Australia must shift from climate laggard to leader

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It breaks my heart to read about the devastating bushfires in Australia. Each day, new horrifying accounts emerge, seemingly with no end in sight. Thankfully there are some heart-warming stories too, stories of the courage of firefighters — affectionately known as firies — and the generosity of strangers.

While I’m a world away in London now, I grew up in a small town called Cockatoo in Victoria, Australia. Our home was a tree-changer’s delight — a big isolated plot surrounded by eucalyptus trees, with a forest just across the road. But in summer, it was a fire trap — the threat hung over our heads.

Before I was born, my parents almost lost their home in the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Dad told us fragments of stories and several clues were dotted around the property — blackened tree trunks here, a cracked window left unfixed there. My parents were amongst the lucky ones though. In that tiny town, 6 people lost their lives and 307 buildings were destroyed. In total, 75 people lost their lives across Victoria and South Australia.

The fires burnt an enduring fear into my mind; a fear shared by all in our community, but rarely discussed. I shuddered whenever I heard the alarm of the local fire-station, it sounded just an air raid siren from the war films.

While children in most countries are taught a little about fire — stop, drop and roll — my sister and I were taught detailed fire survival strategies: to fill the bathtubs; to have thick woollen blankets to hand; how to find and use firehoses; how to fight ember attacks; how to locate a fire bunker; and to have your life packed into a box, ready to flee if the time comes.

Sadly, a lot of kids living in the Australian bush are taught similar things. Only now, it must be so much harder for them, as they know that the fires are likely to become more ferocious and frequent over time.

Yes, Australians are used to fire. It is no surprise that they are amongst the best in the world at preparing for and responding to bushfires. Yet no amount of skill, training and resolve could have prepared Aussies for the megafires of 2019/20. Even though I grew up in a fire zone, I can’t even begin to imagine what the affected communities have been through.

At the time of writing, the fires have burnt through more than 10 million hectares, an area larger than Portugal. To put that in context, the 2019 Amazon fires, the 2018 California fires and the aforementioned Ash Wednesday bushfires all burnt less than 1 million hectares each. At least 27 people have died and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed.

News headlines read like dystopian fiction: an estimated 1 billion animals have died; smoke has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and has even discoloured New Zealand’s glaciers; some fires are creating their own weather systems, called pyrocumulonimbus clouds, which can create dry lightning that ignites further fires; the navy was called in to evacuate stranded residents and tourists; and the army reserves were called up to fight the fires.

Leaders throughout history have stepped up at such trying times, not Australian Prime Minister (PM) Scott Morrison — he has proven himself feckless and heartless. To cite some examples: he has regularly tried to blame others, particularly the states; he drew the ire of citizens by taking a holiday in Hawaii during the height of the crisis; and when he returned and toured the affected communities, he forced a pregnant lady to shake his hand and then turned his back when she asked for help. Just when it seemed the PM couldn’t be more tone-deaf, he ran self-promoting advertisements online, which took people to a page where they could donate — not to affected communities, but to his political party.

The reaction of one weary firefighter summarised the nation’s sentiment perfectly. After spotting a film crew, he slowed his fire truck to deliver a message “Tell the prime minister to go and get f**ked from Nelligen” before driving off. He later collapsed through exhaustion.

Scott Morrison is in a bind, not that I or anyone else cares. He was installed as PM after hardliners in his conservative party ousted Malcolm Turnbull after attempting to introduce emissions reduction targets (I’ve previously written on Australia’s struggle to introduce a carbon price). Scott Morrison then won an election in 2019, gaining seats in coal-rich areas of Queensland thanks to his support for mining.

The last thing Scott Morrison wanted to do is to make the link between the fires and climate change. Doing so would draw attention to his utter lack of both mitigation and adaptation policies. So, he tried to downplay the extent of the fires — Australia has always had fires after all. Only, that approach made him look (or revealed him to be) callous, dishonest and evasive.

Of course the fires are unprecedented, Australians are in shock and can hardly think or talk of anything else right now. The fires have been burning since September and at times have flared up with alarming intensity.

And of course climate change has played a part. The 2008 Garnaut Climate Review commissioned by the government (albeit by a different party) found that “fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.”

One of the underlying studies cited by the review, predicted a 15 to 65% increase in extreme fire days by 2020 under 1°C of warming (which is where we are now) and a 100% to 300% increase by 2050 at 2.9°C warming (which is where we seem to be heading). The report defines an extreme fire day as “Fire suppression virtually impossible on any part of the fire line due to the potential for extreme and sudden changes in fire behaviour.”

The report also warns that “Early season starts suggest a smaller window for pre-season fuel-reduction burns,” blunting one of the key tools that firefighters have to reduce risk.

The current Australian government has effectively ignored these warnings by not pulling its weight on climate change action, nor investing sufficiently in adaptation measures. Its do-nothing strategy is exposing firies to increasingly unrealistic demands and inflicting misery on countless communities.

