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I have a dilemma. I have a choice between meeting my deadline for a new Sustainable Futures Report every week and providing you with in-depth analysis of the topics that I cover. Inevitably most of my coverage is superficial, but I certainly can't afford to trivialise these very important issues. This week I'm looking at population, and like many other sustainability issues it is broad, deep and complicated. Today's episode therefore will take a top level view, but if it's something you'd like me to go into in more detail, or if you can contribute your knowledge and ideas to the debate, please get back to me. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org as always.
Yes, I’m Anthony Day with your Sustainable Futures Report for Friday the 30th of November. Less than a month to the Christmas consumer-fest. Welcome and thank you all for listening.
Population. It's another elephant in the room. We know we need to do something about it. We know we need to do something about plastic. We’ve had dire warnings from the IPCC of the very present dangers from climate change, and we know we need to do something about that. But many people are concerned about family, housing, jobs, the cost of living and declining public services. Do we really have to worry about population as well? It’s the perennial question: “What can we do?” At the very least we should all have an opinion. Governments have a role in this. We need to hold them to account.
Let’s talk about numbers. First of all I'd like to draw your attention to a website. It’s http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/. Just have a look at it and watch world population growing before your eyes. I remember that when I was at University there was a slogan going around: “Whatever your cause it’s a lost cause unless we limit population.” At that time, world population was around 3.5 billion. Now it’s almost up to 7.7 billion; more than double. It’s actually trebled in my lifetime. These figures are based on UN statistics, and on the website there’s a lot more detail than just the absolute numbers. The first thing you can see is that the birthrate exceeds the death rate, and as long as that continues then population will continue to grow. It's currently growing at about 1.09% per annum globally, and while that rate of increase is slowing, it's still a rate of increase. United Nations estimates that world population will reach 8 billion by 2023, 10 billion by 2056 and exceed 11 billion by 2100. These are estimates within a wide range. At least this slowing growth rate means that it will take 200 years for the population to double again - if that were feasible.
Looking at the Worldometer website you can see that developed countries like the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy have birth rates of between 1.4 and 2 children per woman, which is replacement level or less. The populations of these countries, apart from Italy, are still growing, even after adjusting for migration. The average growth rate for these five is less than 0.4% per annum. If the birth rate is below the replacement rate but population net of migration is still growing, the only conclusion must be that this growth occurs because people are living longer in these countries.
Compare this with some developing countries. I’ve chosen Nigeria, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Populations here are all growing, at an average rate of 1.9%, compared with less than 0.4%. China is the lowest, growing at 0.39%, but the rest are growing from just over 1% to 3.3%. The average number of children per woman in the developed world is 1.7, but in these developing countries it is 3.5, with the DRC at 6.4.
(Sorry about all these figures. You can find them on the blog, and the source is the UN via the Worldometers site.)
It’s interesting to see a reverse correlation between the birthrate and the median age of the population. In most cases, the lower the median age, the higher the birthrate. For the developed countries within my sample, with an average birthrate of 1.7, the median age is 42 years. For the developing country sample with an average birthrate of 3.5, the median age is 26. In the DRC with the birthrate of 6.4, the median age is only 17.
Health and Longevity
Increased longevity is one factor in increasing world population. As developing countries develop and healthcare improves, longevity will increase here as well. Infant mortality and the survival of babies beyond their first year will also improve. In the short term this may give a boost to population, but studies have shown that once people are confident that their children are likely to survive their families get smaller.
What’s the problem?
As population grows, what’s the problem? The campaign group Population Matters tells us simply that:
“Our population has become so large that the earth cannot cope.”
As there are more mouths to feed there is more pressure on the land to produce food. There is more pressure on resources to provide the goods and services that an increased population demands. One of the most significant pressures comes not just from absolute numbers but from the expectations of world citizens. According to the OECD the size of the “global middle class” will increase from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030. These are the people who expect to drive cars, have a refrigerator and a television and to carry a mobile phone. Many want to eat a Western diet. Population Matters estimates that we are already using 1.7 times the total output of the earth, in terms of food and resources. We are using it faster than it can be replaced, and in some cases we are causing damage that can never be undone. It’s unsustainable.
