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
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…