Australia must urgently create effective policies to lead on climate change action. It must also make tough decisions on how to cope with the projected increased frequency and severity of fires and other natural disasters.

Climate change must be treated as a non-partisan issue, as it once was and as it currently is in the UK and many other parts of the world. After all, the effects of climate change do not respect party lines.

Unfortunately, despite the warnings and the traumatic bushfires, we’re unlikely to see Scott Morrison or his party change their stance any time soon. Expect the same three arguments against climate change mitigation to be dusted off and wheeled out again. As the planet cannot afford further delay, let’s debunk all three now.

Myth 1: Australia is too small to make a difference

Opponents of meaningful climate action argue that Australia can’t make a difference, because it only emits 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There are many issues with this argument:

a) Climate change action requires a joint global effort, with everyone pulling their weight. Australia is not currently doing that. It has the single highest per capita emissions of all OECD countries and has higher total annual emissions than the UK despite having a third of the population. It was recently ranked dead last out of an assessment of the climate policies of 57 countries.

b) It is impossible to encourage others to make deeper emission cuts from position of weakness. Australia has lost all credibility at climate conferences. However, if it set its own ambitious target, it could shame other countries into stronger action.

c) Australia has been accused of actively obstructing global and regional climate agreements, including the COP25 and the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum. That is, it is using its purportedly limited influence to push in the opposite direction.

d) Australia is the largest exporter of coal and the third largest exporter of total fossil fuels by CO2 potential, trailing only Russia and Saudi Arabia.

e) Australia is ramping up its coal and LNG exports. If government and industry projections are realised, Australia could be responsible for 13% of global emissions by 2030 (assuming a Paris Agreement pathway).

f) Other countries who emit less GHGs than Australia have led by example, raising the standard for everyone else. Finland has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2035, the UK has legislated net-zero emissions by 2050, even Australia’s friendly rival New Zealand has legislated net-zero emissions by 2050.

Myth 2: Australia is on track to meet its Paris Agreement targets

Scott Morrison often states that Australia will meet its Paris Agreement targets “in a canter”. The only problem is, it isn’t true — Australia’s emissions continue to rise. The 2019 UN Emissions Gap report mentions that it will be “challenging” for Australia to meet its reduction target, particularly as it has “no major policy tool to encourage emission reductions”.

The reason for Scott Morrison’s confidence is that he is planning to use an accounting trick to help Australia meet its commitments on paper. The UN states that “it appears that the Australian Government intends to use carry-over permits from the Kyoto Protocol to do so”.

To put it simply, the Australian government isn’t planning to reduce emissions in real terms at all: “The latest projection published by the Government shows that emissions would remain largely unchanged up to 2030”.

Climate change doesn’t recognise questionable accounting techniques, however, so Australia is effectively exacerbating the issue, while other — and in most cases poorer — countries bear the burden of reducing global emissions. It is difficult to see how this meets Scott Morrison’s much repeated mantra of a ‘fair go’.

Myth 3: Strong climate action will ruin the economy

The Garnaut Review — like the UK’s Stern Review before it — found that the benefits of mitigating climate change greatly outweigh the cost, “Australia’s interest lies in the world adopting a strong and effective position on climate change mitigation”.

Australia’s economy will suffer from the effects of climate change more than most. In particular, climate change will have adverse impacts on tourism (the Great Barrier Reef is expected to perish at 2 degrees warming), agriculture and will cause increasing physical damage to infrastructure and properties.

A report by the Australia Institute found that Australia’s economy is more diversified than other fossil fuel exporters and is relatively better placed to cope with a transition out of this sector.

By ramping up coal and fossil fuel exports, Australia is exposing itself to increased transition risk — the risk that the world’s response to climate change will strand assets and affect valuations of carbon intensive companies.

Outgoing Bank of England governor Mark Carney has warned that companies that ignore climate risks will go bankrupt and that a large proportion of fossil fuel investments may become worthless. The tide already seems to be shifting, with asset managers and insurers increasingly divesting from coal and refusing to provide insurance cover to new projects.

Australia could make its economy more resilient to transition risk by committing to a plan to transition out of coal, as Germany and others have done. It should divert resources to technologies that will prosper in the new carbon economy, like funding research and supporting new Australian technologies to become commercially viable. For example, CSIRO has developed technology to efficiently transport hydrogen to the world — Australia could become a leader in clean fuel exports if only it backs technological breakthroughs like this instead of doubling down on coal.

Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and reintroducing carbon pricing would further equip Australia’s economy to thrive in a low carbon world.

Bushfire relief

If you too have been touched by the fires, you can help by supporting relief charities. I have listed some examples below.

Relief and recovery efforts:

· Red Cross

· Salvation Army disaster appeal

Local fire services:

· New South Wales Rural Fire Service

· Victoria’s Country Fire Authority

· South Australia’s Country Fire Service

Help for wildlife:

· WIRES Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service Emergency Fund

· WWF bushfire emergency

The ABC appeals website includes further information on how you can help.

