9 January 2010

An old problem for a new year

By Marguerite Finn

In my new year's zeal to tidy up my study I uncovered a pile of newspaper clippings from 2008 including many references to population control as part of the mix of attempts to address climate change.

By 2009, exposure of this thorny subject had died down, as if population control had become the unspeakable 'elephant in the room'. Since it is a subject I believe should be widely debated, I was relieved to see a few brave letters appearing again only this week.

Policies to tackle climate change usually ignore the population question because it’s seen as being too sensitive and controversial. This 'blind spot' extends all the way from the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (October 2006) to the agenda of environmental groups, development bodies and political parties. The charity Optimum Population Trust maintains that: "a de facto taboo exists throughout civil society and within government". Consequently policy-making has concentrated exclusively on techno-economic solutions to climate change.

Putting this into perspective, figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show our own population growing by over four million to 65.6 million by 2018, passing 70 million two decades from now in 2029 and reaching nearly 86 million by 2083. Growth will be running at over quarter of a million a year and the ONS says that over two-thirds of the projected increase over the next quarter century will be due to immigration of people who have been displaced by climate change and the accompanying problems of war, famine and refugees. That immigration is our fate, for we in the west have caused the climate change. But those of us already here must not increase, for each additional one of us causes carbon emissions equivalent to 22 additional Malawians. From the industrial revolution onwards we have had our population explosion already; and, with inevitable immigration alone, will reach soon the limit of the carrying capacity of our land.

What of the poorer countries, which are having their population explosions now? Their problems are political – the inequality of food and other resources. Education, particularly of women will help them to address that. Additionally, countries such as the Indian subcontinent (twice as densely populated as China) and other island states, are already losing land to climate change. Yet we cannot point fingers at them with our heavier footprints, if we continue to over-populate ourselves.

Dr Mike Coleman, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, writing in 2008, suggested the UK government needed to address both population and economic growth – otherwise we will find it difficult to feed, house, educate and care for people and the quality of life will diminish considerably. The 'business as usual' model of striving for economic growth at any cost is the wrong path to follow. Two years on, these arguments will be understood locally by all those currently opposing the loss of prime agricultural land to thousands of new houses, obscene business hubs, plus a grossly carbon-negative northern distributor road. Spreading industrialisation, urbanisation, pollution and first world consumption patterns are reducing the ultimate carrying capacity of the earth.

Is it not time we faced up to population control and debated the subject more openly? Couples deciding about the size of their family are currently denied the public debate and awareness that might have informed and encouraged them to think about the implications for their fellow citizens, the climate and the rest of creation.

Could the United Nations Population Fund not ensure that all countries – including ours - adopt non-coercive policies limiting and stabilising population growth? Family planning in poorer countries should be a legitimate candidate for climate change funding, empowering women to control their own fertility while having major humanitarian benefits for the poorest women in the world.

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