You are here

Population is not a front page issue

By Valerie Yule - Monday, 17 December 2007
This article was originally published on Online Opinion. It is reproduced here under the terms of the Creative Commons License.

Not openly discussed at the Bali Climate Summit 2007 is the one factor that will make it hardest to stop increasing greenhouse gas emissions - population growth.

Ironically, population growth was the main issue at an earlier Bali international conference 15 years ago. The issue has not gone away. Rather, it has become more pressing in the world, including in the Asia -Pacific region, and it is illustrated by the island of Bali itself.

The 1992 conference was organised under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Its outcome was the Bali Declaration on Population and Sustainable Development, 1992. (See here and here.)

Thirty-six of ESCAP's 52 member countries participated, and they reached consensus at a ministerial level on the controversial issue of setting population targets in line with sustainable development goals.

The Declaration stated that the goals of population policy were to "achieve a population that allows a better quality of life without jeopardising the environmental and resource base of future generations ... taking cognisance of basic human rights as well as responsibilities".

This was the first international meeting at this political level that set an objective of attaining by the year 2010 replacement level fertility, which is equivalent to about 2.2 children per woman. In 1992 the countries in the Asia-Pacific region had a total population of about 3.2 billion. Although the annual growth rate has been steadily declining, an increase of 920 million people is still expected by 2010. This increase would be mostly in the less developed countries which have the most acute problems of poverty.

These enormous numbers contrast with Australia?s population growth, from 8 million in 1950 to 21 million now, and 24 million expected by 2050.

The location of the Climate Summit, Bali itself, illustrates the problem of growth. When I travelled around the island in 1969, the population of about two million had no tourist industry to speak of and needed none, although there were social stresses indicated by the violence of the massacres of up to 100,000 suspected communists in 1965.

By 2000, the Balinese population had increased by 50 per cent to over three million, and it continues to grow. The tourist industry and emigration are now essential to economic survival. Other countries in the region with high population growth have severe economic and social problems. They include Papua Niugini, grown from 1.4 million in 1950 to 5 million now and 10 million expected by 2050, other regions of Indonesia (growth 82 million to 224 million and predicted 336 million), and Pacific islands such as the Solomons, (106,000 to 466,000 and predicted 1.1 million) - all stressed by youth unemployment and resources destruction. How can they be expected to stop deforestation? Countries now carrying out family planning policies to restrain population growth include China, India, Thailand and even Pakistan.

Growth in population inevitably means increase in human contributions to greenhouse gases and resource shortages, even if most people still live far below the affluent level of the West that they aspire to. In developing countries, families seek to have sufficient children to ensure that some will survive, and provide for old-age. As security improves, family size can drop, unless pushed by religious or political influences.

However, for Bali Climate Summit 2007, population is not a front page issue, despite our world growth trajectory from 6 billion now to 9 billion by 2050 - almost paralleling how the proverbial lily doubles its size in the lily-pond.

The sticking points are the nations of the developed West, which also provide sticking points for other aspects of capping carbon emissions. Countries like Australia or France can hardly promote family planning in poor countries when they offer baby bonuses to persuade their own women to have more children.

Western countries have still not worked out how to maintain their prosperity with a stable population. They still fear lowered fertility, and have made a bogey of ageing populations, which need not be. Indeed, our increasingly healthy aged need less support than children. Almost every Western country in fact has a greater population than in 1950, and most are still growing. (US Census Bureau International Data Base population tables.)

Meanwhile European countrysides are filling up with housing. Water, oil and fish face future shortages. And millions of economic refugees in the world ensure that no country's population need shrink. Behind the beat-ups of fearing declining fertility rates and suppressing the real issue of world population growth is a different economic bogey. The paradoxical problems that are shaking the United States and hence the world are insufficient consumer spending and building construction in the world's richest country. Yet it is this type of economic activity that most boosts greenhouse gas emissions.

It is possible for our capitalist system, which has always continuously evolved, to develop and be able to sustain prosperity without constant increase in material production, which requires increasing numbers of people to consume it.

As things are, we can only observe. There may be no Bali declaration in 2007 about stabilising populations and thereby cutting the production of waste. Yet this, even more than carbon trading, would be a major strategy in cutting the human contribution to devastating our planet.