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Environment > Human Impact >

The Taboo Solution: Can Population Management Be a Solution to Climate Change?

Paper ID: 406 Last updated: 31/01/2012 09:08:31
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Global When: 21-50yrs+ How Fast: Years
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Keywords: bullet climate, population, demographics, resources

Summary bullet

Scientists broadly agree about the causes and likely effects of climate change; however, there is still debate in the public sphere about how to tackle it, and it is unclear if conventional approaches will be effective. Some have suggested that a more radical intervention is required and that reducing the rate of global population growth is the only way to tackle the complex, interrelated problems that are likely to result from climate change, including resource scarcity, forced migration, international security problems and poverty. Managing the population at a national level would raise a number of complex questions relating to dependency rates, the state of the labour market, economic growth, immigration policy, racial cohesion and ethics.

Discussion bullet

The Earth currently supports some 6.8 billion people, with a possible increase to over 9 billion by 2050. [1] The growth of the human population - and the increased consumption of this growing population - is perhaps the most significant driver of the complex and interlinked problems we face, including climate change, forced migration, growing imbalances in the poverty levels across the world, and resource scarcity, including the availability and price of food and other natural resources. Population management is a highly comlex and controversial issue. The brief discussion below does not discuss the ethical and other controversial aspects.

Discussions that link climate change and population growth have increased significantly over the last few years. Globally, climate change driving extreme weather conditions with significant human impact is influencing political and economic decisionmaking more and more. [2]

Changing weather conditions are just one issue connecting the challenges of demographic change and climate change. Population growth raises questions about supply of food and other natural resources. Food supply has kept a pace with population growth so far, mainly due to the green revolution leading to dramatic improvements in crop yields, but famine and malnutrition are still common occurrences in some parts of the world. Growing populations worldwide would require even more food and water. [3] Food scarcity may intensify as a result of the diversion of grain production for biofuels [4] and the increased popularity of high input foods, notably meat, [5] across the developing world. The effects of climate change, for example, severe flooding or exceptional and unusual weather conditions, [6] may lead to delayed harvests, restricted food production or even no production at all. [7] A sharp rise in food prices on a global scale has already contributed to the spread of serious malnutrition, and was a main reason for the 2008 food riots in some countries across the world. [8] [9]

Extreme weather conditions, and the availability of food and other resources may force some people to migrate. According to International Organisation for Migration and United Nations figures, between 200 million and 1 billion people could be forced to leave their homes between 2010 and 2050 as the effects of climate change exacerbate an already serious migration crisis. Movement of people forced from their homes raises questions about international security, political (in)stability, potential ethnic conflict, as well as the health and well-being of those displacement migrants [10] [11]

The effects of population on the climate are amplified by increases in consumption: as standards of living in the developing world rise, so could emissions from power generation, transport, industry and homes. [7]

Commitment to addressing climate change through population control does not appear to be on the political agenda in many countries. Indeed, current policies relating to the family (such as child benefit) in some nations (such as Russia and Australia) appear to be focused on increasing, rather than decreasing family size [12] in order to safeguard national power and productivity (and avoid the dangers of a high dependency ratio) by ensuring a large population of working age. [13]

Successfully managing population growth at an international level would be radical and would require buy-in from both developed and developing country governments, and commitment from international donor countries, NGOs and charities. [14] Many developed countries are at least engaging in a debate about climate change commitment. Also, environmentalism has increased in popularity in these countries, [15] and family size has fallen drastically over the last two generations - though it is not suggested these are related!

However, population decline remains limited in less developed countries. World population increases occur mainly in poorer countries, which tend to have higher birth rates. Therefore, it is argued that a decline in the world’s population could require population policies in developing countries. While there are examples of such countries directly addressing population growth and achieving substantial reductions in birth rates (such as China, Indonesia and India), [16] [17] [18] it is unclear what is attributable to policy and what to ‘natural’ factors such as rising standards of living and culture change. [19] In addition, economic growth in many developing countries is fuelled by a large, low-cost labour force; as a result, some countries may turn down development of population policies altogether on economic grounds, even putting aside concerns for ethical reasons. [20]

Proponents of a population-based approach to climate change mitigation argue that such an approach is necessary to improve health, sanitation and education in the developing world and to encourage a downward shift in birth rates. It is hoped that these outcomes could be achieved through a reduction in child mortality and an increase in the workforce participation and status of women. [21] This could also be reinforced by increasing the availability of contraception and abortion services. [22]

A relationship between climate change and population growth is also present in the policy discussions in the United Kingdom (UK). Currently the UK population stands at more than 61 million and is projected to grow to more than 71 million by 2033. [23] This figure has been set against a potential “optimum” population of between 20 and 30 million (based on the ability of domestic agriculture, industry and housing space to support UK citizens comfortably and independently of global markets). [24] Population campaigners argue that the UK has a serious overpopulation problem, but that this problem is “hidden” by virtue of the UK's privileged position in the global economy. Ecological footprint studies show that the current UK population requires land of the area of 3.6 UKs to feed and supply itself; the extra land required for lifestyles is abroad and the goods it produces have to be imported. [13]

Implications bullet

While the international community has numerous bodies on climate change, [25] [26] [27] [28] the issue of population management may soon be more widely discussed in relation to climate change. As a consequence, the role of the international community, the place of the UK within such a community, and the broader question of making and enforcing decisions around population management may become increasingly important.

