Overpopulation is not the problem - overconsumption by the rich few is
I often hear people saying that overpopulation is the main problem to our environmental and ecological problems. Some people even claim that it's responsible for global warming. I also agreed with this idea before. But after reading more about the subject over the years I have changed my mind.
The rich countries in the "North", i.e. the West, have a "rapidly decreasing" population which is "expected to decline over the next forty years." Developing countries such as India, China and most of Africa on the other hand is where we will see future population numbers increasing.
And yes. It seems so easy to blame countries with an overwhelming rising population for being responsible for wrecking our planet, climate and environment. Because surely more people must mean more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Right?
Not really. The West is responsible for about 80% of the worlds CO2 increase. An average person living in Great Britain will in only 11 days emit as much CO2 as an average person in Bangladesh will during a whole year. And just a single power plant in West Yorkshire in Great Britain will produce more CO2 every year than all the 139 million people combined living in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.
As Fred Pearce from the Yale Environment 360 blog notes, only a small portion of the world's people are using most of the planets resources as well as producing the most of the greenhouse gases. And those are living in the West:
"The world's population quadrupled to six billion people during the 20th century. It is still rising and may reach 9 billion by 2050. Yet for at least the past century, rising per-capita incomes have outstripped the rising head count several times over. And while incomes don't translate precisely into increased resource use and pollution, the correlation is distressingly strong.
[...]By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world's people take the majority of the world's resources and produce the majority of its pollution. Take carbon dioxide emissions - a measure of our impact on climate but also a surrogate for fossil fuel consumption. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, calculates that the world's richest half-billion people - that's about 7 percent of the global population - are responsible for 50 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile the poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions."
According to Pearce overpopulation in the developing countries is not the problem. Instead the increasing overconsumption among the planets 7% richest people and countries is to be blamed. And he is not alone in claiming this. George Monbiot, Europe's leading green commentator, also agrees with this viewpoint. As Monbiot notes in a recent published article on the Guardian:
"As one the graphs King displayed demonstrated, and as the UN and independent scientists predict, the world's population is expected to peak at around 9 billion by 2060 and then to decline to around 8.5 billion by 2100.
Of course the bisophere can ill-afford to carry these numbers, and they will load an extra 40 or 50% of pressure onto every environmental constraint. It's an issue, in other words. But the issue?
Until the recession struck, the global rate of economic growth was 3.8%. The world's governments hope and pray that we'll be back on this track as soon as possible. Population, of course, is one of the components of economic growth, but the global population growth rate is currently 1.2%.
It's responsible, in other words, for one-third of normal economic growth. The rest is supplied by rising consumption. Consumption, on this measure, bears twice as much responsibility for pressure on resources and ecosystems as population growth."
Let's take a look at the ecological footprint between developing countries and developed countries in the West. An ecological footprint is the estimate on how much land is required to provide you and me with food and other resources as well as cleaning up our pollution. The global average ecological footprint is 2.7 hectares per person.
Sweden, my own country, has an ecological footprint of 5.1 hectares. The UK is on 5.3. Australia has 7.8 and Canada has an average of 7.1 hectares. The United Arab Emirates and the United States of America are on the top spot with an ecological footprint of 9.5 and 9.4. Developing countries such as China only has an ecological footprint of 2.1 hectares while India is on 0.9. And most countries in Africa are around or below 1.0 hectares.
Pearce gives even more examples of unfair consumption between the rich and poor countries:
"Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance."
"Just five countries are likely to produce most of the world's population growth in the coming decades: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians."
"A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will still do less damage, and consume fewer resources, than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Munich. In the unlikely event that her ten children live to adulthood and have ten children of their own, the entire clan of more than a hundred will still be emitting less carbon dioxide than you or I."
Just like Monbiot and Pearce claims overpopulation is not the problem. Even if we were to get a zero population growth around the world it wouldn't help us against the climate crisis. Instead the overconsumption among the rich few in the world is the main problem which we must deal with.
Climate Progress writes: "To avoid catastrophic global warming impacts, the rich countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% to 90% by mid-century. The developing countries (not including China) mostly must slow emissions growth, peak by mid-century, then decline - while ending the vast majority of deforestation by 2020. China must peak its emissions by 2020 and then reduce after that, first slowly, then quickly by mid-century."
Overpopulation is only seen as a major problem because it's the only thing we in the West can blame the developing countries for.