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From the website of the Optimum Population Trust

March 20 2006


Is human population growth a bigger threat to the planet than climate change? Speakers including Prof Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, and Dr. Saleemul Huq, head of climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development, will debate this question alongside the Optimum Population Trust at a Global Development Forum event this week (March 22).

Prof Rapley called earlier this year for scientists and policy-makers to drop their de facto embargo on the discussion of the population issue, which he called the "‘Cinderella’ of the great sustainability debate - rarely visible in public, or even in private.”

In an opinion piece for the BBC’s Green Room website, he drew attention to the “daunting” organisational and environmental problems involved when over 10,000 delegates attended the recent climate change talks in Montreal, pointing out that the world’s annual population increase was 75,000 times that number (76 million).

“Imagine organising the accommodation, feeding arrangements, schooling, employment, medical care, cultural activities and general infrastructure - transport, power, water, communications, waste disposal - for a number of people slightly larger than the population of the UK, and doing it each year, year on year for the foreseeable future.”

The 40 or more decisions made in Montreal were announced as an historic success but Prof Rapley questioned whether they would be “sufficient to secure an acceptable quality of life for the generations to come.”

In meetings examining how the planet functions as a whole, demographers and population specialists are usually notable by their absence, he pointed out. Opportunities for both political and religious leaders and the global public to debate the stresses on the Earth caused by its human population are rare. “Unless and until this changes, summits such as that in Montreal which address only part of the problem will be limited to at best very modest success, with the welfare and quality of life of future generations the ineluctable casualty.”

Prof Rapley’s estimate of a sustainable word population of around 2-3 billion – less than half the current 6.5 billion – is backed up by figures from the Optimum Population Trust, which has calculated that even if the current world population stopped using fossil fuels and lived a western European lifestyle based entirely on renewable energy, it would still need, in total, 2.8 Earths - nearly two more planets - to support it. To live within the carrying capacity of one Earth, population would thus need to be lower by a factor of 2.8 - roughly 35 per cent of present levels or about 2.2 billion (calculations based on 2001 world population and ecological footprint data). World population is forecast to grow to 9.1 billion by 2050.

Similar calculations for the UK produce an “optimum” population of between 20 and 30 million. Currently it is over 60 million and projected to grow to nearly 71 million by 2074.

David Nicholson-Lord, research associate for the OPT, who is speaking at the Global Development Forum debate, said politicians, media and even environmental groups singled out climate change as the world’s biggest environmental problem but ignored the more fundamental factors behind it.

“Climate change is labelled anthropogenic by scientists. In other words, it’s man-made. Even Tony Blair, in his recent foreword to a book on the increasing dangers of climate change*, pointed out the part played by a sixfold increase in human population over the last two centuries. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved solely through greener technologies and have nothing to do with human numbers.”

Merely to accommodate the 10 million population increase projected for the UK without further increase in national emissions, each Briton would have to reduce their per capita emissions by a seventh (14 per cent). The 10 million new Britons will together produce an estimated 95 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – the same amount as currently produced by 100 million Indians.

“The growth of human population is the ‘elephant in the cupboard’ as far as climate change is concerned – the big issue that no one dares talk about, “ said David Nicholson-Lord. “The threat posed to the climate by the growth in aviation is fundamentally about numbers, not technologies – the numbers of those using air travel. It’s intellectually and morally dishonest to talk about climate change without also talking about climate changers.”


* In a foreword to Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, published in January 2006 as a record of the 2005 conference in Exeter that warned of the accelerating threat from climate change, Mr. Blair wrote the following: “It is now plain that the emission of greenhouse gases, associated with industrialisation and economic growth from a world population that has increased six-fold in 200 years [italics added], is causing global warming at a rate that is unsustainable.”

The debate is on Wednesday, March 22, at St. James’s, Piccadilly, London, at 7pm.

The Global Development Forum is a London-based project which holds an annual series of high-profile public debates covering different aspects of international development.


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