To cut emissions we have to curb world population. So why isn’t this Copenhagen’s top priority?by Alex Renton / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Rio das Pedras shantytown in Rio de Janeiro: population control is a vital but ignored part of cutting carbon emissions
Here is a proposition. The worst thing that you or I can do for the planet is to have children. If they behave as the average person in the rich world does now, they will emit some 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year of their lives, and they are likely to have more carbon-emitting children who will make an even bigger mess. If Britain is to meet the government’s target of an 80 per cent reduction in our emissions by 2050, we must start reversing our rising population growth immediately.
So why not start cutting population everywhere? Are condoms not the greenest technology of all? The world population is forecast to peak at 9.2bn by 2050; according to environmentalists, if 9.2bn people live as we do today, they’ll need the resources of a second Earth to sustain them. Compared to the pain and expense of the other carbon reduction ideas, population control looks like a winner. Doesn’t it?
A September report by the LSE for the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) suggests that if the world’s “unmet need” for contraception was tackled, there would be half a billion fewer human beings on the planet by 2050, preventing the emission of 34 gigatonnes of carbon. Providing the condoms, or other acceptable methods, would cost just $220m (£138m); the introduction of low-carbon technology to produce an equivalent saving would cost over $1 trillion.
The calculation is simplistic, as is any “fewer people = a greener planet” equation. And it doesn’t argue for population control in the developing world. Ninety-five per cent of the extra population in 2050 will be poor, and the poorer you are, the less carbon you emit. By today’s standards, a cull of Australians would be at least 60 times as productive as one of Bangladeshis.
Nonetheless, it seems obvious that population stabilisation should be intrinsic to any climate-change strategy. Many figures outside NGO-land advocate it, from David Attenborough to Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society. So does Anthony Giddens, who in his book The Politics of Climate Change (2009) writes about “the vital importance of a renewed drive on the part of the international agencies to help bring the [population growth] rate down.”
So why does population control hardly feature on the agendas of the UN bodies or the governments now committed to tackling climate change? And why do the development and environmental groups lobbying about climate change shy away from it? It seems people would rather talk about putting enormous mirrors in the sky to reflect sunlight. Only in China—where the notorious one-child policy may have led to 300-400m fewer people being born—is population control seen as crucial to curbing emissions. Few analysts believe that China can meet the G8’s target of 80 per cent emissions cuts by 2050. But in cutting population, it may already have done more than most rich or middle-income countries will manage. Its population is expected to peak at around 1.4bn in 2020, while that of India will continue to grow.
This year I wrote a paper for Oxfam assessing the possible impact of climate change on human beings in the nearer future. I was struck by the lack of interest—not just among NGOs, but also among the academics working in this area—in population as a factor in climate change. The same is true in much of the popular campaigning literature. George Monbiot dismisses the topic as a distraction: the obsession largely of “post-reproductive, middle-class white men… from a group… more responsible for environmental destruction than any other class in history.” Similarly, David King, the British government’s former chief scientific adviser, argues: “We will need to make radical changes to our greenhouse-gas emissions in the next two decades, a timescale over which population policies will have little effect… the only way to tackle climate change is to change the way energy is used by those of us that have already been born.”
But what if we can’t? Almost all of the most worrying aspects of climate change’s impacts—food and water shortages, forced migration, health epidemics—are exacerbated by population growth. According to two recent polls, nine out of ten scientists working in climate change don’t believe we will achieve the changes in energy use committed to by the G8 and the EU. If they are right, population is going to start to matter a lot.
“Population control”—or family planning—has had a bad decade. During the George W Bush years the US, the world’s largest aid donor in family planning, withdrew support for many programmes because of pressure from the Christian right. Meanwhile, international funds for reproductive health programmes were diverted towards HIV/Aids. There are now more than 200m women worldwide wanting but unable to get contraception. The fifth UN millennium development goal, to reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio by 2015, is the most badly off-target of all in that list of unfulfilled dreams.
The birth rate has, of course, been a subject of futurologists’ horror stories for 300 years, and the present debate is certainly obscured by the fact that much of the work of well-known demographers from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich, author of 1968 shocker The Population Bomb, has turned out to be wrong. Yet, for all the phrase’s harsh associations, population control does not necessarily entail draconian measures. In fact, it is widely accepted that women’s education is the key to a lower birth rate: the more girls go to school, and the more women who are employed, the fewer children there will be. Birth rate, gender equality, education and poverty are inextricably linked.
