Population Matters

“Stop at two children to halt climate change”

“Stop at two children to halt climate change”

Think of the number of children you are planning to have – and if it’s more than two, think again. Stopping at two children is probably the most effective action people can take to halt climate change, according to the Optimum Population Trust.

To coincide with World Population Day (Tuesday, July 11, 2006), the OPT is launching its Green Planet web petition, asking people to support the idea of a national population policy that could see the UK’s population reducing from over 60 million today to no more than 55 million by 2050. The UK’s mid-century population is currently projected to be 68-69 million. The policy envisaged would thus result in some 13-14 million fewer people in 2050 – the equivalent of two cities the size of London.

The petition follows this week’s (July 4) indication by Tony Blair, in reply to a question by Labour MP Tony Wright during the Prime Minister’s annual appearance before the Commons liaison committee of select committee chairmen, that the Government did not have or need a population policy. OPT believes this is short-sighted and irresponsible and ignores the contribution a reducing population could make to stabilising the Earth’s atmosphere.

Each new human will burn a substantial amount of fossil fuels during their lifetime: he or she thus carries a carbon footprint that contributes significantly to climate change. Limiting one’s family size to two children, or having one child fewer than planned, would thus have a much more rapid and dramatic effect than waiting for Governments to act on climate change.

Figures released today by the OPT highlight the links between human population and climate.* They show that:

  • Every additional Briton will “burn” during their lifetime roughly the same amount of carbon as is found in a hectare of old-growth oak woodland – an area about three quarters the size of a Premiership football pitch or 50 average-sized UK gardens.
  • The UK’s projected population increase of 10.5 million by 2074 will thus have the same impact on the climate as burning an area of oak woodland bigger than the total area of Scotland and Wales combined, and nearly four times the size of the UK’s current woodland cover (2.8 m hectares).
  • Population increase since 1990 accounts for almost three-quarters of the Government’s projected failure to reach its target of cutting carbon dioxide levels by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. The likely shortfall is 9.4 per cent. The extra carbon dioxide generated by population growth since 1990 accounts for nearly three quarters of the shortfall. Without population growth the Government would have been within 2.6 per cent of its target.
  • Projected world population growth to over nine billion by 2050 means that the UK will then have to reduce its carbon emissions by 90 per cent if fossil fuel use is spread equally between nations. This would mean reducing British emissions to slightly below the current average for the whole of Africa.– or to the levels currently obtaining in countries such as Peru, Albania, Tajikistan and Western Sahara.
  • Projected population increase in the UK to 70.7 million by 2074 means that every Briton will have to reduce their per capita emissions by 17 per cent for the country as a whole merely to “stand still” in emissions terms. For comparison, the UK managed to reduce its emissions by only 5.5 per cent below 1990 levels during the period 1990-2005, despite highly favourable conditions such as the shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation.
  • The world could support a population of only 2.2 billion people living a European lifestyle based on renewable energy.

Commenting on the figures, Prof John Guillebaud, OPT co-chair, said: “Climate change is now widely regarded as the biggest problem facing the planet but most of the solutions seem to involve national or international agreements that look as far away as ever. Meanwhile we’re nearing the point of no return and people are feeling increasingly desperate and helpless.

“The answer lies in our own hands. We’re simply failing to acknowledge the link between human numbers and global warming. We have to recognise that the biggest cause of climate change is climate changers – in other words, human beings, in the UK as well as abroad – so deciding to stop at two, or at least to have one child less, is probably the simplest, quickest and most significant thing any of us could do to leave a sustainable and habitable planet for our children and grandchildren.”

OPT’s Green Planet Petition – the Really Big Ask calls on the UK to set an example to the world by adopting a national population policy – aimed, first, at stabilising and decreasing numbers to what is environmentally sustainable in the UK itself and, second, maintaining them at that level (zero population growth). It says a reduction to 55 million is achievable by 2050 although ecological footprinting studies suggest that a genuinely sustainable population for the UK may eventually be 20-30 million. The UK’s population is currently over 60 million and is projected to rise to 70.7 million by 2074.**

Despite rising numbers – world population is set to increase by 40 per cent to over 9 billion by 2050 – population “has become the issue no one wants to talk about, ignored by governments, politicians, environmental groups and the media because it’s too ‘sensitive’,” the petition adds.

Friends of the Earth has already launched The Big Ask climate change petition. Prof Guillebaud added: “We have called our petition the Really Big Ask because we appreciate that restraining human numbers and having fewer children may seem a bigger challenge to many people than year-on-year cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, which is what Friends of the Earth are calling for. Cuts in emissions are obviously important, but if we’re serious about halting climate change, reducing our own numbers will have a much more fundamental effect than trying to change our technologies. In terms of the impact on our lifestyles – which, if we are honest, few of us want to change in the way global warming suggests we need to – it could actually prove much less traumatic.”

OPT’s new briefing sheet, Climate Change and Population – Links and Trade-Offs, shows some of the relationships between emissions of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, and population levels.


*For further detail, plus references and sources, see Climate Change and Population – Links and Trade-Offs .

**Fertility rates in the UK are currently over 1.7 children per woman, below the replacement level of 2.1. Reduction to below 55 million generally assumes slightly lower fertility rates but will also depend on levels of immigration, which accounts for over 80 per cent of projected UK population growth. (Office of National Statistics).

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