Population adds to planet's pressure cooker, but few options

March 27, 2012 by Richard Ingham
A woman walks past a UN sign announcing symbolically that the world population hit 7 billion in 2011. The world's surging population is a big driver of environmental woes but the issue is complex and solutions are few, experts at a major conference here say.

The world's surging population is a big driver of environmental woes but the issue is complex and solutions are few, experts at a major conference here say.

Answers lie with educating women in poorer countries and widening access to contraception but also with reforming in rich economies, they say.

The four-day meeting on Earth's health, Planet Under Pressure, is unfolding ahead of the Rio+20 Summit in June.

Scientists taking part have pinpointed population growth as a major if indirect contributor to global warming, depletion of resources, pollution and .

But they also mark it as an issue that has disappeared almost completely off political radar screens.

This is partly because of religious sensitivities but also because of of coercive fertility controls in poorer countries in the 1970s that no-one wants to repeat.

Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona, said the link between population growth and arose in the mid-20th century.

"The 50 years from 1950 to 2000 were a period of dramatic and unprecedented change in ," she said.

During that time, the planet's human tally doubled from three billion to six billion. It now stands at seven billion, and by some estimates could reach around nine billion by 2050.

The good news is that the -- the number of children a women is likely to have -- has halved from five to 2.5 since 1950 and will fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 around 2025, Liverman said.

"It means that there is a strong probability that population growth will level off around nine billion and may in fact fall thereafter," said Liverman.

Others caution that raw statistics mask many .

"The world's carrying capacity isn't a single headline figure but depends on lifestyle, technology, and so forth," said Lord Martin Rees of the Royal Society, whose report on and the environment will be issued next month.

The population is stabilising or falling in rich countries.

But these economies remain -- in per capita terms -- by far the biggest sources of environmental damage, with for instance greenhouse gas emissions per head that are double or quadruple those in a developing country.

The big will happen in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

These countries bear least responsibility for climate change but will be hit worst by it, because they lack money and skills to adapt. Thus the higher their population, the more of their people who will be hit by drought, storms, rising seas and floods.

Strategies for working on the demographic drivers of environmental damage are essentially two-pronged, said specialists.

One is to change consumption patterns, so that the rich countries -- and the emerging giants rushing to catch up with them -- use energy and resources more sustainably.

The other is to protect women's rights, education for women and their access to jobs and contraception.

"If you have economic development and you educate women, and women get labour market opportunities, they tend not only to reduce the number of children but crucially to delay when they start having children," said Sarah Harper, director of the Institute of Population Ageing at the University of Oxford.

"And if you delay the start of having children, you tend to have smaller families."

Such changes can have a "surprisingly fast" effect on reducing birthrates, said Stephen Tyler, who works with group called the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN). He gave the fast-shrinking families in India as an example.

On Sunday, a group of scientists and policymakers that have won the Blue Planet Prize, a top environmental award, made a pre-conference appeal to intensify green action.

Looking at demography, they said more than 200 million women in developing countries still have unmet needs for family planning.

But funding for access to fell by 30 percent between 1995 and 2008, "not least as a result of legislative pressure from the religious right in the USA and elsewhere," they said.

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2.7 / 5 (6) Mar 27, 2012
Global warming isn't going to be a factor if this population explosion continues. Pretending that it will is intellectually dishonest. Even without any warming and with perfect food supplies, the Earth will eventually be unable to support this growth. When, we don't know. By saying that we'll be at 9 billion by 2050 is also dishonest. We've gone from 6 to 7 billion in 11 years. 2 more billion will take less time than 2050!! Stop worrying about global warming and start worrying about population growth if you need to be an activist for something.
2.3 / 5 (4) Mar 27, 2012

You're actually quite right.

I mean, think of how much more rainforest and other natural habitats will need to be destroyed to produce enough farm land for both cattle, grains, fruits, and veggies to feed another 2 billion people!

We've already seen studies showing as much as 90% of certain oceanic fish populations have disappeared over the past few decades, so we're already drastically over fishing as is. Which means that we're also going to need word wide restrictions or even bans on fishing of common food species, such as tuna or crabs or even squid for Japan and China.

It's pretty clear that we're going to need some sort of vertical, hydroponics based farming within the next few decades, just to meet everyone's basic need of food without absolutely destroying all of the forests.
1 / 5 (5) Mar 27, 2012
AWaB - you forgot the declining fertility rate. If you take this into account, as the article says, the rate of population growth will slow.
1.9 / 5 (9) Mar 27, 2012
"The population is stabilising or falling in rich countries."

This is the solution the socialists can't abide, individual prosperity. Socialist central planning kills prosperity.
What do the watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) want most, control or a stable, clean environment?
1.9 / 5 (7) Mar 27, 2012
from the article:
""The big population growth will happen in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
These countries bear least responsibility for climate change but will be hit worst by it, because they lack money and skills to adapt. Thus the higher their population, the more of their people who will be hit by drought, storms, rising seas and floods.""

People in rich countries are already reproducing less, and even the poor in those rich countries are making an effort to restrict the size of their families. We have education in family planning; secular and religious appeals for abstinence to avoid teen pregnancies; abortions in the first trimester; and adoption agencies for unwanted babies. These are all moral in scope and justified in certain investments by government agencies.
But poorer countries like Africa haven't been as greatly exhorted to reduce their population growth, and thus, will not stave off famine, disease and overpopulation.
2.3 / 5 (6) Mar 27, 2012
It has been quite evident in the past and even now that certain world agencies are afraid of looking "racist" in demanding that third world countries such as in Africa reduce their population through any means decent, and thus lower their carbon footprint with less number of children. Instead, these agencies demand that educated people in the Western countries reduce the number of children and most educated people do comply.
In the 1970s, many young adults voluntarily had themselves sterilized so that it would be impossible for them to ever reproduce. They were, for the most part, highly intelligent, educated and well situated financially. I imagine that they thought that others who were less secure would follow their lead and also not reproduce, but they would have been sadly mistaken, because the poor and ignorant are obviously the best source of population growth. . .no matter in which part of the world they live. But those who could best afford children, are childless.

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