(UK), March 18, 2007
one is willing to address the accelerating growth in the world's
In the time
it takes you to get to the end of this sentence, seven people
have been added to the population of the world. At this rate,
the United Nations estimates the number of people on the planet
will nearly double by the middle of this century. Even with significant
reductions in birth rates, the population is expected to increase
from 6.7 billion now to 9.2 billion by 2050.
are staggering. Yet there was hardly a mention of them in a major
story last week: the announcement by Britain's two main political
parties of how they will tackle what is commonly agreed to be
the biggest threat facing the planet, global warming and ensuing
their Climate Change Bill promising to cut emissions of carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming by
60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. Suggested policies to achieve
this ranged from banning standby buttons on electrical equipment
and old-fashioned, inefficient light bulbs to 'capture and storage'
of pollution from coal-fired power stations. Conservatives grabbed
headlines with a plan to limit air travel - a small but fast-growing
source of greenhouse gases.
been well-intentioned, if not always convincing, ideas. At an
Oxford conference, scientists argued against the 'Hollywoodisation'
of the problem, that it is being promoted beyond the science.
And still, everybody is talking only about one half of the equation:
the emissions we generate, not how we generate them. All the standby
buttons and low-energy light bulbs are dwarfed by the pressure
of a global population rising by the equivalent of Britain every
if governments want to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per
cent, and the world's population rises to the mid-range forecast
of 9.2 billion, each person would in fact have to slash their
emissions by 72 per cent. More efficient technology, renewable
energy and lifestyle changes will help do that, but growing prosperity
and consumption in developing countries will also make it harder.
That all our low-energy light bulbs, home insulation, efficient
cars, boilers and washing machines have so far failed to stop
emissions growing illustrates how difficult cutting them will
be to achieve.
activists argue the world can only support a population of two
to three billion, even as few as 500 million in future. But even
if reducing the world's population is unlikely or distasteful,
it is incredible that there is not even a debate about limiting
and maybe one day reversing growth. There are many understandable
reasons for the prevailing reluctance to talk about population.
whether there is a problem at all. Blair says Britain doesn't
need a population policy, and he has a point: Britain's population
grows only because of immigration. But greenhouse gas emissions
are a global problem, so it should not matter which countries
people live in (some say developed countries have higher standards
of living so moving people into them increases overall emissions,
but it is hard to argue we should deny others our quality of life).
At a global level, optimists say advances in science and technology
will provide the solution; more aggressive estimates suggest we
could double consumption and halve our impact on the planet.
evidence suggests it is too soon to relax. Even if huge advances
can be made on slashing greenhouse gases, there is an argument
that densely populated countries cannot cope with local environmental
stresses such as home-building, fresh water use, waste, traffic,
light pollution and noise. More worryingly, the evidence that
technology can solve the problem is not yet convincing: the recent
failure of European car-makers to meet voluntary emissions reductions
is a reminder that a decade after the international community
made a serious pledge to tackle global warming, emissions are
to discussing population is the uncomfortable suspicion that environmentalism
is a soft cover for more objectionable population agendas to stop
or reduce immigration or growth in developing countries. Sometimes
it might be. But that doesn't take away the underlying fact: that
more people use more resources and create more pollution. This
is why some braver voices - Sir David Attenborough, Jonathan Porritt
and Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic
Survey, to name a few - have begun to raise the issue.
obstacle to debate is the matter of possible solutions. Propositions
such as ignoring disease or limiting life-saving medical treatment
can be ruled out as unacceptable, and birth control is objectionable
to many on moral, religious and libertarian grounds. It is not
surprising that green groups and politicians, worried about offending
supporters, stay silent.
a fourth barrier to raising the population issue: even when people
acknowledge the problem and brave the debate, it seems too big
to solve. But there are things that can be done at least to reduce
population growth. Last week the UN Population Fund said its latest
projections 'underline the urgency of family planning needs'.
It says 200 million women in the world don't have access to 'safe
and effective' contraceptive services, and calls for a big increase
in funding for family planning, especially in developing nations.
Britain's Optimum Population Trust also calls for 45 countries
to drop policies to increase birthrates - mostly because of worries
about paying pensions for an aging population.
Is this enough
to tackle such a big issue? Even with the most optimistic assumptions
about falling birth rates, the UN forecasts a population increase
to 7.8 billion by 2050. But that is still considerably less than
a population of 9.2 billion. And the OPT says the success of campaigns
in countries such as Iran and Thailand suggests the best family
planning services, especially combined with women's education
and human rights, could go even further.
It is understandable
then that people are worried about discussing population, but
fear of misrepresentation, offence or failure are not good enough
reasons to ignore one half of the world's biggest problem: the
population effect on climate change.
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