsidies were eliminated so that agriculture became maximally efficient, and if the food industry focused on delivering food to where there is the greatest need, we would be able to feed the anticipated 2050 population reasonably well.  But none of these changes would be easy to introduce, and the likelihood of achieving this type of increase in efficiency in the food economy seems as remote as the chance that we are going to shift away from fossil fuels more rapidly than IEA anticipates.  I think it is much more likely that we are going to fail to build the extra 50% of food supplies that are needed, and that far more of the world’s people are going to suffer starvation.

The main reason for our need for water is agriculture, and comments above make it clear that climate change is going to increase the need for irrigation water at the plant.  We can make a shift from flood irrigation to drip irrigation that will reduce the amount of water needed per plant.  But of course, the situation is not quite that simple.  Changes in the distribution of precipitation are going to make dry places more dry and wet places more wet.  Specifically, Turn Down the Heat reports one study which shows that mean annual runoff decreases in a 2°C world by around 30, 20, 40, and 20 percent in the Danube, Mississippi, Amazon, and Murray Darling river basins, respectively, while it increases by around 20 percent in both the Nile and the Ganges basins, compared to 1961–1990.  In a 4oC world these percentages are approximately doubled.  The Murray Darling already fails to reach the sea in most years, so irrigation water in South Australia is unlikely to be plentiful, and several others of these rivers are going to be impacted by the loss of melt water from alpine glaciers as well.

Our other needs for water are industrial and domestic.  Water stress is expected to increase in southern Europe, the United States, most parts of South America, Africa, and Australia, while it is expected to decrease in high latitude regions.  The problem of access to fresh water is complex, and closely interlinked with issues of energy production, food production, industrial activities and trade.  For now, let’s just agree that the need for 30% more of it by 2030 is about as difficult to solve as each of the other challenges – to increase energy and to increase food.

Some Other Minor Problems

So far, I have focused on population growth, growth in energy, food and water demand, and climate impacts, but there are other issues out there with which we will have to contend.  Fisheries and aquaculture provide 16% of the animal protein of people, and substantial parts of the diet of coastal populations, but capture fisheries have been declining since the mid-1980s, and aquaculture has many of the same problems as other forms of agriculture – total production has grown substantially since the 1980s, largely through increased area of ponds, and that rate of growth cannot be sustained much longer.  Additionally, changes to the ocean due to warming and acidification are going to further depress productivity, although at this stage it is unclear how much.  For example, coral reef systems are likely to be essentially gone by 2050 under BAU, and it is currently unclear to what extent the loss of functional reef systems will impact the yield of fish in tropical coastal waters.  Ocean pH is now low enough in some regions, such as the north-west USA, that episodic fluctuations due to upwellings are bringing pH low enough to prevent successful reproduction in commercial shellfish operations.  Presumably these will fail completely once average pH falls a bit further (as it will as CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere rise).

Human population growth and growing standards of living are leading to massive changes in the terrestrial environment.   UNEP estimates that while urban developments cover only about 1% of land globally, the urban population is expected to grow by about 3 billion people by 2050, with expansion of urban centers by between 100 and 200 million hectares.  Much of this land will be formerly agricultural land.  FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment for 2010 reports that in 2009, there were about 3.3 billion hectares of pasture and 1.5 billion hectares of cultivated land in use, and much of the deforestation, 13 million hectares per year globally, is due to conversion of forest to croplands and

Extent of deforestation in different regions of the world.  Figure from UNEPs GEO-5 Report, 2012.

pastures.  (The net loss of forested land is currently about 5.2 million hectares per year because there is significant afforestation and regrowth taking place in some regions.)  These changes to land use are substantial enough, particularly in South America, Africa and Asia, that there are substantial impacts on ecosystem function, on biodiversity, and on the escape of noxious exotic pests and pathogens.  These ecological changes can be expected to cause significant although unpredictable disruptions to crop production and to human health.  According to WWF, the Living Planet Index, a statistic that tracks global biodiversity, has declined 30% since 1970.  However, it has fallen 60% (land or marine) to 70% (freshwater) in tropical regions.

In their article out this week, Paul and Anne Ehrlich discuss all of these issues, and add such issues as the risk of nuclear war destabilizing the planetary system.  This risk is now heightened because shortages of food or water can lead neighbors to war and present trends are for increasing shortages of both of these essential resources.  The Ehrlichs also make specific reference to the inadequacy of existing mechanisms for international cooperation and the real need for building much stronger global governance structures.  The problems we are facing demand responses that go well beyond application of technological fixes within existing economic and societal structures.