5 ways you can fight climate change in 2020

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It really shouldn’t have come to this. As we embrace this new decade, we are faced with the daunting task of needing to halve global CO2 emissions to limit the increase in global average temperatures to the ‘safe’ level of 1.5°C above pre-industrial times. This is despite not yet managing to find a way to arrest the relentless rise in emissions — global emissions have increased by 4% since the Paris Agreement was struck in 2015.

It is tempting to point the finger at others for getting us into this mess — oil companies, governments, lobby groups, capitalism. However, this would be tantamount to admitting defeat and besides, it would do little to solve the problem. We simply do not have enough time to play the blame game. Everyone urgently needs to urgently pitch in if we’re to stop runaway climate change — it will be the fight of our lives. We may not be able to control the situation, but we can certainly change how we respond to it.

A successful — yet morally questionable — artist once sang ‘if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself then make a change’. And that’s the perfect mantra for tackling climate change.

What better time to start than today? There’s no need to take things to extremes, just do what you feel you’re able to. A large number of people making smaller changes can have a greater impact than a small number of people making drastic changes.

Here are 5 ways you can make a big impact in the fight against climate change. You might even save yourself money and improve your health in the process.

1. Consider switching your retirement savings to an ESG fund

Although you probably rarely think about it, your largest single investment other than your home, is likely to be your retirement savings fund (e.g. pension, superannuation or 401(k)). If you are invested in the default option, chances are you are inadvertently funding projects that are inconsistent with limiting climate change, such as new coal mines or coal-fired power plants.

Money talks. Widespread divestment from unsustainable companies will adversely affect their valuations and increase their cost of financing, rendering new projects unviable.

Funds that consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors have experienced rapid growth in recent years as awareness of and demand for sustainable investments has increased. For most pension plans, you will have the option to switch your balance to ESG themed investment options. If you don’t, ask your employer why not.

Investing in ESG does not necessarily mean sacrificing investment returns, in fact, the opposite may be true over the long term. ESG data is patchy and historical periods are relatively short, so it is difficult to draw firm conclusions on relative performance at this stage. However, early studies have found that companies that adopt sustainable approaches are more likely to outperform over long-term investment horizons.

ESG conscious investors have had significant wins by influencing heavy polluters to adapt their corporate strategies. For example, asset managers under the Climate Action 100+ coalition co-filed a shareholder resolution, which forced BP to adopt a business strategy that is consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Note: Choosing your investments is an important financial decision and you should consider all of the factors relevant to your situation, such as your risk appetite and investment horizon. This article is not financial advice. Please speak to a financial advisor if you are unsure.

2. Eat less meat

The simple act of putting food on our plates is a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report found that GHG emissions from agriculture, forestry and changes in land use represent 25% of total emissions. Almost half of these emissions are driven by livestock (both direct emissions and land use), despite meat and dairy providing less than 20% of the global calorie intake.

Livestock also uses almost 80% of the world’s total agricultural land and is a major source of deforestation and biodiversity loss. Reducing your meat intake is one of most significant steps that you can take to reduce your environmental footprint.

In 2019, the IPCC released a special report, which estimated the potential annual GHG emission savings by 2050 if the world adopted different diets. A vegan diet would reduce emissions by 8 GtCO2-e per annum. To put that in context, the annual emissions of the USA — the second largest emitter — were just over 6 GtCO2-e in 2018. The global Veganuary campaign is a good opportunity to try a vegan diet for a month.

In practice, a vegan diet is likely to be a step too far for most people. If that sounds like you, then other dietary options can still have a significant environmental benefit (see chart below).

Source: Analysis based on IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land, Chapter 5

A ‘flexitarian’ diet — where three quarters of meat and dairy consumption is replaced with plant-based alternatives — provides most of the environmental benefits of a vegan diet, but allows occasional indulgence in meat in dairy.

Easier still, simply switching from beef and lamb to less intensive meats like chicken, would achieve almost half of the GHG emissions benefits as a full vegetarian diet. The chart below shows the GHG emissions per gram of protein.

Source: Our World in Data, based on data from Clark & Tilman (2017). Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 12, Number 6.

3. Lobby and protest

The year 2020 is a critical one for climate action. The five-year ‘ratchet mechanism’ for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement will kick in, requiring countries to either update or communicate a new NDC. Under the agreement, the NDCs should be “ambitious” and represent a “progression over time”. In theory then, we should see a round of stronger commitments announced at COP26 in Glasgow at the end of the year. However, it would be healthy to be sceptical that this will occur unprompted.

Currently, the sum of NDCs is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement objective of limiting the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C relative to pre-industrial times, targeting 1.5°C. Even if all of the NDCs are met, we are still on course for a 3.2°C increase, which would not avert the worst effects of climate change and may breach tipping points resulting in runaway global warming. Further, most countries are not even on track to meet the low bar of the current NDCs.

