The least-discussed factor in climate change and resource depletion
On average we currently need 1.5 Earths to sustain our consumption of resources. That's the global average and in developed countries like the UK we probably need around three. This is clearly unsustainable, but it gets worse. We will need more Earths as the population grows, currently at 7 billion but expected to increase to around 9 billion by 2050. This is a situation that cannot continue. More people inevitably means more mouths to feed, more energy needed, and more resources turned into goods for these people to use, as well as greater deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Population growth is probably the least-discussed factor causing climate change and other significant environmental impacts such as resource depletion. The latest IPCC report (AR5) says, “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic [human created] increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.” This report, comprehensive in other areas, scarcely touches on the population aspect of climate change.
Simon Ross, Chief Executive of the charity Population Matters says, “The more people there are, the more emissions there are, and the greater pressure on resources. That depends on how much each individual is consuming, so,when are more Americans or more British people, that has a bigger effect on a per capita basis, than the poorest countries, where the population is growing the fastest. In middle income countries like China and Brazil the per capita consumption is rising, so we are seeing growing numbers and growing consumption at the same time, so if you take all of that it is a major driver for climate change, and is what’s behind pressure on food and water, energy, and some minerals, fish and so on. It's a combination of more people and rising consumption.”
How does population growth affect everybody's lives? Simon Ross continues, “As there are more and more people, they have to live somewhere. They are forced to live in places that are risky, on the coast for example, where they are prone to rising sea levels, high tides and tsunamis, or where flooding is likely. In the UK recently people who live on floodplains have suffered from inundation. People are only living in those places because of population pressures - they have to find somewhere to live, and that may be not where they would choose because all the best places are taken already.”
What options can be taken to reduce population induced climate stress and reach a sustainable population for the globe? According to Population Matters the approach should be non-coercive, and involve both the developing world, and the developed countries where the people who consume the most and have the biggest environmental footprint live. It is also important to include the global South where over two billion people live on less than $2 per day and where health, education, low-cost family planning can make a significant difference to the quality of poor peoples' lives. Education for women, and campaigns against child marriage and violence against women and girls, as well as action on biodiversity loss and promotion of appropriate technology can be beneficial.
Simon Ross says, “What we really want to promote is smaller families. Over time that will lower population growth, and eventually stabilise and then reverse it. The benefit of that will be more space, lower congestion in terms of transport andless overdevelopment. You won’t be paying so much for utilities and food and other things. Otherwise prices are going to go up and up and up as there is more demand for everything. So generally peoples’ quality of life will be better if there were fewer people, for the relatively well-off West. For people in the developing countries, it could be a matter of life and death – the difference between having enough food and not having enough food. A lot of people do not have enough food already, so if we slow or stop population growth and climate change, that will relieve pressure on resources.”
Simon Ross continues, “We want to encourage quality family planning, women’s’ rights, education and healthcare which in turn means smaller families, and less pressure on the environment. At Population Matters we see the way forward in terms of good policy and advice, rather than any form of coercion which is negative and counterproductive.”
Climate change and its associated factors are real. Reducing population growth is one of the ways we can address the issue. If we fail to do that, we are limiting our responses to probably the greatest problem that humanity has faced in its existence.