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18 December 2020

Harmonising population density through energy transition and intelligent mobility

Rural area windmills

Energy decentralisation and intelligent mobility are key tools for harmonising the world’s population density, says Ricardo Poeta, co-lead of the IMET initiative in an interview with his colleagues. Ricardo looks at the energy transition from an ethical and societal perspective.
 

Ricardo Poeta, IMET

Why did you decide to join the IMET initiative? 

The main reason I joined IMET is that energy and mobility are two essential pillars of any successful and “rich” society and they are both integrated in this initiative. And contrarily to what many people might think, IMET is not about the technology in itself, but has a multidisciplinary approach: societal, environmental, behavioural, political, legal, economic, technical, etc.

And I understand you advocate for population density harmonisation, why is that?

Any conference you go to, you hear all the warnings: an increase of the world population with nearly 70% living in cities (which can be translated to “overcrowded urban areas”) by 2050, leading to extremely high population density, extreme pollution, increase in demand of energy, minerals, natural resources and so on. Yet, despite all the predictions and the signs, population density is an issue that is rarely addressed and discussed. We keep on preparing for that scenario and ideating and implementing expensive solutions for future problems that can be avoided. I have travelled a lot in my life and worked and lived in different countries and continents, and there’s one proverb you hear in almost every language and country that appears to be true every time: prevention is easier and cheaper than the cure. It is time to change the paradigm and to start looking at ways to avoid these major societal and humanitarian challenges through prevention instead of looking for a future cure. 

 

"(...) extreme pollution, increase in demand of energy, minerals, natural resources (...). Yet, despite all the predictions and the signs, population density is an issue that is rarely addressed and discussed."

 

I understand it is difficult to focus on long term prevention when you are currently dealing with current cures, such as climate crises, the rise of sea levels and COVID19, and we definitely have to tackle those with extreme urgency. The rise in sea levels could lead to catastrophic consequences and losses of lives.

Preventing the rise of the sea level requires an international and multidisciplinary approach with experts and specialists from many domains. Some philanthropists state that the melting of the glaciers and the subsequent rise of sea levels cannot be avoided and would rather follow a “prepare for the worst” approach than a “waiting for political and behavioural change and trusting that the environmental targets in the agreements such as the PARIS one or the Green Deal will be met” approach. The first scenario explores ways to redirect that water to irrigate deserts, widen current rivers and create new ones, among other bold, innovative and visionary ideas on a planetary scale. But still, both scenarios will require so much intellectual power and workforce, international cooperation and negotiations that will make it nearly impossible to get started. 

Nonetheless, whether the rise of sea levels is avoidable or not, whatever the outcome, we must learn from its history, prepare for the long term and harmonise the population density.

Why do you think that the rise of population density could be problematic?

The current density in many cities and countries around the world is already a problem. The Industrial Revolution changed the world demography, allowing for cities to grow exponentially and for rural areas to slowly suffer from desertification. People massively fled to urban areas, looking for better life conditions for themselves and their families. In many cities around the world, severe overcrowding caused major public health problems.  Moreover, the transfer of rural poverty to urban areas eventually contributed to an increase in crime and other socio-economic problems.

The most dense (urban) areas of our world reach densities above 30.000 people/km2 (such as Manila, Baghdad, Mumbai, Dhaka) and many European cities reach and even surpass the 20.000 people/km2 (Paris, Barcelona, Monaco, Athens, and more). Let me put it in simple terms: 30.000 people/km2 means that there would be 150 people living, working, commuting, playing on a football pitch of 100m x 50m. If the world population would be equally spread throughout the liveable land on our planet (approximately 100 million km2), population density would be close to 75 people/km2, which equals to 0.375 people/football pitch. Imagine the difference, having 150 people living on a football pitch or everyone having at least 2.5 football pitches to live and move around... From a global perspective, our species would be far more resilient and likely to keep surviving if better spread throughout the planet.

It is therefore essential to implement policies that allow for harmonisation of the population density and I believe that energy decentralisation and intelligent mobility will play a major role in the repopulation of rural and remote areas.

"It is essential to implement policies that allow for harmonisation of the population density and I believe that energy decentralisation and intelligent mobility will play a major role in the repopulation of rural and remote areas."

 

How can the energy transition and intelligent mobility contribute to density harmonisation?

Autonomous cars and intelligent mobility will change the way we commute, travel and even our perceptions of distances. Think about it, if you can work, relax, sleep in your car, does it matter if you have to travel 20 minutes or 60 minutes to your workplace? And I know many people would prefer to wake up every day surrounded by nature, smell of pine and oak trees, singing birds, running rivers, living in a much healthier environment, directly contributing to our general fulfilment.