Citizens need to hold their leaders to account to ensure that they increase their NDCs in line with the Paris Agreement and that they put in place concrete plans for achieving these targets. In some countries — such as Australia, Brazil and USA — this is even more important given the alarming rhetoric and poor environmental record of their leaders. In the USA, the primary goal would be to immediately reverse the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which Trump formally commenced in November 2019.

In 2019, Greta Thunberg demonstrated how powerful a democratically voiceless cohort of society can be. Imagine what would happen if voters around the world mobilised in the same way as schoolchildren have. We urgently need to strike fear into politicians’ hearts before delegates are sent to COP26 later this year — the planet cannot afford COP26 to be a flop like COP25 was.

There will plenty of opportunities to get involved over the year. Your degree of commitment and your means of protest is entirely up to you — the most important thing is to add your voice to the movement.

Aside from emissions reduction targets, there are plenty of other worthy environmental campaigns to support, such as halting deforestation and limiting single-use plastic. Patagonia has launched a platform to help people find local grassroots campaigns called Action Works.

4. Plant trees and restore ecosystems

Nature can be a powerful ally in the fight against climate change, but only if we let it. Healthy ecosystems can help lock away carbon, reduce biodiversity loss and provide myriad other benefits.

A 2019 study found that planting trees is the cheapest and most effective way to mitigate climate change and identified land that could support 1.2 trillion trees without encroaching on farmland or urban areas.

The concept seems to be catching on, with political parties in the UK having an arms (or limbs…) race on tree planting policies leading up to the December 2019 election. The Tories promised 30 million per year, the Lib Dems and Labour promised 60 million and the Greens promised 70 million. Meanwhile in America, a social media campaign called #TeamTrees successfully raised money to plant over 20 million trees.

It is not just about the number of trees that matters. Planting swathes of monoculture forests on unsuitable land could potentially have adverse impacts on biodiversity and be less effective at absorbing CO2. Widescale planting should involve a mix of (ideally) native trees that are suited to the local environment. New woodland also requires a strategy for regular maintenance.

If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, you can give wildlife a helping hand and fight climate change by planting native trees and shrubs. If not, you can join a tree planting day or perform conservation work with a local charity. There are plenty of opportunities even in cities, for example, Trees for Cities runs planting events in cities across the UK . These events are always rewarding and are a good outdoor workout.

You can also help from the comfort of your own home by donating to environmental charities, which plant trees, restore ecosystems or combat deforestation. There are a number of worthy charities to choose from, so find one that speaks to you. A few examples are listed below:

· Woodland Trust — plants trees and protects woods in the UK to create havens for wildlife.

· Tree Aid — helps poverty-stricken Africans generate an income through planting trees.

· Eden Projects — works with local communities around the world to restore forests.

The Trillion Tree Campaign has created an app, which provides a list of tree-planting charities along with details such as survival rates. It also includes a tracker of progress against the trillion trees target.

Finally, another simple and free way to plant trees is to switch your search engine to Ecosia. They have planted over 79 million trees to date by donating their profits to projects across the world.

5. Fly less

The concept of Flygskam (or flight shame), which encourages people to fly less, has taken off in recent years. Greta Thunberg helped raise awareness by choosing to travel across Europe by train and to America by sailboat. Given the significant CO2 emissions associated with flying, Greta and the Flygskam movement have a valid point.

A single economy class flight from London to New York emits almost a tonne of CO2, which exceeds the entire annual emissions of an average person in 56 counties. A return trip is equivalent to almost 30% of the average European’s current annual CO2 emissions. It is difficult to see how further growth in the aviation industry can be accommodated at the same time as reducing global emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

A UN scheme called CORSIA aims to ensure that any increase in international aviation emissions above 2020 levels are offset. However, the scheme will not become mandatory until 2027 — the first voluntary pilot phase starts in 2021. Further, there is debate around what offsets will be allowed and some doubt as to how effective these will be.

Some airlines are responding to concerns by going further than the CORSIA agreement. UK based operator EasyJet became the first major airline to commit to offsetting all emissions across its network. Airlines are also working with aircraft manufacturers to develop hybrid and electric aircraft, although these are unlikely to be commercially viable any time soon.

In the meantime, the best thing that you can do is to avoid unnecessary flights. The second best thing you can do is to pay to offset your flights. That great deal you spotted online may not seem such a bargain once you factor in the cost of emissions.

Covering photo credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

To save the Amazon, hit Bolsonaro where it hurts — agricultural exports

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People across the world reacted with shock as fires raged in the Amazon rainforest over August. They were outraged at Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro’s response (or lack thereof). Not only had Bolsonaro’s rhetoric of exploiting the Amazon and his weakening of environmental protections fuelled the fires, he then had the effrontery to blame the fires on NGOs — a baseless claim.

The August fires are an escalation of an already alarming spike in deforestation since Bolsonaro came to power. Wildfires are common during the dry season, but the extent of the recent fires is not — the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) published data showing that fires are up 84% compared to the same time last year. Experts believe that many of the fires were deliberately lit by farmers and ranchers to clear land.

