Population is ‘our biggest challenge’ says government chief scientist Sir John Beddington
February 16th 2012
The next world population milestone of 8 billion will come sooner than we think – perhaps as early as 2025 – yet we remain reluctant to debate the issue. A forthcoming Royal Society report may force us to.
While many commentators look ahead to 9 billion by 2050 there is a more immediate statistic that ‘frightens’ the UK government’s chief scientist: 1 billion extra people in the next 13 years. Speaking at a joint WWF and Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) event last week, which looked ahead to the Rio+20 conference in June, John Beddington told an audience that half of that population increase would come from Asia and most of the other half from Africa. Based on the UN’s projections, he said Africa’s population would grow ‘frighteningly fast’ from 1 billion today to 1.5 billion by 2025-2030.
He went on to lament the issue of population as ‘under thought’ and ‘our biggest challenge’ as it exacerbates existing problems over access to water and other resources.
Much of the population increase in Africa and Asia will see more people living in and migrating to areas of environmental risk, such as coastal cities, said Beddington, which as the recent Foresight report on Migration and Environmental Change points out, will put more at risk from flooding and rising sea levels.
Beddington’s protestations are broadly similar to those being made by many others outside government such as Sir David Attenborough, who calls silence over the issue an ‘absurd taboo’.
The silence is echoed across many environmental groups and government policymakers. A new paper by philospher Philip Cafaro, ‘Climate ethics and population policy‘, suggests both have been fearful of wading into a host of contentious ethical issues, including family planning, abortion and immigration. The result has been limited progress in tackling ecological limits to growth and a failure to embrace one of the two primary drivers of climate change, along with consumption.
A new debate on population
Professor Cafaro says it’s time to have a more honest and open debate on population as part of trying to achieve sustainability, the ultimate goal of environmentalists and the Rio+20 conference. ‘Cutting consumption is proving a tall order, with a global economy designed to provide ever more. Even amongst environmentalists we largely live like our fellow citizens. I don’t know what the answer is there? The goal always seems to be to accommodate more people and more economic activity with fewer carbon emissions.’
He also suggests population decline may be as necessary as a decline in consumption in rich countries. ‘Who’s to say that 60 or 65 million is the optimum population of the UK, or 315 million is best for the US? It seems to me we have good evidence that those numbers are ecologically unsustainable.’
For Professor Cafaro these limits may even one day mean constraints on population and consumption. ‘For many people telling them what kind of car to drive or how many children to have will seem an intolerable infringement of their rights. But then we should move expeditiously to put noncoercive or less coercive incentives in place that achieve the desired ends. If these prove insufficient, then we may have to accept stricter limits on our freedom to consume or to have children.’
With a major study by the Royal Society on population and human wellbeing due to be published in April, the debate looks certain to continue.
Read the entire article: The Ecologist
More on this issue: Population
View the forthcoming Royal Society study on people and the planet