China right to link population to climate

by Crispin Hull on December 26, 2009

ALL but the crankiest conspiracy theorists now accept that the world is warming and humans are causing it. But the baffling, illogical and scary thing is that political leaders seem blind to a critical element of the human causation – the more humans we have the more carbon emissions we will have.

A search of the 1300-word Copenhagen accord on climate change draws a blank for the words “population”, “people”, “growth” and “demography”.

Nor was there any mention of population growth in the earlier draft agreements and the matter hardly rated a mention in the whole two weeks of the conference, except by the Chinese.

A Chinese delegate, Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, pointed out the obvious, “Dealing with climate change is not simply an issue of CO2 emission reduction but a comprehensive challenge involving political, economic, social, cultural and ecological issues, and the population concern fits right into the picture.”

Zhao said the Chinese one-child policy had resulted in 400 million fewer births. She acknowledged the difficulty of an aging population and having too many males because with only one child permitted parents try to make sure it is male. But overall China was going in the right direction, she said.

She estimated that this lower population was saving 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, given that Chinese emissions are about on world average of five tonnes per person per year.

Europeans spew out 10 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. People in developing countries average about a tonne.

Zhao was speaking in the first week of the conference, but was obviously ignored. Too many politicians are frightened of industry lobbies which profit from higher population at the expense of everyone else. Kevin Rudd is one. They are also frightened of religious lobbies. How Rudd can applaud the prospect of Australia’s population going to 40 million by mid-century (under current immigration and population policies) and at the same time suggest he is doing his best on climate change is a mystery to me.

Perhaps China – and indeed every country in the world — should get carbon credits for adopting population-reducing policies and penalties for policies that encourage people to have children.

The Opposition has been carrying on about the cost of carbon-emission reduction. It says its reduction scheme will not be an emissions trading scheme or require a carbon tax. Presumably it will be done by subsidies. It should, but probably will not, include ending subsidies to big-polluting industries But the Opposition, too, does not mention population size in the same breath as carbon reduction. Yet it is perhaps the most effective way of reducing carbon emission. Research by Thomas Wire, of London School of Economics, shows that each $7 spent on basic family planning would reduce CO2 emissions by more than one tonne, whereas it would cost $13 for reduced deforestation, $24 to use wind technology, $51 for solar power, $93 for introducing hybrid cars and $131 electric vehicles.

Yet, the Opposition, like the Government, is more interested protecting, bolstering and subsidising established big-polluting industries and industries which benefit from high population growth.

Countries should pay penalties for over-populating given that a peak world population of nine billion would produce about two billion tonnes more carbon than a peak population of eight billion, even under best-case scenarios of carbon reduction overall.

This is going to be a close-run thing. Will the world reduce its carbon output and population growth before climate change causes havoc? Much better to have an orderly planned reduction in population than a cataclysmic one.

It is strange that China did not claim a great big carbon credit for its population-control policies.

It is illogical that the world leaders at Copenhagen did not put into their accord credits for population control and debits for policies that encourage population growth. Certainly Australia should be penalised for its asinine high-immigration policy which takes a lot of people from low-emission countries to high-emitting Australia. Australia should be penalised for the idiotic baby bonus and other tax concessions for children beyond two. Then Treasurer Peter Costello’s policy of one baby for mum, one for dad and one for the country is a recipe for a population explosion which will result in a lower standard of living.

Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, who delivered his report on the tax system to the Government this week, understands the way tax incentives affect behaviour. Costello’s bonus and other Howard Government policies (mostly continued by this Government) have caused a surge in the birth rate.

Henry also understands the pressures population put on the environment. But he has always expressed these views as personal. So my guess is that his report, yet to be made public, will take the official head-in-the-sand approach to the link between population, taxation and the environment.

Zhao got it right in saying that population policy must be a key part of environmental policy. The Australian people seem to have a better idea than the politicians they have elected. A Nielsen poll showed that only 2 per cent of respondents were happy with the prospect of a population of 40 million by mid-century. But then opinion-poll respondents are not swayed by industry groups.

Industry groups argue quite wrongly that an aging population is a problem because there will be fewer people in the workforce than out of it. Well, that has been the usual pattern. It has only been in the past three decades that we have had more workers than non-workers.

Besides a higher population with a higher worker ratio will still result in a higher number of non-workers in absolute terms.

Better to have a smaller population with a lower working ratio than a larger population with a higher working ratio.

But given the events at Copenhagen and the political reaction to it, don’t expect any sense on climate change and population any time soon.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 26 December 2009.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny Goldie 12.26.09 at 4:29 pm

Bravo Bravo Crispin. Terrific stuff. I think population, however, will enter the climate change negotiations through the back door. For instance, the REDD text (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of Forests) retains mention of gender. When women’s rights are acknowledged, it is the first step towards lowering birthrates. Some people I know who have worked on REDD acknowledge population growth is a major driver of climate change, not least because, as populations grow, more and more forests (sinks) are cut down for crops to feed an ever-growing population.

