Population and climate change

Two points of view

Jonathon Porritt
‘It is our duty to the next generation to put the world on a downward population trajectory just as fast as we can.’

It astonishes me that population remains such a controversial issue when there is so much to agree on from a progressive, radical perspective:

We would all agree that it would be a better world for women if they were able to manage their own fertility, including access to safe, reliable and cheap contraception.

We would all agree that it would be a better world if all women had access to improved healthcare (particularly reproductive healthcare), and if all girls had the right to be in education for as long as boys are.

And I suspect the vast majority would agree that there is a clear link between high population growth in many countries and the continuing failure to address life-crushing poverty in those countries.

But fewer, I suspect, would subscribe to the overall conclusion which emerged from the latest report of the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (APPG):

‘The failure to prioritize family planning in overseas development aid is resulting in population growth levels that present a serious threat to health, economic development and the environment in some of the world’s poorest countries. Urgent action must be taken to ensure family planning provision becomes an integral part of all efforts to reduce poverty, and improve mothers’ and children’s survival and health.’

No doubt the APPG would have had in mind countries like Bangladesh (where the population has grown from 71 million in 1974 to an estimated 162 million today, with a fertility rate of 3 children per woman) and Ethiopia. Twenty-five years ago at the time of the terrible famine, Ethiopia’s population was around 34 million. Now it’s 72 million. Spending on family planning has declined steadily over the last decade. And famine is back.

For me, there is a compelling humanitarian case for full-on support for family planning in those countries dogged by that crushing combination of high average fertility and dire poverty. But on top of all that, we’ve now got to take climate change into account. And that means taking into account not just total emissions of greenhouse gases, but the total number of emitters.

At one level, this is all about basic mathematics. We roughly know the total volume of greenhouse gases we can put into the atmosphere over the next few decades if we are to stay the right side of the two degree centigrade increase (by the end of the century) which scientists tell us we absolutely mustn’t go above. That total volume has to be divided up between the total amount of people doing the emitting.

And that’s where we have to take China into account.  The outcome of China’s one-child family policy (however abhorrent it may be from a human rights perspective) is that 400 million births have been ‘averted’.

On average, each citizen of China emits around 4.5 tonnes of CO2 per annum. That would have been an additional 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted per annum, give or take a few hundred thousand tonnes, if those births had not been averted. 

Of course there are a lot of nasty, extremist voices out there, only too happy to use the population debate to advance their own inhumane and racist views. But they won’t go away just because the rest of us stay silent.

My friends in Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth hate this logical, mathematical exercise. And that’s because they are foolish enough to suppose that all effective family planning exercises have to be done China-style. They don’t. They can be done Kerala-style, or Thailand-style or Iran-style – where equally rapid reductions in the fertility rate have been achieved via better education, better healthcare, better access to contraception and inspired government and community leadership.

But the reasons for the continuing non-engagement of the big environment groups are deeper than this. They have a very deep fear that addressing population issues will distract people from the real issue: over-consumption in the rich world rather than over-population in the poor world. This is stupid. It really is possible to pursue two big issues at the same time! What’s more, today’s poor countries all want to be tomorrow’s richer countries, at which point their emissions may not look so very different from those in the rich world today.

Beyond that, there are all sorts of fears that addressing population issues will get them tangled up in gritty controversies around immigration, the role of religion, and complex cultural factors such as continuing male domination in many countries with high fertility rates.

On that score, they are absolutely right. Of course there are a lot of nasty, extremist voices out there, only too happy to use the population debate to advance their own inhumane and racist views. But they won’t go away just because the rest of us stay silent.

Whichever way you cut this one, I believe it’s part of our duty to the next generation, not just to promote this debate – but to advance the compassionate, progressive case for a full-on global campaign to put the world on a downward population trajectory just as fast as we can.’

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future, and author of Living Within Our Means (2009) and The Standing of Sustainable Development inGovernment (2009) – available at www.forumforthefuture.org


The Corner House
‘Population numbers offer no useful pointers towards policies essential to tackling climate change.’