Security analysts suggest that the effects of climate change and an increase in the world’s population will increase competition for scarce resources, which may lead to ”invasion of others, movement of refugees, ethnic rivalries and terrorist/guerrilla action against rich countries”. [29] Members of the international community may have to consider taking a more pre-emptive peacekeeping role in regions affected adversely by climate change. The likely implication of climate change also includes increases in the international migration levels from developing world nations whose traditional cultures still look favourably on large families. [30] This could lead to a re-thinking of immigration policies in developed countries and some efforts to reduce high population growth in developing countries.

Climate change may affect the poorest to such an extent that it has been characterised as "the world's biggest regressive tax". Thus, we may see an extension of schemes already in place, for example, taxes on international flights to be directed towards population management measures such as family planning and female education programmes in developing countries. Furthermore, a rights based approach to climate change may mean that the poorest countries may seek redress under international law for the environmental costs that they suffer. There are currently a number of cases being mounted by Pacific island nations seeking reparations from developed world governments and multinational corporations for the impact of climate change on their communities. [31] Such reparation packages might include a reconsideration of migration and asylum policy across the developed world. [32] Conventional foreign aid could be supplemented by taking responsibility for climate change refugees which may in turn undermine support for domestic governments [33], and involvement with multinational bodies such as the United Nations.

Population management in the UK is a debatable issue. The projected increase in population is based largely on expected immigration rather than the existing population reproducing above the replacement rate. This could indicate that measures to depress family size rather than control immigration would not be effective in curtailing total population, and may be politically undeliverable. We would perhaps see some combination of incentives, whether using overt policy measures such as taxes, migration policy and less obvious social marketing methods to discourage large families.

Future UK population policy could combine consideration of family planning and immigration with a long term aim to manageably decrease population. [34] Despite difficulties in implementing these policies due to their interventionist nature and the possible negative consequences of a drop in dependency ratios, there could be some economic and social advantages in the UK’s population decline. Advantages of include less pressure on education services, national infrastructure and employment, and perhaps greater incentives to increase economic efficiency and productivity. A shortage of domestic labour could also be increasingly irrelevant as globalisation allows for the outsourcing of jobs to developing countries, which can have large cohorts of well-educated young people. [35]

While dealing with total numbers of people it may be equally effective to address related issues such as household size. When people live in smaller households they tend to consume more of everything [34]. Government policy might develop to incorporate this thinking and provide incentives such as financial penalties for single person households or a reduction in the number of single person households built.

On the other hand, UK’s international obligations such as responsibilities to refugees escaping climate change disaster could lead to overcrowding and ‘enclaving’ in some areas of the country. This could, in turn, lead to community cohesion problems, racial scapegoating and inter-ethnic violence [36].

Early indicators bullet

The UK government changes its migration policy to make it more restrictive.
The US government lifts anti-abortion stance in aid policy, increases funding of ‘Healthy Mother Healthy Baby' programme for Africa by $100m.
International Court rules in favour of awarding compensation to Tuvalu in recompense for effects of climate change; Tuvalu has secured New Zealand's agreement to accept an annual quota of its citizens as environmental refugees.
The UN inaugurates Commission on Population Management & Growth Stabilisation, China and India still debating membership.
Australia scraps incentives for multiple births, increases budget spend on recruiting skilled migrants.

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

Increasing cost of living in developed and developing world disincentivises families to have more children.
Increasing public awareness of the consequences of climate change and population pressures through the media and experience of extreme weather events.
International consensus on the human factor behind climate change and limited effectiveness of behavioural policies/incentives.
Global food shortages and price rises affecting all nations.

Climate change talks at Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 failed to produce a "legally binding" pact.
Low cost of labour in China remains a competitive advantage.
The failure of multilateral institutions and a reinvigorated culture of state sovereignty. Linked to a rise in population nationalism.
Scientists yet to find effective cures for malaria, dengue fever, HIV/AIDS, and curable diseases such as cholera still rampant in poor communities of the developing world.
Cultural barriers to widespread use of contraception increase with rise in religious fundamentalism.
Birth control is unlikely to be considered an appropriate method to fight against climate change. [15]

Parallels & Precedents bullet

China’s one child policy [18] and forced sterilisations in India. [19] Less extreme population control programmes in place in many other nations such as Indonesia. [14]
In November 2007 Toni Vernelli publicised her case to terminate her pregnancy and to follow up with sterilisation on the grounds that she wanted to “protect the planet” from over-population and climate change. [37]
1990s conflict in Rwanda linked to uneven distribution of resources, drought and poor harvests. [38]
Singapore's Stop at Two Campaign.

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