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The Business of Green

Money matters in the green world, by Leon Gettler.

Population and climate change


Credit: sxc.hu

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Seven billion is a huge number. As reported here, the world’s population has now hit seven billion and the predictions of doom are rolling in.

Paul Erlich, the author of the book The Population Bomb, is
gloomier than ever and estimates there is only a 10 per cent chance of avoiding a collapse of global civilisation. "Among the knowledgeable people there is no more conversation about whether the danger is real," Ehrlich told the Guardian:

"Civilisations have collapsed before: the question is whether we can avoid the first time [an] entire global civilisation has given us the opportunity of having the whole mess collapse."

Writing in G Magazine, entrepreneur Dick Smith, an opponent of Big Australia, says our population boom is having a profound environmental impact. “Humanity’s consumption of the planet’s resources, our ecological footprint, has doubled since 1966, while at the same time the variety of animals has declined by a third,’’ Smith writes. “We humans are using more than the world can restore, are out-competing other species and producing more waste than we can dispose of, yet even at this rate the gap between rich and poor is growing. While the poorest go hungry in ever-increasing numbers, the Western world is facing an epidemic of obesity. But perhaps not for long. As we have seen in Australia, the pressures of population growth have been putting unprecedented stress on our river systems despite recent good rainfalls. Our cities have been forced to implement more or less permanent water restrictions while our farmers are being paid to stop growing food and surrender their land.”

Robert Thompson, who serves on the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council and is a former director of rural development for the World Bank, says that climate change is making it worse because rising temperatures and droughts are drying out farmlands which are then inundated by intense floods and storms. That will make it more difficult to feed the world. And Kirsty Jenkinson of the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, says that water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century and is predicted to increase by 50 per cent between 2007 and 2025 in developing countries and 18 per cent in developed ones.

Jonathon Porritt, a former chairman of the government's Sustainable Development Commission, a former director of Friends of the Earth and the founder-director of the think tank Forum for the Future, says
over population is linked to climate change and it will require some hard, and unpopular, decisions. “The simple truth is that continuing population growth is a multiplier of every one of today's converging sustainability pressures, including climate change. We roughly know how many billions of tonnes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases we can afford to put into the atmosphere and still manage to avoid runaway climate change. Effectively managing that "quantum" (assessed by the Potsdam Institute at about 900 billion tonnes) depends both on the number of people and emissions per person – back to the footprint and feet … every country needs a population strategy, including the US and the UK, which are the only OECD countries still to have growing populations. But advocating such an approach gets the fluffy progressives in the green movement even more incensed. Arguing, for instance, that for a couple to decide to have no more than two children represents a much bigger commitment to sustainable living than flaunting your Prius or lagging your loft, induces apoplexy”.

But then, Simon Butler says we have it around the wrong way. Higher populations are not the problem, he says, it’s more about our consumption patterns and lifestyles. “People are not pollution. Blaming too many people for driving climate change is like blaming too many trees for causing bushfires. The real cause of climate change is an economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy and unsustainable agriculture. Unless we transform the economy and society along sustainable lines as rapidly as possible, we have no hope of securing an inhabitable planet, regardless of population levels. Population-based arguments fail to acknowledge that population levels will impact on the environment very differently in a zero-emissions economy. Making the shift to renewable energy — not reduction in human population — is really the most urgent task we face.”

So which side is right? Either way, we have some hard choices.