Is the problem overpopulation?

Over the last hundred years, as the global population has rocketed, so has the rate of environmental devastation. Growth is slowing, but it’s still growth: the UN’s most likely projection is that today’s near 8 billion will be 9.7bn by 2050, and 10.9bn by 2100. It just seems intuitive, then – if we’ve caused the problem, surely this planet would be a better place if there were fewer of us onboard?

The world’s population today is more than double what it was in 1970.

But the obvious point is that the damage is not equally attributable to everyone. A comparison of carbon footprints between nations shows how the entire annual emissions of an individual in the developing world can be matched by the average individual in the UK within days:

Taken from analysis by the Center for Global Development, January 2022 study

In other words, after just forty-eight hours my carbon emissions are already more than someone from the Democratic Republic of Congo will produce all year. And in just one month, I’ll have overtaken the annual emissions of the average citizen of over 30 low- and middle-income countries.

It’s not population that’s destroying this planet, then, but the selfish exploitation of affluence. The average carbon footprint of the world’s 1% of emitters is more than 75 times higher than the bottom 50%.

But population is still a factor, precisely because developing countries are developing. Understandably, they aspire to not just a basic standard of living, but to the same high-consumption, planet-desecrating lifestyles that for decades they’ve watched us enjoy. And as they demand a slab of meat with every meal in larger homes with central heating or air conditioning, as they drive their multiple cars and shop online and fly off for foreign holidays, the situation is only going to get worse. Much worse.

And our planet just isn’t big enough to sustain that. It can’t handle it now, let alone with billions more demanding the same. There just isn’t enough fresh water. There aren’t enough forests to cut down or fish in the sea.

If we want everyone on the planet to enjoy a decent standard of living – assuming nature doesn’t step in and limit our population for us – we are going to need a check on the number of people on this planet. But that can be a good thing in itself, not just a bonus for the planet.

About 214 million women in developing regions who want to avoid pregnancy do not have access to modern methods of contraception.

The United Nations Association – UK, Climate 2020

A side-effect of empowering women is a reduction in fertility rates; the more control a woman has over her own body and the greater her access to education and her prospects for a career, the fewer children she will bear. The advancement of gender equality and female choice, however positive in itself, is also a significant tool in the fight against climate change. And there’s the added benefit that smaller families tend to be richer, so more resilient to the impact of the devastation we’re already seeing around the world.

So yes, population growth needs to be addressed. But not as a diversion from the bigger problem – overconsumption by the few. To limit global warming to 1.5ºC or 2ºC above pre-industrial times, per capita carbon footprints need to be in a global range of about 1.6-2.8 tonnes. For those of us in Europe – and especially for those in the US – that’s a formidable goal.

From Impacts of Poverty Alleviation on National and Global Carbon Emissions,
(PPP = Purchasing Power Parity)

Meanwhile the world’s poorest – those hardest hit by the changing climate and normally held to be behind problematic population growth – are such low emitters that, according to one recent study, raising them all out of extreme poverty would increase global emissions by less than 1%.

Even a rapid reduction in population would have little benefit if we fail to curb our high-emissions lifestyles. The responsibility is ours, to urgently re-evaluate the way we live. At the same time it’s imperative that we follow through on our promises to share the means to achieve a high-quality, low carbon lifestyle with those now striving just to survive.

The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, following the release of the latest IPCC Report:
Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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