Population and Climate Change

As greens, it seems pretty intuitive that runaway population growth is unsustainable. That argument rages in back rooms, but rarely gets much air in the media because it is such a controversial topic.

The Greens here in Aotearoa have debated the topic and written our population policy. It was no less difficult a debate for us either. To my knowledge, no other political party has the courage to front the issue.

There was a burst of media in February/March, as the Global Population Speak Out encouraged people like the BBC’s John Feeney and others to do just that – speak out.

The question for debate here is whether population growth is a direct driver of climate change. New research just published claims that the link is very weak indeed.

Dr David Satterthwaite, of the London-based policy research centre and think tank the International Institute for Environment and Development, analysed changes in population and in greenhouse gas emissions for all the world’s countries.

He found that between 1980 and 2005: Sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5 percent of the world’s population growth and just 2.4 percent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions; the United States had 3.4 percent of the world’s population growth and 12.6 percent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions; China had 15.3 percent of the world’s population growth and 44.5 percent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions; Population growth rates in China have come down very rapidly – but greenhouse gas emissions have increased very rapidly; Low-income nations had 52.1 percent of the world’s population growth and 12.8 percent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions; High-income nations had 7 percent of the world’s population growth and 29 percent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions; Most of the nations with the highest population growth rates had low growth rates for carbon dioxide emissions while many of the nations with the lowest population growth rates had high growth rates for carbon dioxide emissions.

It makes your brain hurt to read it, but it does make it clear that the link is not as ‘obvious’ as one would assume.

While many of us take it as read that unfettered population growth is bad for the environment and that unfettered consumerism is bad for the environment, it seems that consumerism takes the rap for climate change.

What do you think?

18 Comments Posted

  1. NigelW – the future isn’t quite as bleak as you paint. Nitrogen fertilizers such as urea are made from hydrogen. While it is true that most of that hydrogen is made from oil or gas (such as at Kapuni), it can also be made by electrolysis using renewable electricity (preferably at night and other periods of low demand).

    Pre-European agriculture used much less land than is now under cultivation or grazing.

    I agree that planting fruit and nut trees would be useful, but I would suggest some discrimination regarding which types would be best.


  2. Unfortunately for many the reality of the limits on sustainable populations will come at the ‘ultimate cost’.

    The system most likely to hit us first is loss of our oil supply. The IEA tells us that oil production is declining at between 6% and 8% per year from a peak around mid 2008. This means that by 2020 global oil production will be below the demand of the oil producing countries, and we wont get any.

    Under ideal conditions the Maori people are as able to breed as any race, yet they had a bred up to a ‘sustainable’ population of no more than 100,000 at the time of first European contact.

    All the agricultural leverage we have developed since then is based on oil and other oil-powered extractive industries, and (importantly) by imports of materials from overseas. Oil-based fertilisers and agrichemicals; oil-fueled farm equipment.

    Without oil we will see food production collapse back to pre-European levels. That’s all the land and sea can sustain.

    There will not be any food imports, and so once again these islands will (after a period of blind desperate rapaciousness) revert to providing food for around 100,000 souls.

    We could of course embark on a programme of vigorous over-planting of all public land with food-growing trees and plants of all types. Berries for birds to feed and distribute. We could aerial-sow legumes over all the high country of both islands, we could plant nut-trees and fruit trees in every public reserve and by every road-side, we could plant beans and corn and beet and turnips and potatoes in every vacant spot, we could fill every back yard with a climate and soil sensitive mix of food crops. Let them all grow and go to seed unharvested if they must for a few years, but the food and (importantly) the knowledge of how to plant and propagate, to harvest and to preserve and store will be there among the people when we needed it.

    But that is all very unlikely to happen is it. To do so would threaten the sanctity of our precious ‘native bush’ (within which Maori hunting parties have starved to death on occasions). It is very likely to conflict with ‘areas of outstanding national significance’ and ‘the visual amenity of our landscape’ and other now-outdated RMA concepts. So we dare not let thoughts of our mere survival get in the way of the persistence of such lofty ideals – no matter that adherence to these ideals will see us starve to death!

    The message is pretty simple. By 2020 we will have no oil. Without out oil our food supply will collapse. We are no more than ten harvest seasons away from that day. We must start a national planting scheme, or by 2020 we will be starving, or dead. Please, let us take the higher road and use our intelligence and skills to prepare thoughtfully and deliberately for the new future.

  3. – “So, for example, cures (actually treatments rather than cures)for diseases of the rich get much more attention than the treatment of diseases more commonly found amongst the poor.”

    Well, we know what the cure for diseases and all the other afflictions of the poor is: Capitalism. Why would we want to waste time and resources fighting the symptoms when we can cure the entire condition?

    Sadly, the left would sooner millions of people lived and died in squalor than acknowledge this fact.

  4. Ah. But even scientific enquiry can, and is, directed. Politics and Big Business have the greatest command of how funds should be spent on scientific enquiry. ‘Blue Sky’ science is a very poor cousin to corporate science. Those results that are likely to return an early profit are the ones that most financial backers want. So, for example, cures (actually treatments rather than cures)for diseases of the rich get much more attention than the treatment of diseases more commonly found amongst the poor.

  5. Nobody is truly rational, OutinFront! That is where most economic theory falls down, and falls down hard. This is why we need science – it is the externalised, formalised improvement on our weak rational faculty. It is an external tool, refined to serve us because most of us don’t do it well at all.