In 2009, Johan Rockström and colleagues published two papers, one in Nature and a more detailed one in Ecology and Society. In the latter they wrote,

“Anthropogenic pressures on the Earth System have reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. We propose a new approach to global sustainability in which we define planetary boundaries within which we expect that humanity can operate safely. Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems.”

They then proceeded to define nine planetary boundaries, and show that humanity has already overstepped three of them – rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, and human interference with the nitrogen cycle.  They warned that such transgressions are perhaps safe for short periods of time, but that continuing to exceed such limits is likely to lead to sudden, unanticipated changes in the way in which the planetary system functions.  Such changes, for example run-away climate change, could hold very serious negative impacts for human civilization.  It is this suite of problems that complicates our future.

The nine planetary boundaries identified by Rockström et al 2009.  Extent of use is shown in red, while the safe limit of use is represented in green.  We have already exceeded three of these boundaries.  Figure from Nature.

So What Do We Do?

I suggest it is time to become pugnaciously clear about the likelihood that BAU into the future is simply not a feasible option if we want to continue to live on a civilized planet.  The World Bank has said as much in Turn Down the Heat, and is not alone in so doing.  A 4oC warmer world is not a world we should even contemplate living in.  Our second step must be to argue that avoiding the 4oC world is not going to be possible by making modest changes to our mix of energy sources but otherwise continuing our lives as usual.  In other words, the mix of improvements in energy efficiency and shifts away from fossil towards renewable fuels envisioned by IEA, while leaving the rest of our socio-politico-economic system intact is not going to be sufficient (if it is even realistically possible).  We in developed countries must recognize that it is in our own self-interest to move far more aggressively away from fossil fuels, even while developing countries continue to use them as they fight to raise standards of living.  But we must also recognize the need for additional profound changes to how we operate on this planet.

We need to stop striving for economic growth, for rapid returns on investments, and on social support systems that rely upon large younger employed populations generating the funds that sustain smaller populations of older members of society in retirement.

We need to question our belief that a 35-40 hr working week should be the norm, and that our economies must be so needful of labor that such full-time, paid employment is available for all.  We did not begin working this hard until the industrial revolution.  Why not work fewer hours for more years?  Why not contribute to society by doing things that are useful but currently undervalued in the wage economy because they require more widely available skills?  Helping older people, or young children across the street or around the internet are arguably more useful contributions to society than building widgets that people are then coerced into believing they need and must buy.

We need to re-boot our ideas of value to recognize that style, craftsmanship and durability are far more valuable than newness in consumer products.  Or that smaller, but far better designed, more energy-efficient homes that are built to last centuries rather than decades should both cost more and be more highly prized than the large McMansions that litter North American suburbs.

Above all, we need to learn that how one spends his or her time contributes far more to quality of life, and to quality of a civilization than does the quantity and economic worth of material possessions he or she manages to accumulate.  In short we need to break the spiral of ever more extravagant consumption, while building socio-economic systems that do not require this as a fundamental driver.

In his important book, Prosperity without Growth, Tim Jackson, an economist at University of Surrey, has written about the need to change our global economic system because the present system, based on perpetual positive growth, is unrealistic and a fundamental driver of our environmental crisis.  In his view we cannot fix the environmental crisis without radical economic reform.  In the closing pages he writes:

“So our only real choice is to work for change.  To transform the structures and institutions that shape the societal world.  To articulate a more credible vision for a lasting prosperity.

“The dimensions of this task are both personal and societal. … Change can be expressed through the way we live, the things we buy, how we travel, where we invest our money, how we spend our leisure time.  It can be achieved through our work.  It can be influenced by the way we vote and the democratic pressure we exercise on our leaders.  It can be expressed through grass-roots activism and community engagement.  The pursuit of an individual frugality, a voluntary simplicity, is considerable.

“…. Structural change is [also] essential at the societal level. … In the first place, we have to establish ecological bounds on human activity.  Secondly, there is an urgent need to fix the illiterate economics of relentless growth.  Finally, we must transform the damaging social logic of consumerism.”

Getting through the global environmental crisis is not going to be easy.  It is not going to be simple.  It is not a slam-dunk sure thing.  But it is possible, and it definitely is worth striving for.  It is time to articulate the steps the world needs to take before we discover one morning, that it is now too late.

4 thoughts on “The True Cost of BAU — Why confronting the environmental crisis is going to be difficult.”

  1. a typo (maybe), your link to the Ehrlich paper is:
    which doesn’t quite work in my browser (Firefox), but this very similar one does:

    thanks very much for bringing this article to my attention.

    1. David, Thank you. Actually the link I used did go to the document, but with extraneous stuff on the right-hand side. Your link is cleaner. I’ve changed the link.

      Nothing like having a resident proof-reader.

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