I have attended the climate change talks in Bonn, Bangkok and Copenhagen and, while reference to population was excluded from the later texts, it was there when there were still 200 pages of text (it ended up with a mere six, I gather). More and more people in the side events have mentioned population as a problem – both in mitigation and in adaptation terms – but few are willing to come to grips with the problem. There are still big cultural obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, a number of countries have included the need for population stabilisation in their NAPAs (National Adaptation Plans for Action) and if we could get all countries to include this, and get it appropriately funded, then we are half way there.

Keep up the good work.

Mike Funnell 12.27.09 at 9:50 am

This article is almost too good to be real.

The discussion of human beings purely, and only, in terms of CO2 emissions as if nothing else about them matters.

The underlying thesis that there are just too damned many people, and that this should be changed. The hint (just a hint, mind you) that many, amid this thronging mass of people who shouldn’t exist, just might have dodgy skin colours and jibber-jabber in unusual accents or foreign tounges.

The pean to authoritarianism in its support for China’s one child policy. No democratic fiddle-faddle there! Decide on a policy then implement it at gun-point. Just the ticket, really, when you need to get something done.

The support for family planning – but not for any human reason (which I would fully support) but for the deeply inhuman reason that it prevents human beings from existing. Which leads me to the thought that if you are in the business of preventing people from existing, as an end in itself, and you think there are already too many people, you might run a serious risk of thinking what might be done about those who exist but shouldn’t…

It’s nice to see this set down in writing, for once, where it is available for inspection, rather than being an unstated set of attitudes which dominate so much of “deep green” thinking.

Susan Nancarrow 12.27.09 at 11:22 am

Great article again Crispin. If only this obvious link could be taken on board by our Political Leaders. I cant see any of them ever having the courage.
Thanks for keeping this most important issue in the public eye.
This is the first time I have ever responded to an article in the paper.

Christopher Dorman 12.27.09 at 4:06 pm

Great article with useful detail. While in the future the Chinese may well be appreciated for their heroic one child policy, they are at present derided for that policy by the leaders of other countries, such is the acceptance that population increase should not be abated. Both sides of politics in Australia are pro-growth in everything, including population. This is tragic.

World-wide, not even a one-child policy is going to work fast enough to avoid famine and irreparable damage to the planet. Remember that Garnaut has said that Australia may, in usual times, be a net importer of food by the end of the century – what country will have food to sell?

Rapid population decrease must occur to save human civilization to a boutique 1 billion only. It has been suggested that what is needed is a decline of probably greater than half the population every 25 years.

Alarmist or reality?

Keith Ross 12.28.09 at 12:51 pm

Dear Crispin,
I read your article “Population growth: the blind spot in carbon emissions” in Forum on 26 December 2009. I agree entirely with your comments. Unfortunately, few politicians seem to see the reality of a world with depleting resources and burgeoning population, while big business chants the mantra of ‘growth’.
Regards Keith Ross

Colin Samundsett 12.30.09 at 1:51 pm

Thanks Crispin, for pointing out so lucidly – yet again – what fools we mortals be. Four hundred years have passed, yet we continue live a midsummer-night’s dream in relation to our biology, environment, social behavior, demographics.
Shakespeare had a better Bottom than the asses who currently wave their fairy wands in belief (are they genuine?) that continuous and infinite expansion of numbers, of consumption, is a God-given capability, and necessity, of Homo sapiens.
All the world’s our stage indeed – and it is shrinking in relation to the players on it; six billion more of them than in the Bard’s day. Thanks for identifying the issue once more.
Colin Samundsett

Bill 12.30.09 at 4:20 pm

This is an article I entirely agree with. I particularly like the idea to somehow include population growth of a country in the emission-trading scheme, for without stopping the population growth globally, probably all our efforts to halt global warming may be in vain in the long term.

The reason (as our government and industry groups argue) for getting a higher worker ratio by ramping up Australia’s population appears to be a weak excuse. If our government were serious about this matter, Centrelink would not discourage people on the age pensions from continuing working by deducting 50% of their working income already from a low level (now up from 40% deduction before). On top of this, such working people may have to pay tax from the rest, leaving them a pittance from their efforts. And employers usually don’t want to employ people of that age. Because of this, only few people continue working beyond the age of 65 years, a waste of human resources, since the knowledge and experience of a lifetime is then not put to good use any more. If the conditions were right, we might have a very large additional workforce (which would contribute greatly to the Australian economy plus increase the tax take by our government) and no need for such high immigration as at present.

I regard your above article as valuable enough to be shown in all larger newspapers in Australia. Would this be possible for you? The effect would be that not only people in Canberra but in our whole country could read it – and hopefully – can help planning and acting for a better future.

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