What’s the Solution?
The solution, according to them, is smaller families, even in Western countries where population is beginning to decline. It’s a very hard sell. As they say on the website,
“To have or not to have children is a fundamental human right that everyone should be free to exercise without judgment or criticism.”
It’s also a human right that only a small part of the population can exercise at a given time.
An Academic View (or two)
I’ve commented on the work of Kim Nicholas and Seth Wynes in the past. They calculated that having a child increased your carbon footprint by a massive 60 tonnes per annum and was much more serious than driving a car or travelling by air. As Professor Karl Coplan said on the Sustainable Futures Report for 22nd September 2017,
“I think that actually disserves the climate cause because people outside the climate movement look at that and say; oh my God, these climate activists, they are telling us that we should just stop having children.”
At the time they published their work, Nicholas and Wynes were widely criticised for misinterpreting the papers on which their analysis was based. Unfortunately their conclusions have been widely shared - including by Transform, the journal of IEMA. I asked Nicholas and Wynes for an interview back in 2017 but they said they were not giving interviews, at least not to me.
Population Matters is promoting family planning in developing countries. The US of course has now withdrawn funding from its own work in this field. Will family planning have a sufficient effect in time?
Population Matters justifies its call for smaller families in developed countries on the grounds that these children will have a far larger impact than children in poor countries. For example, they estimate that a child in the UK will have 70 times the impact on the planet that a child in Nigeria will have. You can't argue with that, so the whole debate comes back to the use of resources and the creation of waste and emissions, and indeed the campaign urges everyone to cut back. There are many ways which we can enjoy our current lifestyle with a much lower use of resources and with less pollution. We can help developing countries to use these techniques and raise their standard of living in a sustainable way. But for all this to happen we need politicians to take a lead, to take a long-term view, to control those corporations damaging the planet for short-term profit by things like destroying forests, polluting the seas and burning coal. In my view we all have to have an opinion. We each have to do what we can to ensure that our individual lifestyles minimise our impact on the planet. We have to share our ideas and demand that governments act.
What do you think we could or should do about population?
In Other News…
News from Canada.
Rex Murphy writing in the National Post says “Lewis Carroll (you know, the one who wrote Alice in Wonderland) is alive and well, and writing Canada’s energy policy.”
Murphy is concerned that the nation is not making full use of its energy resources and of course this turns to a great extent on the dispute between Alberta and British Columbia. As I have previously reported, Alberta has vast reserves of oil from its tar sands deposits and wants to export them through the Port of Vancouver. Vancouver is in British Columbia and the province of British Columbia does not wish to permit pipelines to cross its territory. Among other things, environmentalists are very concerned about the prospect of large numbers of oil tankers making their way along the hazardous passage from the port to the open sea, particularly in winter.
“Until there are pipelines (plural) built and oil flowing to international markets there should be no talk of the so-call carbon tax — the energy tax. Until the crazed circumstance of the blockade on Alberta energy is resolved, all talk of “reducing carbon emissions” and the pretence of meeting our Paris “commitments” should be shelved. Fix the home front first, and then if some wish to attend to the dubious goals of planetary salvation, let them at it.”
This is clearly not someone who has read the IPCC report, or if he has, he doesn’t believe it. I think it was St Augustine who prayed, “Oh Lord, make me pure - but not yet.”
OK Mr Murphy, let’s cut emissions, but not yet. Oh dear, it’s too late.
U.S. Global Change Research Program
Earlier this month the U.S. Global Change Research Program produced its Fourth National Climate Assessment. It states:
“Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”
It goes on to explain the many ways in which the nation will be affected, from the economy to water, to health, to agriculture, to tourism.
