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Population Growth and Pollution: the Facts Continue to be Ignored

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

  • Member since 2018
  • 375 items added with 260,493 views
  • Jul 3, 2013

Humans are the real threat to the planet, Stephen Emmott informs us in this week’s Observer. This may be so, but unfortunately Emmott writes like a 19th century thinker who has just got his hands on an early print of Thomas Malthus. His views on population growth are not only highly inaccurate, but dangerously so. Consider the original image that fronted the story:

This conjures up rather questionable images of the black and brown skinned swamping the planet. Clearly, someone at the Observer decided this is of questionable taste, because it is now missing from the website version of the story, replaced by something rather more benign:

Yes, this is rather more accurate. The white and the rich pollute and screw the planet far more on a per capita basis than anyone else. But unfortunately the image of African and Asian babies is still to be seen on the Guardian environment home page.

Environment news  comment and analysis from the Guardian   Environment   The Guardian

OK, I can’t blame Emmott for fronting the story with questionable imagery. That’s probably the fault of a sub-editor at the Observer.

However the deeply misleading statements he makes about population growth are all down to him. Consider the following:

 I do just want to point out that if the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us.

The source of this figure is the United Nations Population Division, which produces the most respected (if at times questionably high) population projections. What Emmott fails to point out, and I assume he knows, is that fertility rates are in decline everywhere on the planet. And very quickly. This phenomenon is brilliantly visualized at the Gapminder website. Emmott’s suggestion that birth rates will stay at current levels is either uninformed or wilful scaremongering. Either way it does not help further an informed discussion about population growth.

Quite remarkably Emmott implies that reducing the number of children women have is not a very viable option:

Saying “Don’t have children” is utterly ridiculous. It contradicts every genetically coded piece of information we contain, and one of the most important (and fun) impulses we have.

Well, all Emmott needs to do here is look at the data. Women around the world are contradicting whatever genetically coded information Emmott is referring to. Consider Taiwan, a country where women have an average of 0.9 babies, something Emmott would have us think is impossible. Or how about that Islamic theocracy Iran, where women have on average 1.6 babies. And I could go on. There are 79 countries where women are having on average less than 2.1 babies. Not only is getting people to not have babies possible, it is happening on a widespread basis.

A greater problem is Emmott running through scary numbers about the future growth in populations of many modernising countries, which I guess is supposed to prompt images of human numbers overwhelming the planet. He cites the following countries, and how much their populations are expected to grow by:

Afghanistan by 242%.

Democratic Republic of Congo 213%.

Gambia by 242%.

Guatemala by 369%.

Iraq by 344%.

Kenya by 284%.

Liberia by 300%.

Malawi by 741%.

Mali by 408%.

Niger by 766%.

Somalia by 663%.

Uganda by 396%.

Yemen by 299%.

These statistics are rather frightening. However, like Emmott, I am a privileged westerner typing this sentence on a computer imported from China and writing a blog post saved somewhere in North Carolina or Norway. The people in the countries listed above mostly don’t have such privileges. So, instead consider how many people living in each of these countries it would take to produce the same amount of carbon emissions as the average American. This comparison puts these growth rates in perspective.

Afghanistan – 83

Democratic Republic of Congo – 34

Gambia – 66

Guatemala – 16

Iraq – 5

Kenya – 55

Liberia – 126

Malawi – 235

Mali – 419

Niger – 222

Somalia – 264

Uganda – 160

Yemen – 17

If it takes 420 people from Mali to screw up the climate as much as the average American, then I think we should not worry that much about a population boom in Mali. Assuming these projections are correct, Mali will go from 14 to 72 million people, an increase of 59 million people. But if we keep per capita emissions were they are this is like adding 140,000 Americans to the planet. Of course per capita emissions are likely to increase in Mali and other modernising countries, but these vast disparities in per capita emissions far outweigh differences in population growth.

So the statistics make it rather clear: population growth is largely occurring in countries that per capita aren’t damaging the biosphere at anywhere close to western levels. The impact the above increases in population will have on carbon emissions could probably be offset simply by Americans and Canadians driving sensible vehicles. I’m more worried about Americans driving Hummers instead of Honda Civics than I am worried about people from India or elsewhere “breading like rabbits” as Paul Ehrlich occasionally complains about:

Of course such statements ignore an obvious reality: Ehrlich’s grand children are (I’m guessing) likely to contribute far more heavily to the civilization collapse he refers to than the poor of the world breeding like rabbits.

