Humanity Has Consumed More Energy since 1950 than in the Past 12,000 Years

An international research team is investigating human energy consumption over the last millennia - and has even determined a new geological epoch

No 197/2020 from Oct 21, 2020

Researchers from many different countries - including paleontologist Professor Reinhold Leinfelder from Freie Universität Berlin - have joined forces to investigate how humanity’s ecological footprint has developed over the millennia. Their evaluation of data on the Earth’s rock layers serve as testament to the vast environmental changes the Earth has undergone, especially in the course of the last few decades. The results of the research indicate that humanity has consumed more energy since 1950 than in the past 12,000 years, with changes to the Earth’s system that are so drastic they constitute a major upheaval in its history. The study first appeared in the open access journal  , which is published by Nature Research.

The research team, which includes many members of the Anthropocene Working Group that forms part of the International Union of Geological Sciences, are using geological measurements to document humanity’s usage of energy across the globe throughout history. Their analyses show that humanity has had an increasingly pronounced influence on the Earth, with exponentially growing energy consumption, a boom in industrial productivity, and rapid population growth combining to trigger a major upheaval in the 1950s that left behind significant geological traces. This research thus lends credence to the much-discussed hypothesis that humans have ushered in a new geological epoch, which claims that the Holocene - the geological epoch that began after Last Glacial Period - was superseded by the Anthropocene from 1950 onward.

The research team calculated that humanity’s consumption of energy over the last 70 years amounts to 22 zettajoule, standing in stark contrast to a mere 14.6 zettajoule consumed in the period lasting from the end of the Last Glacial Period 11,700 years ago until 1950. This has primarily been driven by considerable growth over the previous decades propelled by the combustion of fossil fuels. The researchers stress that this will have a lasting effect on the Earth. Accelerated climate change will be the indisputable consequence of this development - and this will lay the groundwork for further dramatic changes in the future.

"I felt like a war correspondent while piecing together our analysis," says Professor Jaia Syvitski, geologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of the study. Together, she and her colleagues documented humanity’s environmental footprint at the planetary scale. Dr. Colin Summerhayes, geologist at Cambridge University, says that this research "makes it extremely difficult [to deny] the science of global warming and the constellation of issues profoundly influenced by human activities." Professor Leinfelder from Freie Universität Berlin adds, "Our study shows how everything connects to everything in the Anthropocene, and a brighter future will see humanity with new values, using new technologies, and accepting ourselves as a part of one Earth system that has to remain functional in order to carry us along."

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