Magazine article New Internationalist

Population and Climate Change: Two Points of View

Magazine article New Internationalist

Population and Climate Change: Two Points of View

Article excerpt

Jonathon Porritt

'It is our duty to the next generation to put the world on a downward population trajectory just as fast as we can.'

It astonishes me that population remains such a controversial issue when there is so much to agree on from a progressive, radical perspective:

We would all agree that it would be a better world for women if they were able to manage their own fertility, including access to safe, reliable and cheap contraception.

We would all agree that it would be a better world if all women had accessio improved healthcare (particularly reproductive healthcare), and if all girls had the right to be in education for as long as boys are.

And I suspect the vast majority would agree that there is a clear link between high population growth in many countries and the continuing failure to address life-crushing poverty in those countries.

But fewer, I suspect, would subscribe to the overall conclusion which emerged from the latest report of the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (APPG):

'The failure to prioritize family planning in overseas development aid is resulting in population growth levels that present a serious threat to health, economic development and the environment in some of the world's poorest countries. Urgent action must be taken to ensure family planning provision becomes an integral part of all efforts to reduce poverty, and improve mothers' and children's survival and health.'

No doubt the APPG would have had in mind countries like Bangladesh (where the population has grown from 71 million in 1974 to an estimated 162 million today, with a fertility rate of 3 children per woman) and Ethiopia. Twenty-five years ago at the time of the terrible famine, Ethiopia's population was around 34 million. Now it's 72 million. Spending on family planning has declined steadily over the last decade. And famine is back.

For me, there is a compelling humanitarian case for fullon support for family planning in those countries dogged by that crushing combination of high average fertility and dire poverty. But on top of all that, we've now got to take climate change into account. And that means taking into account not just total emissions of greenhouse gases, but the total number of emitters.

At one level, this is all about basic mathematics. We roughly know the total volume of greenhouse gases we can put into the atmosphere over the next few decades if we are to stay the right side of the two degree centigrade increase (by the end of the century) which scientists tell us we absolutely mustn't go above. That total volume has to be divided up between the total amount of people doing the emitting.

And that's where we have to take China into account. The outcome of China's one-child family policy (however abhorrent it may be from a human rights perspective) is that 400 million births have been 'averted'.

On average, each citizen of China emits around 4.5 tonnes of CO2 per annum. That would have been an additional 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted per annum, give or take a few hundred thousand tonnes, if those births had not been averted.

My friends in Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth hate this logical, mathematical exercise. And that's because they are foolish enough to suppose that all effective family planning exercises have to be done China-style. They don't. They can be done Kerala-style, or Thailand-style or Iran-style -where equally rapid reductions in the fertility rate have been achieved via better education, better healthcare, better access to contraception and inspired government and community leadership.

But the reasons for the continuing non-engagement of the big environment groups are deeper than this. They have a very deep fear that addressing population issues will distract people from the real issue: over-consumption in the rich world rather than over-population in the poor world. …

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