The global population is increasing by around 1.5% per year. If this growth rate continues, in less than half a century the number of people who live on the planet will have doubled. Various countries have attempted to control population levels over the past century, but in recent years, it has become enmeshed in debates surrounding climate change. Indeed, the global population has surged over the past 50 years, in tandem with higher rates of consumption. But to simply target countries with the highest population growth rates is both unnecessary and deeply unfair.
Whilst the current global fertility rate is 2.5 births per woman, research predicts this will fall to 1.9 by 2100. In fact, Africa is the only world region with a projected strong population growth for the rest of the century. Between 2020 and 2100, the continent’s population is expected to shoot up, from 1.3 to 4.3 billion. Yet, in terms of its carbon emissions, Africa produces far less than most western countries. Its largest producer is South Africa, which accounts for only 1% of global CO2 emissions. The rest of the continent produces a negligible percentage.
Whilst the current global fertility rate is 2.5 births per woman, research predicts this will fall to 1.9 by 2100
It tends to be the biggest polluters who have declining populations. China is the prime example, responsible for 28% of global carbon emissions. Its controversial one-child policy from 1979 to 2015 led to a declining birth rate, combined with a boom in the economy and its carbon footprint as it opened itself up to capitalist markets.
The US, which is responsible for 15% of global emissions, currently has its slowest population growth rate since 1919. The great injustice of it all is that human suffering wrought by climate change is most acutely felt by countries of the Global South – those who hardly have a hand in it.
One of the primary threats to human life in underdeveloped countries is food insecurity, since people rely on small-scale agriculture and are therefore more vulnerable to droughts, flooding and extreme weather.
The US, which is responsible for 15% of global emissions, currently has its slowest population growth rate since 1919
In Burundi, the country with the smallest carbon footprint per capita, changing weather patterns are a major threat. Rainfall has become sporadic over the past three years, and the latest report suggests that flooding and droughts will lead to a yield decline of between five and 25% in the coming decades.
Population control also presents a slew of ethical problems. Until 2002, Chinese women were denied any choice of contraceptive method – 37% of women had been forcibly sterilised. The global ratio of male to female births is 106:100. By 2009, China’s ratio was 120:100, indicating high rates of female infanticide.
Ballooning populations in the Global South are linked to poverty and a lack of female bodily autonomy. However, the focus must be on providing better education and services that help women control their fertility in order to improve people’s lives, rather than on using these tools as a means of reversing climate change.
Population control also presents a slew of ethical problems
Even if population controls were to be enacted in an ethical way, the policy would hardly make a dent in the global emissions rate. Agricultural economist Lyman Stone shows that no amount of population control would get the rate of global warming down to 2.5-2.7 degrees by the end of this century.
The best way forward is a Green New Deal. We now know that it’s not the number of people on the planet that’s the issue – it’s the scale and nature of consumption that matters.
A Green New Deal provides the solution. Proposed by a handful of democrats in the US in 2019, it involves a plan to decarbonise the economy at pace, whilst doing it in a way that raises living standards, creates jobs and benefits the economy.It was then adopted by the Labour Party before last year’s general election and has been touted by school strikers around the world.
The best way forward is a Green New Deal
The idea of massive investment in renewables and going carbon neutral has become more mainstream in the past few months, as countries consider what a post-Covid economy should look like. For example, in May the European Union pledged to put €750bn towards making homes more energy efficient, decarbonising electricity and phasing out petrol and diesel cars.
The consumer capitalism that destroys our planet must also be understood as increasing inequality; therefore, a fairer economy will be founded on green and sustainable technology. Curbing population growth may not be the answer to climate change but restructuring economies so that they can support these populations could be.