    As for a return to lower population densities – I think it can be done, over time, in a responsible and ethical way without resorting to the horrors that critics like to trot out every time the issue comes up.

  6. To be fair avowkind, that’s the sort of question the Green’s population policy tries to address – “what we should do about us”. (Along with most of our other policies, I might add!)

  7. I read a conservative blog the other day recommending that the world return to 1 billion people as a population goal over the next 200 years or so. It could be easily done without compulsion as people tend to spend less time making babies when they have control of their fertility, basic needs for food, health care and accomodation are met, and more choices about how to spend their time. There can be common ground when people rationally look at the BIG picture. The problem we face today is that so many people aren’t rational. They prefer to “believe” rather than know. Blind faith has done the world much damage over the centuries.

  8. Education, female emancipation and security (land and food) . Give a country these and the population growth of a country seems to level off.

    As native population growth is NZ is relatively low/stable discussion of this issue falls into the category of ‘what should we do about them’ with a finger pointing at the developed world. As such its not a very productive route as even if you know what to do how much should you be interfering.

    More productive would be to say ‘what can we do about us’ pointing at our own overuse of the worlds resources.

    TV advertising converts population growth into consumer growth.

  9. Neonate politics, more contentious than pro-life or pro-choice, yet it maybe the smoldering undiscussed issue of out time. Less so globaly, than regionally. Population Climate Change impacts WILL be regional before it is seen as global. And it will always be ‘them’ that are the problem.. those people. You know, ‘others’ policy, not ‘our’ policy.

    Good on the “Greens” for at least opening the discussion though NZ is, i suspect, the least likely country to have a robust debate surrounding the implications.

  10. Shunda, when you are right you are right… and welcome to the party BTW 😉 You ARE coming in, aren’t you?

    I tend to be pessimistic when I reflect on the fact that our principle forms of population control are war, starvation and disease – and that we’ve made such inroads on disease, and spend so much of our energy budget on food that the population is still increasing. So our real population planning centers on putting development resources into the science of killing people.

    … and we can’t even discuss population control without getting into accusations of racism.

    It’s an evolutionary IQ test. We’re failing.


  11. I think you are right frog, our current western lifestyle (which is actually driving China’s industry) is simply unsustainable with all its current trimmings.
    The problem is how to change it without unleashing the destructive side of humanity in the process.
    Because as a species we just loves to fight.

  12. The problem WWHS, is that 50 years ago there were not nearly so many people, we had trouble feeding them then, and we substituted cheap energy for sustainable food sources. Very clever of us. “Too clever is dumb”.

    Failure to recognize the issue of energy as being the limiting factor with respect to population growth and the limitations on our ability to produce energy, is a fatal mistake,

    Furedi is an optimist, I am an Engineer. I automatically regard optimists with suspicion. I don’t “hope” that the bridge won’t see the load of 4 cement trucks at a time. You can’t afford optimism in this environment.

    I don’t imagine either, that the massive improvements in technology and science came out of the massively increased human resources of Africa, India and China. Most progress came from relatively static populations and cultures in Europe, North-America and Russia. Misleading guy that Furedi. Also an idiot.

    “Human life should always be treated as precious and special. How can there possibly be too many of us? ” has one answer in an “open” environment with effectively unlimited resources. For 4 people on a Lifeboat with water enough for 3, it is an entirely different proposition. For the people on Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, or in the Donner party, it made for some particularly gruesome logic.

    What is happening in China, with a new Coal plant built weekly, is a symptom of the energy requirements. The effects on the planet are already measurable. The only question is what part of the system will collapse first.


    Worse, we have to go to renewable sources and next generation nuclear sources to avert climate catastrophe. That means NO more coal and VASTLY more expensive energy,

    Life is good, but there are limits to EVERYTHING WWHS. There is no “good” that in sufficient quantity does not become a problem.


  13. It’s also terribly species chauvanistic to think that humans can increase their population indefinitely. Malthus may not have envisaged human ingenuity to meet the challenge of food and resource production. However, much of the counter to Malthus’ fears could well have been due to the development of an unsustainable lifestyle based on the reliance on non-renewable resources.
    At a deeper level, uncontrolled population expansion inevitably negatively impacts on other species’ habitats thereby displaying a lack of respect for our fellow inhabitants on this planet.

  14. Ok maybe a slight over reaction – just seen too much traffic of late proposing “a great die off” as the solution.

    Yes you are right a better read shows you proposed de-linking. Fully agree with you. So I apologise and withdraw.

  15. I don’t understand what you’re on about hayek. I just proposed de-linking population growth and climate change, and you slam me for being a doomsayer! Did you even read what I wrote, or did you just have a knee-jerk reaction?

  16. OK, but even if true, population is a huge problem as resource depletion bites. Lack of water, for instance, is likely to cause wars in the future and that’s not going to help us deal to climate change either.

  17. Spiked!

    For the basic counter argument read Population control from Spiked (18 June 2007) http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/3503

    Frog you need to let go of your malthusian doomsday thinking – more people are a good idea. At its most simple – more people means more knowledge and the greater ability to improve life for ourself and the environment.Do I need to put up a list of all the good things that have happened in the last 50 years (birth control, longer lives, better environment in developed countries – yes that is true, increased flora and fauna protection and increase in the number that is more whales!!!)

    Life is good.

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