Different cultures have very different views on the relationship between population and climate change. In some circles population is the great unmentionable. It is still associated with the coercive policies some early family planners tried to impose. In others it is the perfect excuse for why we should not have to do anything about our consumption – if other countries didn’t breed so fast there would be more for us. There’s hardly a public meeting I hold on climate change that someone doesn’t say at question time, “but isn’t population growth the real problem? There are just too many people”. They don’t usually follow up by offering to remove themselves from the world early, or to give up the chance of grandchildren. They are right, and they are wrong. Population growth makes it just so much harder to live within the limits of the planet. But consumption is growing so much faster than population that even if population stabilised climate change would be slowed only a little.
The European Parliament cross-party forum on population and development held a “discussion lunch” yesterday to look at the relationship between population policies and the challenge of climate change. Family planning activists from many organisations around the world listened to three presentations then compared views over lunch.
Family planning is focused on the hundreds of millions of women who would prefer to have fewer children if they had access to family planning. While the prediction of 9.2 billion people by 2050 is scary when one thinks of food supply, this is just the central prediction, based on the assumption that current resources for family planning programmes will continue. That is no longer a valid assumption. Resources have been shifted out of programmes into other important initiatives like Aids prevention because governments love announcing new generous programmes and avoid telling people it is not new money, but recycled from somewhere else. The fear is that climate change adaptation finance will also rob these programmes.
Then there are the perverse drivers. There is climate change adaptation aid available in the Maldives. It is very short of land but some islands have less than 500 people and so don’t qualify for help to build a sea wall. So families have more children in order to get to the population that will qualify for government programmes.
The man from Ethiopia spoke last at our table. The average land available for a whole family to feed itself in large parts of his country is 0.25 ha. Two million more people are expected to join that population in the next few years. He thinks it’s too late to leave it to individual choice.