Population growth is often referred to as the elephant in the room. It is not. The facts indicate that the population bomb is being defused, and that continued worries about population are simply one thing: the deflection of the cause of a problem away from those who have caused it.

J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Jul 2, 2013

You indicate that OECD populations are the major threat to the planet.  While this may have been true in the past, the largest growing populations are clearly in non-OECD countries and non-OECD countries, led by China, now are the largest source in world carbon dioxide greenhouse gases; and growing at alarming rates.  Your numbers appear to confuse the facts that per capita population growth is larger in non-OECD or developing countries than in OECD countries.  Yes there are exceptions, but having larger families is a normal historic pattern of developing human civilizations-nations.  Before you begin demonizing developed countries for their past behaviors, how about acknowledging the improvements they have made in recent decades (lower carbon and pollution overall) and stop denying the fact that developing countries growing fossil fuels consumption and lack of pollution controls is now the greatest threat to the planet.

I K's picture
I K on Jul 2, 2013

Population is no issue even if there was 20 billion of us but as you point out the birth rate is negative in many places and is getting more negative worldwide.  The real problem is….death. We may start winning the battle one day.

Just today I read a story where a medical researcher was suggesting full head transplants can be a reality in couple of years. My instant thought was its just one of those stupid things some no name researcher put out for a reaction until it noted that experiments were carried out in the 1970s where the head of one monkey was cut off and transplanted onto the body of another. These monkeys lasted about 8 days

What if something like that can be perfected? Once you hit age 60 a brain dead body is grown for you and your head chopped off and put into this 20 year old body. Only the mind then ages.  Maybe after that parts of the mind itself can be transplanted. But then we get to a point of what is it to be human. Are we just the sum of our parts, just the sum of our brain, just the sum of parts of our brain?

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jul 2, 2013

J Elliot

You should try acquainting yourself with some basic facts before telling to stop denying facts. You say the largest growing populations are somehow being led by China. Well, China has something called a one child policy, and have it for a long time. A simple result is that their population is not increasing much, and is expected to be in decline within a decade or so.

As for these “improvements” in carbon emissions in the developed, well most of these have simply been shoved over to China. Like me you probably typed that paragraph on a computer in China. So, let’s not delude ourselves about progress on carbon emissions.

J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Jul 2, 2013

Agreed, China’s population has stabilized, but their carbon emissions are the largest in the world since 2006 and growing at rates far exceeding the U.S., EU and most the developing countries.  Their one child policy has worked fairly well, but someday soon they will have an enormous aging population problem to deal with.

As far as carbon leakage, this is a major gap in nearly all national/international climate treaties and agreements.  As far as how much of this issue contributes to developed countries ‘true carbon footprints’, I have yet to find a reasonable study on the subject.  The bottom line is that carbon emissions directly from developing countries are growing at rates much greater than developed countries (re. recent IEA or EIA/IEO recent studies-forecasts).  Developing countries coal and petroleum consumption is rapidly increasing while developed countries, such as the U.S. is in significant decline.

Perhaps to control the apparently uncontrollable world carbon leakage, this issue should become a future carbon tax focus.  But, would not such an action be discriminating against the growing populations in developing countries.

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Jul 3, 2013

Please take the time to watch the below National Geographic Channel program since that just about  summarizes everything I might want to say about this subject.  I hope you enjoy the video and give some serious thought to what we are consuminng.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 3, 2013

Without fossil fuels, there are definitely already too many people, as it take this kind of cheap and easy energy to power every aspect of our lives. Now, most of us are simply paying China to do most the emitting for us.

CO2 ppm has gone from 320 to 400 in just my lifetime alone! (look up “mona loa co2” and hit images). We are acidifying the oceans and heating up the planet… already!

Therefore, we need to fast track nuclear power (preferably, a molten fuels reactor that can’t melt down). Once the world runs on a nuclear infrastructure, then the sky is the limit. One may argue that just the decay heat from useful (non carbon) energy will be a problem, however, after doing the math, I believe the infrared absorbing nature of CO2 is on the order of 100 to 1,000x that from heat decay alone. This implies a growth scenario for hundreds of years, during which humanity slows its growth even more, reverses global warming by affording the energy to produce and power machinery that converts the EXCESS co2 into something useful, and ultimately, becomes a space based race.

