Ten Billion People on Earth: Nightmare or Non-Event?

By 2100, some 10 billion people will inhabit the earth, according to the United Nations. It’s a topic that vexes climate change experts, with one prominent Oxford University Professor forecasting an “unprecedented planetary emergency.”

Crowd of spectators
Crowd of spectators

Is that a must-heed warning from a learned academic? Or can technology, engineering, and the human spirit rise to the challenges posed by population growth?

Step forward Stephen Emmott, who heads Microsoft’sComputational Science Laboratory at Oxford.

Professor Emmott became an overnight media sensation last summer after delivering a terrifying vision of an overpopulated world in a lecture entitled “Ten Billion.”

Devised with theater director Katie Mitchell, Emmott's lecture was an unlikely hit in the West End and sold out for its two-week run at the Royal Court Theater.

“I’m here because I’m concerned,” the computer scientist began his presentation in somber tones to hushed, expectant audiences in London. “I’m concerned about the state of the planet.”

He proceeded to narrate his vision of a world that is a “living hell” in which we are at war over land, food, and water as a world population of 10 billion scrabbles over resources.

Indeed, migration will be motivated not by choice or economic necessity by the end of the century, but by human survival.

“By 2100, the terms ‘climate conflict,’ ‘water wars,’ and ‘resource conflict’ will become highly likely in parts of the world,” Emmott told CNBC. “I envisage a world of severe land, agricultural and water stress as a result of population growth, land degradation, and climate change.”

Emmott believes global average temperatures could rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius (around 11 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, an “utterly catastrophic” possibility.

As people flee to cooler climes, Britain will develop militarized borders to stave off mass immigration. “Climate migrant” could become an everyday term, he said.

Indeed, "we are screwed” when the world population hits 10 billion unless we stop having children and curb our rampant use of energy and water, Emmott said, reeling off everyday facts to exemplify the energy use we take for granted every day.

The production of a single cup of coffee requires 100 liters (26 gallons) of water, while a chocolate bar draws upon 27,000 liters (7,132 gallons). Even a simple computer search for www.CNBC.com consumes the same energy as boiling a kettle.

Emmott won over audiences with statistics that related to our everyday lives. The Times newspaper called the lecture “utterly gripping,” while a reviewer at the Financial Times called the performance "one of the most disturbing shows I have seen on a stage."

Emmott impressed reviewers precisely because, far from being a radical climate commentator or environmental campaigner, he and his team at Oxford use measured, scientific methodology to research and model climate change.

He said the idea for a public lecture came about in order to communicate to non-scientific audiences the “inter-connected” nature of ecosystems and our consumption.

For instance, when Russia suffered its worst drought in 50 years in 2010 — losing some 40 percent of its expected 100 million ton output — the nation restricted exports to ensure it met domestic demand.

That led to food shortages and riots in nations dependent on imported Russian wheat, particularly India and Pakistan. Such market-warping measures will become more common, Emmott said.

“People say we can ‘technologize’ our way out of this, but I am unconvinced of this ... to avoid some catastrophic outcome, we are going to radically change the way we live, and our economies, principally, consuming much, much less."

He added: "[I’m not] confident at all, to be honest.”

Stop Having Children…or Are There Other Solutions?

Debates over population growth are not a modern phenomenon. Scholars from Plato and Aristotle to the Reverend Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, whose book "The Population Bomb" became a best-seller in the 1970s, have warned of the dire consequences of overbreeding.

However, Dr. Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, refutes the notion that we are all “screwed.”

He recognized the challenges of global population growth, but remained confident that engineering and technological advances could easily address the demands for increased food, water, energy, and housing.

Fox and his team of of researchers, drawn from various engineering backgrounds, forecast less alarmist predictions of global population growth than either Emmott or the U.N.

In his January 2012 paper, “One Planet, too Many People?”, Fox and his colleagues predicted that the challenges posed by a global population of 10 billion can easily be solved by technology and engineering.

“In our study on population growth, we concluded that the engineering profession has the knowledge and practice know-how to adequately meet the challenges the planet will have in 2075,” he told CNBC. “At the end of the day, however, it’s about whether the global society will go for it.”

He added: “It’s about whether finance, politics, ethics, and empathy — and the human spirit — will come together to find a solution. I’m definitely on the other end of the spectrum from Professor Stephen Emmott.”

He added: “What history has taught us is that humans are very innovative and the human spirit is very deep. As they say, ‘Nature is the mother of all invention,’ and we have always managed to deal with supposed problems of population growth.”

Dr. Fox dismissed fears over population growth and food scarcity. The problem isn't food scarcity, he asserted, it's food waste.

“We need to waste less. In the developed world, we waste 25 percent of the food produced between the supermarket and our mouths. In the developing world, they waste between 30 to 90 percent of food between the field and the market place. Technology and best practice education can solve this.”

As for crop damage and drought, Fox told CNBC that genetic engineering and the artificial creation of meats and proteins can solve this.

As world leaders from the G20 group to the World Bank voice concerns over potential food crisis and food security after events such as this year’s U.S. drought, Fox told CNBC that momentum is growing to invest in new technologies to help adapt to global change.

“There is always a solution. It’s about finding a way forward that is sustainable in terms of economics, environment and society and having an eye to the future,” he concluded. “Ultimately though, the human spirit will get us through.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly converted 6 degrees Celsius to 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit. It is in fact around 11 degrees Fahrenheit.