Climate change, along with tax evasion, is one of Christian Aid’s two ongoing campaigns. But the word “population” doesn’t occur in the organisation’s excellent four-page briefing document for the Copenhagen summit. Is the charity—which has long funded family planning in the developing world—talking about population and climate change at all? “It is high on the agenda, but not in a public way,” says CA’s Rachel Baird. “It’s something we need to renew our policy on and we’re working to find the latest thinking on the subject.”
She was not forthcoming on why this needed to be kept from the public. But my own experience in organisations like this suggests the answer. There is a belief that it would be hypocritical to castigate the poor for having lots of children. It is one of the universal coping mechanisms of poverty: our own great-grandparents may well have used it. Also, there is the issue of where the guilt for emissions lies. As Baird says: “Often in the countries where the birth rate is highest, emissions are so low that they are not even measurable: look at Burkina Faso.” So why ask them to pay in unborn children for our profligacy?
It’s a powerful argument, but it highlights the paradox at the heart of the debate on climate-change adaptation. It is assumed—not least in the work of Nicholas Stern—that vulnerable countries will adapt best through economic development. The richer a country, the better it will cope with the shocks of climate. But as countries develop they emit more carbon. China’s per person emissions nearly doubled in the first half of this decade, to 4.6 tonnes; India’s went from 1.1 to 1.3 tonnes. Under normal circumstances, it takes perhaps a generation for the birth rate to drop with increasing wealth, whereas carbon emissions go up very quickly. As people get richer, for example, they consume more calories and start to swap their vegetables for meat. This is why, according to the UN, global food production needs to increase by 50 per cent by 2050. And food production, if you look at its entire chain, is responsible for 20 per cent of the carbon we produce.
So is it not vital that any attempt to help nations develop should have, bolted on, a plan to stabilise or even reduce its population? I asked Oxfam’s environmental policy adviser Antonio Hill. He argued instead that dealing with consumption is much more important than tackling population growth, quoting a World Bank report published in September: “Switching from SUVs to fuel-efficient passenger cars in the US alone would nearly offset the emissions generated in providing electricity to 1.6bn more people.” Moreover, the International Energy Agency says that if the whole world moved over to clean electricity, CO2 savings would be between 1.8 and 2.5 gigatonnes per year. This would offset the emissions of up to 2.8bn poor people; easily accounting for the extra population forecast for 2050.
These are crude sums, but they give an indicator of population’s limited importance in the overall battle—if we can reform the way we generate and use energy. But if we can’t (and our record so far isn’t encouraging) then population will inevitably become a much more pressing issue.
This brings me back to my original proposition: why not curb the populations of the rich countries? We don’t generally want so many children, so we might well trade away our right to have more than two for something attractive. After all, based on current emissions and life expectancy, one less British child would permit some 30 women in sub-Saharan Africa to have a baby, and still leave the planet a cleaner place.
Here we enter the territory of environmentalists such as Jonathon Porritt, former chair of the British government’s Sustainable Development Commission, who has stated that it will one day be seen as “irresponsible” to have more than two children. Porritt’s views have attracted accusations of bigotry from left and right but his proposal has been taken up by the Optimum Population Trust, of which Porritt, Attenborough, James Lovelock and many others are patrons. The organisation—which likes to refer to human beings as “climate changers”—earlier this year launched a “Stop at Two” campaign.
Pledges are all very well, but population reduction is best achieved with a combination of policies: most importantly, as we have seen, in ensuring women’s equality and improving their education, while providing cheap and effective contraception. Not all these things have to happen simultaneously; along with Thailand, one of the standout successes in birth-rate reduction is Iran, since 1987 its rate has fallen from 5.2 children to below 2.1. It is said that the introduction of television sets to the average Iranian household helped a lot. But how can you reduce population in the rich world, where women’s rights are already achieved and birth-control methods are freely available? Could children become part of an adult’s personal carbon allowance? Could you offer rewards: have one child only, and you can own an SUV? Or fly to Florida for a holiday once a year?
If you have faith in the rich world’s ability to achieve those 80 per cent cuts in emissions in a mere 40 years, and then maintain them, you need not worry too much. But if you are sceptical—if you don’t think, say, that you could reduce your personal carbon emissions from the current OECD average of 11 tonnes a year to just 2 tonnes you need to start worrying about population.
If we continue burning fossil fuels at today’s levels, the planet will be 5°C hotter in 2100. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the German chancellor’s chief adviser on climate change, believes that if we go on as we are the Earth will only be able to sustain 1bn people. So perhaps we need to start cutting back population now with methods that offer a humane choice—before it happens the hard way.