The report says that the economic impact of climate change would be devastating. Questioned on this, President Trump said, “I don’t believe it.”
A footnote to last week’s episode. An official report from Brazil says that deforestation in the Amazon in the 12 months to July 2018 was the worst for 10 years. Environment Minister Edson Duarte said illegal logging and an upsurge in organised crime was to blame.
On 1st January president-elect Jair Bolsonaro will take office, and is expected to have a much more relaxed attitude to the protection of the rainforest.
France in Yellow
In France, the yellow vest or gilets jaunes protest continues across the nation. What started as a protest against increased fuel prices has developed into a demonstration against low incomes and the high cost of living. It continues across the whole country. President Macron introduced the price increases as a measure to reduce carbon emissions. So far he is standing firm and has not blinked yet.
More news about micro plastics. A report from the Royal Society has found that these particles can change the behaviour of certain shellfish which absorb them. They no longer recognise threats and become easy prey for crabs, leading to an imbalance in the food chain. According to Paul Morozzo, of Greenpeace, “we’re dumping an extra truckload of risk into the sea every 60 seconds.”
I was also intrigued to see a comment in the article which said that micro plastics are now even found in honey. I can't imagine how bees come into contact with micro plastics, except perhaps through the water which they pick up from puddles and ponds.
More extreme weather, this time from Australia. The BBC reports that Sydney has experienced its wettest November day since 1984. 91mm of rain fell in 90 minutes, and high winds and flash flooding led to two deaths. 8,000 homes and businesses lost power. Airports were closed and vehicles crashed.
While the storm was intense, it was highly localised. Other parts of the state in the grip of drought got no rain at all.
In the US the Juliana case rumbles on but the Pacific Standard asks whether it will ever get to court. The government has continually blocked it, but has not succeeded in getting it dismissed. A date for trial is still to be set.
Meanwhile in Canada a similar case has emerged. ENvironnement JEUnesse (ENJEU),[that’s a French pun] a Quebec-based environmental education group, announced this week that it had applied for authorization for a class action suit on behalf of all the citizens of Quebec under the age of 35. It challenges the Canadian government for insufficient action on climate change. Like the Juliana case, it is expected to take several years to play out.
You remember that nuclear power station at Hinkley C? There is news from Flamanville where another nuclear plant is being built to the same design. It’s way over budget and years behind time and one of the key issues in the delay has been questions over the integrity of the castings of the reactor vessel. There were concerns that the metal contained too much carbon and would therefore not have sufficient strength. After extensive investigations which have taken years, the nuclear inspectorate in France has authorised the plant to begin operation. Now environmentalists, including Greenpeace France, have filed a lawsuit to block this authorisation.
Although Hinkley C will use the same design as Flamanville, the castings for the reactor vessel have not yet been produced and there is no suggestion that they will have the same problems as those at the French site. Experience is a wonderful teacher. Well, it is in many cases. The experience of Flamanville and a similar site in Finland being massively over budget and years behind schedule seems to have been overlooked when Hinkley C was reviewed in 2016.
COP 24, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, is taking place in Katowice in Poland. Preliminary events have begun and the Official Opening Ceremony takes place next Monday 3rd November. COP21 in 2015 was where the Paris Climate Change Agreement was negotiated. It will be interesting to see what comes out of COP24. I’ll keep you posted.
And that’s it…
Yes, it's the end of another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. Thanks again for listening and, if you are, thanks for being a patron. If you're not well you can find out about it at patreon.com/SFR. It's December next week and we are getting increasingly close to Christmas. There will be at least two, and probably three more episodes before the end of the year, although after that I’m planning a break until the middle of January.
I'm always open to feedback and in particular I'd be interested in your comments on what I said today about population. Like all the topics which I address, it is a vast subject and I've only scratched the surface. If you have opinions or expertise on any aspect of this or indeed on any aspect of sustainability, I'm always keen to hear from you. Drop me a note at email@example.com.
Yes, that's it.
I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.