Environmentalists don’t dispute that many, if not all environmental problems, are either caused or exacerbated by population growth. But is it still the big eco issue that it once was? Here I examine the relative importance of population growth and economic growth.
I attended a pre-Copenhagen Rally hosted by Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in late 2009, and was interested to hear his response to a question from the audience.
Why, asked the passionate inquirer, is there a global political conspiracy of silence around the issue of population growth in relation to climate change? Ed replied that global population is only expected to rise by around 30% by 2050, whereas global economic growth is expected to rise by 300% by 2050. Therefore green economic growth, rather than population growth is, relatively, the bigger issue.
But surely population growth can’t help? Well before you get in your helicopter to shower the Chinese with condoms, there’s a startling new statistic that may drop the jaws of even the most ardent environmentalists.
The global birth rate has now stabilised.
Those of us who did our A-Level Geography in the late 1990s need to update our text books. Global birth rates peaked at 163 million per year while we were revising. Then they dropped and in the 2000s they levelled off at 134 million per year.
What this means is that global birth rates are no longer the reason for global population growth. It’s because medical and health improvements mean the death rate hasn’t caught up yet. And it wouldn’t be very popular, or legal, to suggest we have a higher death rate.
Yes the global population will continue to grow, stabilising at around 9 billion in 2050. The reason is the death rate is still only 57million per year, compared to 134 million births per year. In fact the rate of global population growth rate peaked back in 1963 at 2.2% per year, declining steadily to 0% by 2050.
A more up to date and valid question would be whether the Earth can sustain 9 billion people. Most environmentalists shout no rather loudly, even with drastically more sustainable methods of living. So population remains an issue, but the challenge for the future will be to gradually and humanely reduce population in absolute terms, to claw it back from the 9 billion to something sustainable.
Steps are already being made in this direction. China maintains its one child policy, in place since 1979, and Australia is currently debating a one child policy. While such steps are important, it seems the more pressing eco issue right now is to decouple carbon emissions from the rocketing global economic growth. Letting the economy soar but not taking carbon emissions with it means green jobs and clean energy.
Still, better to keep the birth control methods handy.
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