The fires have thrust the issue of the destruction of the Amazon into the spotlight and Bolsonaro has come under international pressure to address the situation. While such pressure could help the situation, it will only be effective if it is channelled to implement measures that persist long after the fires are extinguished and well beyond the short attention span of celebrities. Otherwise, any impact is likely to be a dead cat bounce for the Amazon.

To date, actions from world leaders have not been strong enough to have a lasting and meaningful impact. Most leaders have condemned Brazil’s handling of the issue, but Bolsonaro is not the kind of person that is influenced by the moral outrage of the West — quite the opposite. In response the French President Macron’s call for action, he accused the French president of having “a colonial mindset”.

The G7 recently agreed a $20m package to help Amazon countries to fight wildfires. However, while this package might help solve the immediate problem, it will do little to solve the wider issue of deforestation — it is a bit like treating the symptoms of a disease with painkillers.

Around 17% of the Amazon has been lost in the last 50 years and there has been an alarming escalation in the rate of deforestation since Bolsonaro came to power. Satellite data released by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows that deforestation increased by 88% and 278% in June and July 2019 respectively compared to the same months last year. Bolsanaro reacted by sacking the head of the INPE, Ricardo Galvão.

The Amazon cannot withstand relentless deforestation indefinitely. Scientists believe that a tipping point could be reached when the total loss reaches 20–25%. Beyond this point, the Amazon could enter a death spiral and transform into a degraded savannah.

Losing the Amazon would have a devastating impact on the world. If it falls, our goals to arrest global warming and biodiversity loss will almost certainly slip beyond reach and there will be irreversible damage to vital ecosystems and local climates. That’s not to mention the direct impact on the millions who depend on the forest.

To avert the collapse of the Amazon, drastic action is needed to address the main drivers of deforestation — land clearing for cattle and soy. Numerous carrot and stick approaches have been tried over the years, but these have ultimately failed to stop further deforestation. Since coming to power, Bolsonaro has exacerbated the issue by weakening the ‘stick’ of the already insufficient environmental penalties.

To save the Amazon, the world needs to hit Bolsonaro where it hurts — agricultural exports. Farmers and ranchers don’t clear the forest just for laughs, they only do so because the financial benefits outweigh the risks. Imposing new tariffs or quotas on beef and soybeans would impact local prices and fundamentally change the economics of their business model. Doing so, would surely turn farmers — who overwhelmingly support Bolsonaro — against him and halt further expansion of agriculture into the forest.

There is a clear rationale for tariffs — they are analogous to imposing a carbon tax to address a market failure. From an environmental perspective, clearing tropical rainforest for agriculture is possibly one of the worst exchanges of land use imaginable — such is the cost to the environment through loss of biodiversity and carbon capture. However, farmers and ranchers don’t bear these costs, which amounts to mispricing.

Tariffs are an extreme measure and are likely to hurt honest farmers who avoid working on deforested land. However, the current predicament is similarly serious and there are few other options left. Aside from the environmental damage, the reckless handling of the Amazon crisis to date threatens the lives of a million indigenous people. Economic sanctions have previously been imposed on other countries for less pressing matters. Besides, the tariffs could be removed in stages if certain environmental protection goals are met.

France and Ireland have indicated that they are willing to block the recent EU-Mercosur trade deal with the South American bloc over Brazil’s handling of the Amazon. Doing so would send a powerful message and would delay the reduction in existing tariffs.

China, however, has far more power to influence Brazil than Europe. China is the largest importer of Brazilian soybeans — it accounts for 80% of Brazil’s exports — and beef. Further, the trade spat with America will increase China’s appetite as it looks for replacement suppliers. If China threatened to freeze imports or increase tariffs unless stronger measures are taken to protect the Amazon, it would be virtually impossible for Bolsonaro to ignore.

In practice, however, China and the West are unlikely to impose additional tariffs or quotas on Brazil for fear of escalating global trade tensions. UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, summed up the West’s concerns at the G7 summit “I would be reluctant to do anything at this very difficult time for global free trade, to cancel another trade deal.” He offered a paltry £10m to tackle deforestation instead.

Once again then, it seems it will be up to communities and companies to take action. It may be time to pray for the Amazon after all.

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Approaching 10 billion – Can our planet cope with population growth?

The physical capabilities of humans are lacklustre compared to most animals – we are not the strongest, nor the fastest and our senses are not the sharpest. In a bare-handed confrontation with a lion, for instance, a human would not fare well. Yet through our cunning, cooperation and resourcefulness, we have become unrivalled.

In the early stages of human history, our ability to create stone tools and control fire gave us a significant survival advantage. These skills enabled us to become effective hunter-gatherers and to prosper.

Over time, our technology improved and our influence grew. The advent of farming around 10,000 BC enabled us to better control our food supply and to settle in communities, thereby increasing our population.

