Andreas Späth

What population bomb?

2011-10-05 08:53

One of the most frequent comments I get when I write about climate change is that the solution to the problem is simple: people need to have fewer children and developing countries have to lower their birth rates. In the month when the UN projects that the Earth’s human population will reach seven billion, this may well sound like a reasonable suggestion.

The argument echoes Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb in which he claims that:

“The causal chain of deterioration is easily followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails. Inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide – all can be traced easily to too many people” (my emphasis).

So is getting global population growth under control really the most important step in our battle against climate change and against environmental deterioration in general? At first sight, the equation seems fairly straightforward: more and more people consuming more and more non-renewable resources and producing more and more pollution, including greenhouse gasses, will eventually exceed our planet’s finite capacity to cope. Game over.

Take a closer look at the actual figures, however, and the situation isn’t quite so uncomplicated. It turns out that population growth rates peaked globally in the 1960s and that the period of very rapid growth is over. Demographers expect the world’s population to reach nine billion by 2050 after which it is projected to start levelling out on a more stable plateau.

Family sizes are also decreasing. The UN predicts that, on average, women in the developing world will have only 2.05 children by 2050, down from about 2.7 today.

Perhaps most importantly though, doing a simplistic head-count and lumping every human being on the planet into one pot blatantly ignores the crucial question of exactly who is doing all of the over-consuming and polluting. Although they are home to only about 20% of the world’s population, industrialised countries are responsible for some 80% of the accumulated CO2 build-up in the atmosphere.

Developed countries may have very low population growth rates, but they have much larger per capita carbon footprints than their developing counterparts. Conversely, those countries that still have relatively high birth rates, for example many in sub-Saharan Africa, have the lowest carbon emissions on Earth. Yes, China has growing per capita carbon emissions, but these days its birth rate is among the world’s lowest.

When looked at this way, Ehrlich’s population bomb appears more like demography’s equivalent of George W Bush’s mythical weapons of mass destruction.

There is a much more valid correlation between culpability for climate change and affluence. The largest cause of climate change by far, is not population growth, but the carbon-intensive development path based on burning fossil fuels for energy chosen by economic and political elites across the globe both in developed as well as developing countries.

Growing worldwide economic inequality is mirrored by an inequality in greenhouse gas emissions. The rich emit most of the CO2 and the poor majority faces the brunt of the devastating impacts.

The challenge of the 21st Century is to halt climate change by reducing the carbon emissions of the rich while eradicating inequality by bringing sustainable development to the poor without causing their carbon footprint to increase beyond control.

Yes of course we want a stable human population that is in equilibrium with the planet’s ecosystem. What we don’t need is coercive, top-down population control programmes, but access to affordable, high quality and voluntary reproductive health services, including safe birth control and abortion for poor women. When given the economic and social freedom to make informed decisions, most women chose to have fewer children. What many poor women lack to make that choice is social, political and sexual justice.

The real solution to climate change involves policies and actions that prioritise energy conservation, environmentally-sustainable technologies and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Laying the blame for climate change on poor women and their children – the very people who are least responsible but likely to suffer the most severe consequences – amounts to a criminal neglect of our collective responsibility to make these solutions a reality.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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