EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Plan B: Rising to the Challenge: Deflating the Bubble

Stabilizing world population at 7.5 billion or so is central to avoiding economic breakdown in countries with large projected population increases that are already overconsuming their natural capital assets. Some 36 countries, all in Europe except Japan, have essentially stabilized their populations. The challenge now is to create the economic and social conditions and to adopt the priorities that will lead to population stability in all remaining countries. The keys here are extending primary education to all children, providing vaccinations and basic health care, and offering reproductive health care and family planning services in all countries.1

Shifting from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy to stabilize climate is now technologically possible. Advances in wind turbine design and in solar cell manufacturing, the availability of hydrogen generators, and the evolution of fuel cells provide the technologies needed to build a climate-benign hydrogen economy. Moving quickly from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy depends on getting the price right, on incorporating the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels into the market price.

On the energy front, Iceland is the first country to adopt a national plan to convert its carbon-based energy economy to one based on hydrogen. It is starting with the conversion of the Reykjavik bus fleet to fuel cell engines and will proceed with converting automobiles and eventually the fishing fleet. Iceland's first hydrogen service station opened in April 2003.2

Denmark and Germany are leading the world into the age of wind, as noted in Chapter 9. Denmark, the pioneer, gets 18 percent of its electricity from wind turbines and plans to increase this to 40 percent by 2030. Germany, following Denmark's early lead, has developed some 12,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. Its northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein now gets 28 percent of its electricity from wind. Spain is also moving fast to exploit its wind resources.3

Japan has emerged as the world's leading manufacturer and user of solar cells. With its commercialization of a solar roofing material, it leads the world in electricity generation from solar cells and is well positioned to assist in the electrification of villages in the developing world.4

The Netherlands leads the industrial world in exploiting the bicycle as an alternative to the automobile. In Amsterdam's bicycle-friendly environment, up to 40 percent of all trips are taken by bicycle. This reflects the priority given to bikes in the design and operation of the country's urban transport systems. At many traffic lights, for example, bicycles are allowed to go first when the light changes.5

The Canadian province of Ontario is emerging as a leader in phasing out coal. It plans to replace its five coal-fired power plants with gas-fired plants, wind farms, and efficiency gains. This initiative calls for the first plant to close in 2005 and the last one in 2015. The resulting reduction in carbon emissions is equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the road. This approach, which may soon be adopted in some other Canadian provinces, is a model for local and national governments everywhere.6

Stabilizing water tables is particularly difficult because the forces triggering the fall have their own momentum, which must be reversed. Arresting the fall depends on quickly raising water productivity. It is difficult to overstate the urgency of this effort. Failure to stop the fall in water tables by systematically reducing water use will lead to the depletion of aquifers, an abrupt cutback in water supplies, and the risk of a precipitous drop in food production. In pioneering drip irrigation technology, Israel has become the world leader in the efficient use of agricultural water. This unusually labor-intensive irrigation practice, now being used to produce high-value crops in many countries, is ideally suited where water is scarce and labor is abundant.7

With soil erosion, we have no choice but to reduce the loss to the rate of new soil formation or below. The only alternative is a continuing decline in the inherent fertility of eroding soils and cropland abandonment. In stabilizing soils, South Korea and the United States stand out. South Korea, with once denuded mountainsides and hills now covered with trees, has achieved a level of flood control, water storage, and hydrological stability that is a model for other countries. Although the two Koreas are separated only by a narrow demilitarized zone, the contrast between them is stark. In North Korea, where little permanent vegetation remains, droughts and floods alternate and hunger is chronic.8

The U.S. record in soil conservation is also impressive. Beginning in the late 1980s, U.S. farmers systematically retired roughly 10 percent of the most erodible cropland, planting the bulk of it to grass. In addition, they lead the world in adopting minimum-till, no-till, and other soil-conserving practices. With this combination of programs and practices, the United States has reduced soil erosion by nearly 40 percent in less than two decades.9

Thus all the things we need to do to keep the bubble from bursting are now being done in at least a few countries. If these highly successful initiatives are adopted worldwide, and quickly, we can deflate the bubble before it bursts.

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1. See Chapter 5 and Population Reference Bureau, 2002 World Population Data Sheet, wall chart (Washington, DC: August 2002) for more information.

2. "Iceland Launches New Hydrogen Economy," Solar Access.com, 7 February 2003.

3. Soren Krohn, "Wind Energy Policy in Denmark: Status 2002," Danish Wind Energy Association, at www.windpower.org/articles/energypo.htm, February 2002; Schleswig-Holstein in American Wind Energy Association, Global Wind Energy Market Report (Washington, DC: March 2002), p. 3.

4. European Photovoltaic Industry Association and Greenpeace, The Solar Generation (Brussels: September 2001).

5. Anthonie Gerard Welleman, project manager of the Bicycle Master Plan at the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, presentation at the Velo-City Conference '95 (Basel, Switzerland: 1995), at www. communitybike.org/cache/autumn_bike_master_plan.html.

6. Martin Mittelstaedt, "Putting Out the Fires," (Toronto) Globe and Mail, 15 March 2003.

7. World Commission on Dams, Dams and Development (London: Earthscan, 2000), p. 141; Sandra Postel, Last Oasis (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 103-07.

8. Author's observations while in the country, November 2000.

9. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service (ERS), Agri-Environmental Policy at the Crossroads: Guideposts on a Changing Landscape, Agricultural Economic Report No. 794 (Washington, DC: January 2001).


Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute