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A Decade of Lost Opportunities

14 November, 2022

Only eleven years after world population surpassed seven billion, the UN has announced an extra billion humans has been added to the planet. In 2010, Australian businessman Dick Smith launched the still unclaimed Wilberforce Award for leadership and communication about population growth alternatives. In 2011, National Geographic published a year-long series on world population called ‘7 Billion’. In 2013, Stephen Emmott published his contentious 10 Billion warning about the ‘unprecedented planetary emergency’ of overpopulation. If world leaders are finding these alarmist messages concerning, then what measures have they put into action? 

If concerns about overpopulation and carbon emissions are to be taken seriously, then the 2010s represent a decade of lost opportunities. Indeed, the issues of pollution and population are coupled. A 2009 study by Thomas Wire at the London school of Economics (LSE) showed that for every seven US dollars spent on basic family planning, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by one tonne. Less people, less carbon dioxide. Owing China carbon credits for the one-child policy, however, is not a popular thought. 

Figure 1: Population growth mapped against observed global mean surface temperature change from 1850 to 2020 (data from IPCC report 2021).   

The same year that Thomas Wire was making his calculations at LSE, a conference was held at UCLA entitled The World in 2050: A Scientific Investigation of the Impact of Global Population Growth on a Divided Planet. Experts estimated that there were 78 million more births than deaths that year but over 80 million unintended pregnancies. Hypothetically, were it possible to empower people to avoid unintended pregnancies across the globe, then supposedly population growth could have been turned into population decline.  

With the oral contraceptive pill soon to go off patent, spirits were high. However, big pharmaceutical companies worked to keep steroidal contraceptives available only through medical prescription despite little if any medical justification for this cautionary action. Keeping steroidal contraceptives available only through medical prescription enables the pharmaceutical companies to exploit doctors as their unpaid sales force, whilst at the same time maintaining a relatively high price for a product that is off patent. Oral contraception being out of reach for women and completely unavailable for men contributes to 121 million unintended pregnancies each year. Avoiding unwanted pregnancies could potentially more than cancel out the annual 90 million more births than deaths each year. 

Solving climate change by curbing population growth is not a singular answer. After all, 95% of population growth occurs in low- and middle-income countries while high-income countries produce upwards of 86% of carbon emissions. Offsetting consumption in high-income countries by reducing population growth in low-income countries is not an equatable solution. Furthermore, holding mothers morally accountable for the future carbon emissions of their children is an unethical position. People in high-income countries cannot keep consuming at current levels and expect the problem to be solved by parents in low-income countries having less children. 

So, is a child the biggest carbon footprint a person can have? Education, late marriage, access to contraception, safe abortion, and family planning are important in their own right. As an added benefit, these measures not only help to keep population in check, these measures also help to reduce carbon emissions. Making every child a wanted child is desirable and technologically possible. Cultural, religious and political barriers have not been the only obstacles. The profit-driven interests of large multinational pharmaceutical companies have also stood in the way. Even if the population question and carbon fumes were not an issue, isn’t denying people access to their reproductive rights, in and of itself, a human rights abuse? 

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