I am positive that these thing will happen ONLY if we promote the molten fuels reactor (solar, wind and its storage can not compete, yet, but WILL after the technology for replicating the CO2 sucking machinery for VERY cheap… is developed), otherwise, the biosphere will fry regardless of “how many people there is”.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jul 4, 2013

Interesting article, but this assumption…

Assuming these projections are correct, Mali will go from 14 to 72 million people, an increase of 59 million people. But if we keep per capita emissions were they are this is like adding 140,000 Americans to the planet. Of course per capita emissions are likely to increase in Mali and other modernising countries, but these vast disparities in per capita emissions far outweigh differences in population growth.”

…is extremely important

As the fertility rates of the more developed world falls, their population will age and their labor force will fall. So wont the globalized world depend more on cheap labor from places like Mali? Won’t this in turn significantly increase the CO2 production Of countries like Mali?

Another interesting article, can be found here:

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jul 5, 2013

Willem, the world population and its energy consumption is growing at possibly non-sustainable rates.  As you are probably aware, between 1960 and 2012 the total population increased from 3 billion to 7 billion.  While there is little debate that the substantial increase in population has had large impacts on local-regional environments, nations have still managed to feed their people and breakthroughs in the medical fields have help improve overall health-life spans (thus far).  The World Bank reports that the average lifespan of the overall populous has continuously increased from about 53 years in 1960 up to 70 years today.  How sustainable these stat’s will be in future years will be a point of significant debate.  Thus far the populous lifespan stat’s have not peaked and have show continuous improvement over the decades.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 6, 2013

Ya, I agree up to a certain point, especially because people are choosing to use toxic substances (pun intended) but the green revolution came… a long time ago PROVING that it is possible to defy the prepositions of the day. They also said that men will never fly, etc. So, we figured out how not to have dust bowls, figured out plumbing (the trap) so to rid infection and disease and so many other simple but necessary things. Now, we need to make LAWS against homeowner pesticides, just as laws were successfully implemented against animal cruelty and lead based paint, etc. We also have to try to buy food that does not come from crop dusted fields (talk about chem trails!).

I really don’t believe that the modern medical establishment is saving the human race, if anything, it is also destroying it (by use of rather toxic substances on a daily basis). Eating healthy is kinda hard to do anymore, but it might still be able to catch on. Why not, the internet did!

I would bet that almost everything problem you stated is caused directly and indirectly by the use of FF’s. I will add to the list… Mass obstinance, confusion, hopelessness and the masses not standing up to save the biosphere!

Learning to apply the brakes to distruptive technology does NOT mean to go backwards, but “to allow more by use of the braking mechanism” (just like cars would have gone nowhere good without brakes).

That is akin to the defience of the law of enthropy. Things go from order to disorder. In the total sytem, we can not escape this fact, however, in localized systems, (and in a geologic blink of time) we CAN! That is also the nature of a place that recieves more energy than it could ever hope to return (that is, planet Earth is about 300K whilst the sun is about 6,000K). Therefore, we have the ability to convert this energy into life, into smarts, into actions and ultimately trandsend such limiting prepositions that in our mistakes, we must ultimately prune ourselves to the point of dismay.

Excess CO2 is real, however solutions are fiction until we, that’s YOU AND ME make them real. Do you want to succumb to a fate destined by a belief that we are already doomed? I don’t!

So (like with any negative issue) we will deny, then complain, then, finally accept the truth (that our numbers are too large)… THEN we will seek to find solutions because we realize that “our numbers are too large because we still burn dead plants and animals”. A reduced population will rob us of invention, determination and most importantly, as Neil would say “The Spirit of adventure” (talking about space exploration).

Mothers and babies, too (because they don’t have to use pesticides).

The key to the solution is the ability to replace FF’s and its culture. I think we all know (by now) what the least expensive, most abundant sources are, starting with the mind…


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 6, 2013

We need to make aware that in order to survive, we need to shift primary energy sources from FF’s to advanced nuclear, and to overcome the fossil fueled “modernism” with laws protecting the biosphere. However, we shall extract and distribute even more resources without detriment to the environment as the unlimited nature of physics (that which we do not yet understand) allow.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 6, 2013

Good point. This is why we need to become activists toward public awareness on these issues. Hopefully, people will party less and want to learn more, but they probably won’t, so you’re right, we DO need to reduce our numbers. I was just arguing in favor of positive solutions based on even more (but clean) energy.

Robert Wilson's picture
Thank Robert for the Post!
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