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Population growth: the ‘elephant’ in the climate change room

How often do we hear that those in developing countries have had little hand in causing climate change? Certainly, when you compare annual greenhouse gas emissions per capita (Rwanda 0.06 tonnes; India 1.64 t; Australia 16.75 t), it is a perfectly plausible proposition.

Indeed, to argue that the poor might be contributing because of very high population growth rates is to invite the wrath of Guardian journalist George Monbiot. In 2009, he wrote: “People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor.”

Yet, as Queensland academic Dr Jane O’Sullivan argued at the Climate Summit in 2014: “It’s not about blaming the people there – it is about honestly attributing causation so that we can find real solutions.”

We have to stop deforestation but forests are cut to feed, house (and enrich) people.

But what are the solutions to avoiding dangerous climate change? First and foremost, we have to shift the basis of our economies away from fossil fuel to renewables.

At the same time, we have to stop deforestation. Since about eight per cent of total annual global emissions are released into the atmosphere as a result of deforestation, keeping the current forest carbon stock intact and undisturbed is critically important.

That’s easier said than done since many forests are cleared for agriculture, to feed, clothe and house an ever-growing number of people. We have 7.4 billion people in the world now and, according to the recently released data by the Population Reference Bureau, will have 9.9 billion by 2050.

Population of least-developed countries to double by 2050

The combined population of the world’s least developed countries, most of them in Africa, will double by 2050 to 1.9 billion. Meanwhile, 42 countries including China, Japan and Russia, will register population declines.

Global population growth rate is coming down but remains stubbornly high in places. Consider the fertility rates, or average number of children per woman, in the following countries: Niger 6.8, Burundi 6.1, and Somalia 6.0.

7.4 billion people now, 9.9 billion by 2050.

Even if fertility came down to replacement (2.1) overnight, it would take decades before population numbers stabilised. And given the strong cultural preference for large families in much of Africa, a rapid reduction in fertility is unlikely.

Where people do aspire to smaller families, however, there often remain informational and access barriers to contraception. Stabilisation of global population might not occur for decades, unfortunately, climate change is pressing in upon us, far more quickly than we anticipated.

How to feed everyone?

How then can we feed a growing population without encroaching on forests? Intensification of agriculture (increasing yields), as against cutting down ever more forests to provide more farming land, is an obvious answer.

Growth in yields, however, has stalled in many places despite increasing fertiliser use.  Even if we did improve yields, the problem with agriculture is that it is in itself a source of greenhouse emissions; 14 per cent of the total.

Unfortunately, these emissions exacerbate climate change which is already changing weather patterns upon which agriculture relies. Deforestation gives rise to carbon dioxide, but then agriculture itself produces potent greenhouse gases, notably methane and nitrous oxide.

Thus, if we are to limit deforestation and agriculture for climate reasons, we need to reduce demand for food, at the same time feeding the currently hungry (more than 700 million people) and undernourished (about as many again).  Reducing demand means stabilising population everywhere as soon as possible and then slowly, voluntarily, reducing our numbers.

Ominously, as climate change bites, southern Africa could lose nearly a third of its main crop maize.  Other losses of staple crops could be as high as 10 per cent.

It really is a race against time, to feed the hungry before the climate worsens significantly.

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