Energy decentralisation makes it possible to generate energy and to provide information to remote areas as fast as urban areas. There is always energy on our planet, whether we are talking about energy from the wind, rivers, seas, potential energy (height) or even external energy such as the sun. And nowadays, we have technology to help us extract (part of) that energy. Even when living in a remote area, it is nowadays relatively cheap (depending on the natural conditions and resources) to produce electricity. You could generate energy from hydro (e.g. with a turbine), the sun and the wind and use your electric vehicle’s battery as energy storage for your domestic needs. Your electric vehicle can also be a giant power bank.

"Even when living in a remote area, it is nowadays relatively cheap to produce electricity. You could generate energy from hydro (e.g. with a turbine), the sun and the wind and use your electric vehicle’s battery as energy storage for your domestic needs."

 

In your opinion, what policy developments at EU level will most efficiently support the energy transition?

Firstly, at European level, I would like to introduce the six main recommendations from the IMET white paper, published and presented in November 2019 at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona.

Those recommendations focus on what Europe and national members can directly influence. Nevertheless, in order to have a really clean energy transition, we need to look at the whole supply chain - also outside of Europe - and try to influence it in a way that is fair and makes the least human, societal, environmental damage - yes, unfortunately, energy generation (still) has a human and environmental cost.

statistic energy ressources

 

At the mineral extraction level (for batteries, solar cells and panels, windmills, etc.), many socio-economic and environmental malpractices and catastrophes have been reported. The extraction and production of Cobalt, one of the essential minerals in lithium-ion batteries used to power electric cars, laptops and smartphones, is an example. In Congo, which produces more than 60% of the world’s supply, the extraction process has been frequently linked with concerns of child labour, life-threatening working conditions for miners, illegal mining, human rights abuses and corruption.

Lithium extraction has also been reported to have major environmental impacts in Bolivia, among others. The extraction process demands enormous amounts of water, depriving the local farmers of it and also involves polluting chemicals (accidents can and do happen). According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. And I could go on with other minerals and resources, but I think I made my point.

What actions do you recommend for governments and local authorities in the process of energy production and resource handling?

As a government (European and national), you have tools and measures you can use to incentivise European businesses and consumers to responsibly choose their suppliers and partners (such as tax incentives, legislation, etc.). I also want to make a call to entrepreneurs and executives, and ask you to be aware of the complete supply chain that is necessary to create your products and services. I am happy to see many companies taking the responsibility, some have recently even removed cobalt refiners from their supply chain.

The extraction, transportation and transformation of minerals and final products also requires huge amounts of energy (and sometimes water). It is therefore imperative to have a responsible management of our resources and make sure that all these processes have a minimum impact on the surrounding ecosystems. Coal is still generating more than 30% of our electricity, which is even deadlier than fossil fuels, estimated to cause five million premature deaths result from air pollution, according to The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease. 

"The extraction, transportation and transformation of minerals and final products requires huge amounts of energy (and sometimes water). It is therefore imperative to have a responsible management of our resources and make sure that all these processes have a minimum impact on the surrounding ecosystems."

 

Another major item that has been on Europe’s agenda for a long time: recycling and reuse of products (mostly batteries) when they reach life-end. There have been some directives, such as the Battery Directive that have helped improve this crucial step in the supply chain and I hope that the consumers’ Right to Repair (soon to be voted by the European Parliament) will put us at the forefront of the circular economy, allowing for the so needed life extension of most appliances, gadgets and electronics.

We know that Europe has very ambitious goals of becoming a zero-emission continent by 2050. However, if the world’s socio-economic development follows its current course and if businesses and consumers want to keep up with the estimated demand, we will pollute and cause major catastrophes in other parts of the world, such as China, India, South America and Congo, among others. So yes, we will have zero emissions, but at what cost? To the planet, it won’t make a difference where the emissions and pollution comes from, we will eventually feel and suffer the consequences.

I feel I have been talking a lot… I would like to conclude this interview the José Mujica’s - philanthropist and Uruguayan’s former president - closing words when addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 2013. His words could and should be the basis of all of our (trans)actions - - if you haven’t heard or read Mujica’s speech “Civilization Against Freedom” he gave at the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2013, I strongly recommend that you do, it is masterpiece of civilization, human, societal and social development.

“Let us remember that human life is a miracle. Consider that human life is a miracle, that we are alive as a result of a miracle, and that nothing is more important than life. Our biological duty is, above all, to respect life, promote it, take care of it, reproduce it and understand that the species is our being.” - Address by Mr. José Mujica, President of the Eastern Republic of Uruguay,” September 24, 2013, Records of the United Nations, General Assembly, 68th Session, 7th Plenary MeetingA/68/PV.7 (New York: United Nations, 2013).
 

*With a degree in Computer Science Engineering, Ricardo Poeta later specialised in Learning & Development and Communication. Seasoned public speaker and facilitator of events, trainings, workshops, discussions and group meetings, he has extensive international experience in industry and EU projects and affairs. Ricardo is passionate about group dynamics, organizational development, behaviour and social psychology and is co-founder and president of RuralCool, an association that aims at repopulating rural and remote areas.