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.