The Industrial Revolution, which started around the middle of the 18th century, was a watershed in human history.  By harnessing the power of machines and unleashing the condensed energy within fossil fuels, we supercharged our advancement and the population exploded, growing from 1 billion to 7 billion over a period of just 200 years.

The unprecedented growth in our population and consumption over the last two centuries has had a devastating impact on our planet. It has been a key driver of a number of environmental issues, including: climate change, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, depletion of fish stocks and widespread plastic pollution.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Sir David Attenborough remarked:

“We are now so numerous, so powerful, so all pervasive, the mechanisms we have for destruction are so wholesale and so frightening that we can exterminate whole ecosystems without even noticing it.”[1]

It seems obvious that our environmental problems will become more difficult to solve as the human population continues to grow to 10 billion by 2050[2], yet the link is rarely mentioned. Why?

For one thing, all human life is sacred; everyone deserves the chance to live a long and happy life, to love and to raise a family. The concept that the simple state of being has an adverse effect on the planet is difficult to come to terms with. It is comparatively easier to look at ways to reduce our impact or to focus on specific causes of environmental problems, such as burning fossil fuels.

If we are to have any hope of tackling environmental issues and feeding the world, however, we must at least consider whether there are any ethical and feasible solutions to curtail population growth – we must address the elephant in the room. There is no escaping the fact that our planet has finite resources and hence there is a natural limit to how many people it can sustain.

This article discusses:

  1. The link between the human population and the environment;
  2. Historical population growth;
  3. Projected future population growth; and
  4. Ethical options for curtailing population growth.

1. The link between the human population and the environment

Rapid growth in the human population has had a pernicious effect on the natural world. Since 1970, the human population has almost doubled, while over the same period, the population of the natural world has dropped by 60%[3]. The effect has been more pronounced in South and Central America, where wildlife has suffered an 89% decrease.

At this rate, humans are on track to cause the sixth mass-extinction event (or the Holocene extinction)[4]. It is difficult to see how the natural world will survive the triple threat of climate change, a further doubling of the human population and the snowball effect of collapsing ecosystems.

While humans are not physically large – standing shoulder to shoulder, the entire population could fit into an area the size of Los Angeles – we cast a long shadow. We need a lot of space and resources to sustain our lifestyles (e.g. for housing and land for agriculture to feed us), especially in the developed world. So, it unsurprising then that as the human population has grown, deforestation and habitat loss has increased, decimating the populations of other species in the process. We have effectively taken space and resources away from the natural world.

The charts below show how growth the human population and our consumption is linked to the deterioration of a number of key environmental indicators, including: degradation of ecosystems, increased loss of tropical forests and increased acidification of the ocean.

Source: WWF Living planet report 2018

One way to assess the sustainability of our combined impact is to compare the level at which we consume resources and generate waste with the natural capacity of our planet. This concept is referred to as our ‘ecological footprint’[5].

On this metric, we are running a large ecological budget deficit: we would need 1.7 earths to sustain our current consumption patterns.  In other words, we are living well beyond our means and are only supporting this by raiding the planetary savings account that has been built up over billions of years, which clearly is not sustainable – you cannot live off garage sales forever.

We have depleted fish stocks, cleared forests for pastures, drained inland lakes and acquirers, melted glaciers and have irrigated rivers until they run dry. Even if we get back into the black, it will take these reserves centuries, or even millennia, to recover.

The Global Footprint Network produces a metric called ‘earth overshoot day’, which measures the point in the year when we exceed our annual budget, i.e. when our consumption exceeds the natural capacity of the planet. In 1970, when the global population was around 3.7 bn, we were just about breaking even. Now, as our population draws closer to 7.7 bn, we are blowing our annual budget by the 1st of August. 

As the chart below shows, the day that we have exceeded our annual budget has moved ever forward as the population has increased.

The relationship between our ecological impact and our population is a simple one: our total ecological footprint is the product of the global population and the average footprint per capital. Despite this, we tend to avoid linking population growth with environmental issues; we typically focus on measures to change our consumption and reduce our impact.

While measures to reduce our individual impact are beneficial and absolutely necessary, it is also important to consider that if our population were to double again, we would need to halve our average individual impact just to tread water. We would then need to halve our impact again to balance the ecological books.

It is unclear exactly how long we can continue to live beyond the means of the planet. The longer we do so and as the gap widens, the more difficult it will be for all life on earth, including humans. And it is the poorest who will be disproportionally impacted.

As our population and ecological footprint increases, we are more likely to face critical shortages of fresh water, widespread famine, epidemics and more frequent wars and civil unrest over dwindling resources.

Further, the capacity of the earth to support life is likely to decrease over time with the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and the depletion of natural resources – think of this as the effect of credit card debt catching up with us. The effect of climate change only increases the magnitude of the challenge of reaching a sustainable level of consumption.

In his book, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, Thomas Malthus argued that humans have a tendency to utilise abundance of resources for population growth rather than maintain a higher standard of living. He wrote:

“That population does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence, the history of every people that have ever existed will abundantly prove.

