The human time bomb

Prospect Magazine

The human time bomb


To cut emissions we have to curb world population. So why isn’t this Copenhagen’s top priority?

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.

  1. December 8, 2009


    Finally, an article which recognises you cannot talk about population without associated consumption. People who call for population regulation don’t realise it is most needed in developed countries and therein lies the problem because consumption is hidden in a way people, even if they are dirt poor, consume nothing and sleep on the street, are not.

    The best contraceptive is economic development but that means fewer people consuming much more. Population in the developing world is bad for future potential consumption but right now, it is the OECD countries who should limit their offspring if we go down that route.

    Ultimately we need to revolutionise our entire energy system, all the other options are apparently just too hard to consider because they require limits on the populations of the following:

    Farm animals

    As humans, we hate placing limits on what we can consume but seem to have no problem talking about limiting our own species so we can consume others or enjoy the benefits of machines.

  2. December 10, 2009


    Who cares about how nice the planet is if there aren’t humans around to enjoy it? Who do you want to live on this earth, just you and a bunch of mates? Love the photo by the way, you couldn’t put in an image of a crowded part of England, it’s those dirty terrible third world people we need to stop from reproducing. Lastly, while Rio and Sao Paolo are bloody crowded, vast areas of South America have been left to the cattle. Rio isn’t crowded because of Brazil’s high population or birth rate, it is crowded because people want to live in the city. Brazil’s birth rate has been dropping for decades and is no higher than replacement rate now. Is EVERYTHING that comes out of climate activists mouths a lie?

  3. December 10, 2009

    Simon Paul Jenkins

    mark said: ‘Love the photo by the way, you couldn’t put in an image of a crowded part of England, it’s those dirty terrible third world people we need to stop from reproducing.’

    Did you actually READ the article, mark?

    Anyway, this article is great because it properly recognises that prevention is better than cure. In a recent talk about climate change, Matthew Liao talked about ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ solutions, the former being ones that tackle the problem at its heart (like population control), and the latter being ones that try and deal with problems that are merely attendant on the former (like limiting the emissions of already existing people).

    Clearly we need to limit the population, and though Ehrlich’s book is here described as a ‘shocker’, his dream of compulsory sterilisation is one that might not be as grim as the consequences that failure to act will bring about.

  4. December 14, 2009


    When i lived in Kenya in the mid-sixties the population was about 6 million. Last year, when there was all that violence, the population was about 38 million. Most of the violence was caused through a shortage of land for people to grow food. Most of the best land is owned by the urban elite, who make hard currency from the export of flowers. Kenyan women at one once had about 8 live births per 1,000, the world’s highest. It is not all about combating the birth control deniers, but also about feeding the existing population. There is not enough land in Kenya to do this. Trees have been used to provide fuel, as the corrupt administrations have not extended infrastructure, or used intermediate technology. The USA refused aid if birth control was a government policy.
    Much of Africa suffers from similar problems, allied to degredation of soil quality and loss of aid from the west. At one time the Brandt commission recommended 1% of GDP for aid. The “Poujadist” west with its mantra of “reduce taxation”, has continually cut taxes to stop income redistribution thus putting this target further away than ever, so what do we get? Economic migration, of famine at home.

    Fewer and fewer take part in democratic elections in the west because it is all a swindle. “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “weapons of mass destruction”. Nationalise the banks and privatise the Post Office!

  5. December 23, 2009

    Miguel Guanipa

    Did you perchance work fo rthe University of Anglia’s email servers team?

  6. January 9, 2010

    greg penner

    Totally right but i dont understand why the rest of the world cant figure it out,i have been saying that for yrs.We had stopped at one child not 2 the pop will actually go downhill with having only one.It is religion that has messed this whole world up from the first caveman that prayed to the sun to the christians that slayed so many,to paying for your crimes as a catholic ect.Maybe we have to get rid or religion first so we can think with our heads.

  7. January 25, 2010


    The big mistake in this article is to focus on just climate change. Behind climate change are a whole raft of other ‘environmental’ problems that will be made much worse by the increase in population ie depletion of finite resources, increased demand on limited ‘renewable’ resources (eg water and soil), increased levels of pollution, and a reduction in biodiversity leading to the collapse of eco-systems. All of these will either reduce or restrict both the potential standard of living and the quality of life for human beings living towards the end of this century. To tack the problems of overpopulation onto the climate debate seems like leaping onto the noisiest bandwagon when the main adverse effects of too many people are likely to be elsewhere.

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  1. The Human Time Bomb? «12-10-09


Alex Renton

Alex Renton
Alex Renton writes on food for the Times and the Observer 

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