THERE IS NO PLANET B: THE POPULATION FACTOR
With great fanfare the UN has announced the next annual Climate Action Summit is to take place in New York on 23 September next. It will be the latest chapter in the lengthening saga of UN involvement in combatting climate change and global warming. The Summit is to add impetus towards implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement a “year before countries will have to enhance their national pledges under” Paris. The advance publicity anticipates that over 100 Heads of State and Government will attend. Many will have been in New York in any event to attend the opening sessions of the 74th UN General Assembly, so at least the additional Carbon Footprint of the politicians and officials jetting in to attend the Summit will not be great.
By 23 September there WILL be one indisputable addition to the world’s collective Carbon Footprint since Paris 2015 – that attributable to the 300 million plus increase in the Earth’s population, which some estimates suggest could reach 7.7 billion by the year’s end ( it could be even higher). This continued growth, currently a little (!) over 80 million per year – even though the rate of increase is slowing (from 1.29% in 2000 to 1.07% in 2009) – is a major factor inhibiting efforts to combat climate change and control carbon emissions worldwide. In many ways it could be described as the silent partner of climate change.
The reality of this climate change is with us. In the last century the world’s temperature has risen by 0.74C degrees. Twenty of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1996. By 2009 carbon dioxide levels had risen by 38% and methane levels by 148% since 1750 – the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution; the rate of increase of both has risen sharply since 1950, the period of the most intense human activity and development ever. In the course of the Twentieth Century, global emissions of CO2 grew twelvefold. And, since 1950, the world population has trebled and shows every indication of continuing to grow.
The figures, from UN or US government studies, are sobering. Since 2000 the world’s population has increased by almost one and a half billion, or 25%. Among the ten most populous countries some percentages have been higher. Bangladesh has increased by 30.5% to 168 million, Mexico by 32.6% to 132 million, Pakistan by 34.2% to 204 million, Nigeria by 62.1% to 200 million and India by 36% to 1.368 billion. Of the other five, only Russia shows a small decrease, of 2.2% to 144 million. Brazil has increased by 21.8% to 212 million and Indonesia by 25.9% to 270 million. Even the USA has increased by 16.6% to an estimated 330 million, while China, still the most populous country, has seen an increase of 11.2% to 1.420 billion. Overall these ten countries account for around 58% of the world population, having increased by an average of 23.7%, or 850 million, since 2000.
By 2050, even allowing for demographics trending downwards, these ten are forecast to rise by a further half a billion, to just under five billion. While the Chinese population will have fallen by 100 million, the Indian population will have surged by perhaps 300 million more to a staggering 1.65 billion, with corresponding sharp rises in the numbers in Pakistan and Bangladesh; Nigeria, if present trends continue, will have doubled to an almost unbelievable 400 million. The global forecast for 2050 is for a population 9.374 billion, or a further 1.5 billion plus over today’s figure. The gap between the top ten and the rest of the world, currently 1.15 billion, will have almost halved to 620 million, despite very little or no growth in many first world countries, reflecting higher birth-rates elsewhere. Fifty years further on the population could be nudging ten billion, the upper limit most studies suggest that the Earth can support and feed.
The impact of this population explosion – no other phrase adequately covers it – on the planet’s resources, and on the environment, including global warming, is or should be, self-evident. With the global priority now to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and, at an individual level, the priority the pressing need to monitor and where possible reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, the implication of these population increases should be of central attention and concern. Yet it appears the population factor has rarely featured in the debates and in the plans for action announced and endorsed since the world woke up to the threat of rising temperatures.
Indeed at the 2015 Paris Agreement conference, population was the elephant in the room, ignored or glanced at only in passing. It’s not hard to see why. What has bedevilled attempts to tackle global warming effectively since 1992 has been the political failure to agree on measures and on effective enforcement mechanisms, evident again in the Paris outcome. The reasons for inaction have included political differences, national ambitions and rivalries, friction and the blame game between the have and have-not countries, internal political considerations in a number of states, and increasing pressures from populist elements. Getting even a bland agreement on “voluntary” measures has involved ducking the major questions on population.
One outcome has been a sad series of milestone moments since the world became climate aware. The total human population was 1.6 billion in 1900, 2.5 billion in 1951, and is now 7.7 billion. In 1962, when Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” sensitised US public opinion to the harm being done to the planet, it was 3.15 billion. In 1968, when the seminal Stanford Report on “Gaseous Atmospheric Polluters” appeared, it was 3.55. It was 5.05 by 1987 when the landmark Montreal Protocol to tackle Ozone levels was adopted, and in 1992, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted, it was 5.5 billion. In 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, putting the onus (and historical blame) on developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it was 5.9. By 2003, when Greta Thunberg was born, it was 6.38 and it was just under 7 billion (6.95) in 2009/2010, when the ineffectual Copenhagen and Cancun meetings were held.
The impact of a rising population goes far beyond the numbers to be fed. It is an all embracing dynamic process with an ever widening ripple effect. The numbers of consumers and the scale and nature of their consumption become relevant in terms of national and global carbon footprints. The developing Asian and other economies are following first world models, consuming and boosting GHG emissions. Just two examples. Since 1981 India, with a growing middle class, has added a massive 480 million people – half of them by now well into adulthood – almost equal to the population of the EU. In the same period China has added just over 400 million. However small the individual carbon footprints of these additions, collectively they more than negate any savings or reductions EU member states might make, even fully reaching their 2020 and 2030 targets for cuts in GHG emissions. We can lead by example. But will it be enough? And who will take heed? No Planet B indeed!