And that the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice…”[6]

In other words, Malthus was not optimistic that humankind could prevent itself from reaching its natural limit, which he believed would inevitably result in misery (e.g. famine, disease and war).

Malthus’ theory reminds us that we cannot ignore the impact of population growth if we are to avoid a scenario where ‘misery’ limits our population for us. Such a scenario would be devasting for both humans and the natural world.

2. Historical population growth

It took 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion and only 200 more years for it to increase to 7 billion.

Modern humans evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago and began migrating across the earth. To start with, we were hunter-gatherers and our population was low: less than 1 million.

There were two significant events in human history that led to rapid population growth:

a) The agricultural revolution – the advent of farming around 10,000 BC provided a more stable and controllable source of food. It allowed humans to settle in communities increasing the supportable density of populations.

Over several thousand years, agricultural practices improved and spread from the Middle East across the globe and the population increased to around 700m by the mid-1700s

b) The industrial revolution – the industrial revolution, which started around 1760 led to exponential growth in the human population, through improvements in medicine and food production, transportation and storage, which reduced mortality rates, particularly for infants.

Fast forward to 2019 and there are now 7.7 billion people on this planet[7].

The video below from the American Museum of Natural History gives a visual overview of historical population growth.

3. Projected future population growth

Future population growth is inherently uncertain and so all projections must make assumptions regarding changes in the key drivers of the population. The three main drivers are:

i) Mortality rates (i.e. percentage of deaths in the population per annum)

Improvements in mortality rates increase the average length of time that a person is expected to live (“life expectancy”) and therefore cause the population to grow.

Life expectancies have improved dramatically over the last few centuries[8], mostly driven by advances in medicine and technology. This has been a significant contributor to the increase in the steady-state population. For example, 200 years ago, it would be common for a child and their parents to walk the earth together. Now, a child is likely to be able to share a meal with their parents, their grandparents and even their great grandparents.

Mortality rates are expected to continue to improve, albeit at a slower rate. Hence, mortality improvements are likely to have relatively smaller impact on future population growth.

ii) Fertility rates

If the number of live births per woman (Total Fertility Rate, or “TFR”) is greater than the rate needed to sustain the population (the “Replacement Rate”), the population will grow. The Replacement Rate is linked to mortality rates – if there was no female mortality between birth and childbearing age, the rate would be 2.0. In developed nations, the replacement rate is close to 2.1, while the global average replacement rate is 2.3[9].

The global average total fertility rate is currently 2.5 and hence the steady-state population is increasing. However, the TFR varies significantly by country and region, leading to vast differences in population growth across the planet.

In the developed world, the TFR is less than 2, but in the least developed nations it is closer to 4. In Niger, the TFR is over 7 live births per woman[10]. The chart below shows the extent of the variation in the TFR by country.

Total fertility rate by country

Source: CIA World Factbook

iii) Population momentum – The population changes as it moves from the current level to the steady-state (or equilibrium). This effect is referred to as population momentum and explains why the population can continue to grow even if mortality rates have stabilised and the total fertility rate has settled at the replacement rate.  Momentum effects can continue for decades where there is a significant demographic transition and where the difference between the current and steady-state is large.

The UN performs biennial projections of the world population, which take into account estimated changes in all three key drivers of growth (i.e. mortality rates, total fertility rates and population momentum). The chart below shows the projections from the latest revision in 2017.

Source: “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision” (2017) UN Population Division

In the best estimate scenario (i.e. 50/50 chance of being too high or low), the population is projected to reach around 10 billion people by 2050 and peak at just over 11 billion people in 2100. This scenario assumes that the TFR drops from 2.5 live births per woman to 2.2 in 2050 and then to 2.0 by 2100.

If the estimated TFR is underestimated by just 0.5 live births per woman, then the population will reach 16.5 billion by 2100. And if the total fertility rate remains at the current level, the population will continue to increase and will reach 26 billion by 2100.

All of the UN scenarios assume the population continues to grow unencumbered, i.e. that the growth can be supported by the planet’s existing limited resources. However, as discussed previously, this seems unlikely, particularly in the constant fertility scenario (with 26 billion people by 2100) – if growth continues at this rate, then ‘misery’ is likely to impose a natural limit on the population.

4. Ethical options for curtailing population growth

There are no easy options for limiting our population to a sustainable level. Immediately ruling out a Soylent Green type scenario[11] of state ‘encouraged’ euthanasia, the only ethical way to arrest population growth is to transition to a global average total fertility rate of fewer than 2 live births per woman.

Some countries have implemented policies to restrict fertility rates, most notably China with its one-child policy (1978-2014), which was subsequently increased to a two-child policy. The one-child policy has been successful in curbing China’s population growth – government officials estimate that China’s population would be 400 million higher today without the policy. However, the policy has been contentious and is not without critics.

