Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Monbiot is wrong, population does matter

I have tremendous respect for George Monbiot, but on one thing at least I think he is mistaken. In a recent blog on the Guardian he asserts that it is not rampant population growth which is the main problem for the environment, but excessive consumption by the rich. Surely the problem is both?

To begin with the populations of the ‘developing’ countries are now so high that they actually emit more carbon than the developed countries, despite their lower per capita emissions (53% of emissions in 2007 came from developing countries). We must also not forget the fact that these per capita emissions can rise very quickly – China for example now has higher per capita emissions than Sweden and around 60% those of the UK. Thank goodness its population is not growing, but imagine how much easier it would be if it had stabilised at 1 billion instead of 1.33 billion? Similarly, one can imagine that it would be much easier for India to provide for its increasingly aspirant population had their demographic growth stabilised at 500 million, its 1970s level, instead of its current 1 billion plus. This is not really the issue I want to discuss, however. There is another problem I would like to think about.

Let us for a moment assume that we wave a magic wand and introduce an international carbon allowance for every person on the planet. This would be equal for everyone currently alive – the fairest way to do things. For argument’s sake we can set this at 2 tonnes per person. A dramatic reduction for developed countries (especially the US, UAE, Canada, Australia) but a nearly 50% increase for the poorest. Let us also assume that this system is working, with minimal corruption or trade.

In countries with largely stable populations, these credits would be effectively handed down through the generations, and new lifestyles and technology would enable the maximisation of wealth within these emission boundaries. For poor countries there would initially be a bonanza as they are enabled to nearly double emissions (up from 1.3 tonnes per person for countries like Bangladesh or India). However, within 25 years, thanks to population growth the number of people in these countries would have doubled. What happens then? Each person is back to 1 tonne each, less than they currently emit. Obviously the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide will not have increased, so these countries will either need more credits from the population-stable countries, or halve the allowance for each individual every twenty five years. Some credits may be available, but not indefinitely. In the meantime the stable population countries will be able to maintain their standards of living, and as new technology is introduced to cater for the ever shrinking allowances of the high-growth countries, they will be able to capitalise on this too – staying rich, while the high growth countries halve their allowances every 25 years. Essentially, an ever growing population perpetuates poverty.

Okay, obviously this is a simplified case, which does not and will never exist. It seems likely that increased wealth in these countries would reduce population anyway. The point is that excess consumption is the problem, whether by a few hundred thousand rich people, billions of poor people, or the billion in the middle. We need to tackle both. We must do away with the concept of the ‘right to pollute’ and look at ways of developing technology which allows zero-carbon growth. And let’s not forget that growing populations, wherever they are, place extra strain on the environment in other ways, through their need for land, water, fish and food. Tackling this, will make dealing with all these problems, while alleviating poverty far simpler.

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