The burning of fossil fuels to drive a century and a half of Western industrialization is by far the major contributor to human-caused climate change. This is unsustainable.

There is simply not enough ‘space’ in above-ground biological and geological systems to park safely the huge mass of carbon coming out of the ground without carbon dioxide building up catastrophically in both the air and the oceans. The earth and its ecosystems undeniably have limits.

At the most fundamental level, therefore, the climate solution requires turning away from fossil fuel dependence.

It is not surprising, however, that a worsening climate situation is often attributed not to continued fossil fuel extraction but to too many people. Whenever global environmental crises, Third World poverty or world hunger are at issue, whenever conflict, migration or economic growth are discussed, economists, demographers, political pundits and others frequently invoke overpopulation.

Today a range of industries use the spuriously neutral mathematics of overpopulation arguments to colonize the future for their particular interests and to privatize public resources. In agriculture, the talk is of extra mouths in the South causing global famine – unless biotechnology companies have the right to patent and genetically-engineer seeds.

With respect to water, it is asserted that growing numbers of thirsty slum-dwellers will threaten water wars – unless water resources are handed over to private sector water companies. And in climate, the talk is of teeming Chinese and Indians causing whole cities to be lost to flooding through their greenhouse gas emissions – unless polluting companies are granted property rights in the atmosphere through carbon-trading schemes and carbon offsets. These are the tools of the main official approach to the climate crisis that aims to build a global carbon market worth trillions of dollars.

Problems of resource scarcity attributed to human numbers, however, are invariably more convincingly explained by social inequality. Frequently left out of discussions about tackling hunger and famine are the maldistribution of the world’s food supplies, skewed access to land, trade policies, the hazards of devoting land to agrofuel or carbon offset production, unequal access to money to buy food, and commodity speculation.

If over a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, it is because water, like food, flows to those with the most bargaining power: industry and bigger farmers first; richer consumers second; and the poor last, whose water is polluted by industrial effluent, exported in foodstuffs or poured down the drain through others’ wasteful consumption.

Numerous studies highlight the contradictions in correlating population growth with carbon emissions, both historical and predicted. Industrialized countries, with only 20 per cent of the world’s population, are responsible for 80 per cent of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions are those with slow or declining population growth. The few countries in the world where birth rates remain high have the lowest per capita carbon emissions.

And even aggregate figures for per capita emissions still tend to obscure just who is producing greenhouse gases and how, by statistically levelling out emissions among everyone.

Population numbers, in sum, offer no useful pointers toward policies that should be adopted to tackle climate change. Massive fossil fuel use in industrialized societies cannot be countered by handing out condoms. Nor will reducing the number of births dent the massive annual subsidies, estimated at over $100 billion, that oil companies receive in tax breaks, giving them an unfair advantage over low-carbon alternatives. Nor will population policies stop carbon trading, which gives incentives to polluting industries in North and South to delay making structural changes away from the extraction and use of fossil fuels while usurping land, water and air on which Southern communities depend.

But facts, figures and alternative explanations, while necessary, have never had much effect on population debates because, deep down, they are less about numbers than about power, economic interests, rights, markets and welfare. They are political and cultural disagreements, not mathematical ones. 

Solutions to the climate crisis depend first and foremost on political organizing and on social and economic changes. We need to adopt structurally different, non-fossil energy, transport, agricultural and consumption regimes within a few decades to minimize future dangers and costs. Infrastructure, trade, even community structure, will have to be reorganized and state support shifted toward popular movements that are already constructing or defending low-carbon means of livelihood and social life.

Discussions about overpopulation distract from these priorities. Because they obscure relationships of power between different groups in societies while justifying relationships that allow some to dominate others, they serve to delay making these structural changes. They also serve to explain away the failure of carbon markets to tackle the problem. And, finally, they serve to justify more interventions in the countries deemed to hold the surplus people – and to excuse those interventions when they cause further environmental degradation, migration or conflict.’

The Corner House aims to support democratic and community movements for environmental and social justice. www.thecornerhouse.org.uk