It is doubtful whether strict population controls could be applied in democratic countries. These policies ultimately take away a woman’s right to choose, are questionable from an ethical standpoint and are unpopular – people would rather the government stays out of our bedrooms.

A potential method to influence the total fertility rate in a more positive and ethical way is through investing in education and the empowerment of women. Historical data across regions clearly shows a strong negative correlation between years of education and total fertility rate, as seen in the chart below. That is, women who attain a higher level of education are more likely to have smaller families.  For example, in Ghana, the total fertility rate of women with a high school education is 2-3 compared to 6 for women with no education[12].

While there is some debate as to whether the relationship between education and fertility rates is a causal one[13] (i.e. whether higher education drives lower fertility rates), there are a number of qualitative reasons as to why this is likely to be the case. Women who attain a higher level of education:

  • Are better able to support themselves and are more likely to feel empowered to assert their views on important topics such as their preferred family size;
  • Have greater knowledge of modern birth control methods and are more likely to utilise, these;
  • Have better employment prospects and hence a higher opportunity cost of bearing children (e.g. educated women are more likely to delay having children until they establish their careers);
  • Are better able to support their children (through higher incomes and better knowledge of prenatal and child care) and are therefore more confident that their children will survive; and
  • Have a wider and more informed view of their ideal family size, through greater exposure to their community and global social networks.

Austrian based research centres, the International Institute for Applied Systems (IIASA) and the Wittgenstein Centre (WC), include the link between education level and fertility rates in their highly-regarded population projections. Their projections consider global trends in education and how these are likely to affect total fertility rates. They define a number of scenarios around future education:

  1. SSP1 Accelerated educational development – An optimistic scenario where developing countries accelerate their investment in education and achieve a similar rate of improvement to that achieved by standout countries, such as South Korea, in recent decades.
  2. SSP2 Best estimate (or Global Education Trend) – Developing countries continue to improve education levels at the historical average rates observed for more advanced countries.
  3. SSP3 Stalled educational development – The improvement in education levels for developing countries is slower than the historical average and fertility rates remain high.

The chart below shows the population projections for the three different scenarios alongside the UN best estimate case, for reference.

Source: Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (2015). Wittgenstein Centre Data Explorer Version 1.2.     

        

The WC and IIASA best estimate projection indicates a slower population growth profile than the UN best estimate, with the global population peaking at 9.4 bn in 2070. Under a more optimistic scenario, where education levels improve at a higher rate, the population peaks at 8.5 bn in 2055 before falling below current levels by 2100. However, if improvements in education stagnate, then the fertility rate is estimated to remain above 2 and the population continues to grow beyond 12.8bn after 2100.

These projections and the historical correlation data demonstrate the crucial role that investing in education and empowering women could play in limiting the human population to a sustainable level. In the accelerated education scenario, the population peaks at 8.5bn, just 0.8bn higher than today and solving our environmental issues and eradicating poverty seem just that bit more achievable.

Even if this solution is less effective at reducing population growth than expected, it would lead to a better educated population and would improve gender equality – significant benefits in their own right.

5. What you can do

There are three easy and effective steps that everyone, regardless of age or gender, can take:

  • Reduce your impact on the environment – as our population continues to grow, it becomes increasingly important to take steps to reduce our average ecological footprint. Everyone can take steps to reduce their ecological footprint and this blog will discuss different ways to do so in future entries.
  • Have a conversation about population – it is important that we discuss the link between population growth and environmental issues, such as climate change. Admitting a problem is the first step to solving it. We should encourage governments to invest in education in developing nations and combat religious or societal practices that encourage procreation and/or create barriers to access contraception. For example, linking regular aid allocations to educational and social development goals could help foster a longer-term solution to alleviating poverty.
  • Support charities that focus on education as a long-term solution to sustainable growth – for example, Campaign For Female Education (https://camfed.org/ ) is dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of females and the empowerment of young women. It has supported over 2.6 million students to attend primary and secondary school.

[1] Sir David Attenborough in an interview with Prince William at the World Economic Forum, Davos, 22 January 2019

[2] UN World Population Projections, 2017 revision

[3] “WWF Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher” (2018) Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds).

[4] Kolbert, E. ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’ (2014), Henry Holt and Company

[5] Global footprint network, https://www.footprintnetwork.org/

[6] Malthus, T. “An Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798)

[7] World Population Clock, January 2019, (http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/)

[8] For example, male life expectancy at birth in England increased from around 40 years in 1850 to 79 years in 2017.

[9] Espenshade TJ, Guzman JC, Westoff CF “The surprising global variation in replacement fertility” (2003).  Population Research and Policy Review

[10] UN Population Division (2017 revision)

[11] Soylent Green is a 1973 dystopian film centred on overpopulation and a suffering planet. It includes the famous quote “Soylent Green is people!”.

[12] Pradhan, E. “Female Education and Childbearing: A Closer Look at the Data” (2015), The World Bank 

[13] Jungho Kim (2016) “Female education and its impact on fertility” IZA World of Labour