Population and climate change | The Daily Star
11:00 PM, December 20, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:00 PM, December 20, 2009

Population and climate change

THERE are people all around the world -- from the deserts of Sahara where temperature climbs to well over 500C to the permafrost Arctic regions where temperature dips below -500C. Human beings are extremely adaptable animals. But that does not mean that lives in the extremes are comfortable or endurable. The human population had been flourishing on the planet over the past couple of centuries within the comfort zone of 200C to 300/350C, primarily as a result of advances in medical sciences, better health care and enhanced food production. And that is where lies the present problem.
The lives of each one of us are intimately tied to the earth and the resources it provides. The water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breath, the energy we use, the homes we live in are all part of nature's resources. The higher the population, the higher the demand is on these resources. With earth's limited resources (although we may devise more efficient production methods and better utilisation), there is inevitably a shrinkage of resources per head of population.
But when we forcibly extract more resources out of this planet, we come to a point when it becomes unsustainable. We are nearly at this point now. We are using up more resources than we can possibly put back, and virtually decimating nature by massive deforestation, aggressive fishing, unsustainable ground water extraction, etc. In short, we are ravaging the earth for our benefit without any regard to its capacity to maintain its intrinsic climate. As David Attenborough had put it in his Living Earth documentary, the earth is now fighting back for its survival.
The recent spectacle at the COP15 gathering in Copenhagen bears testament to the seriousness of the problem as viewed by the scientific community and the world leaders. The leaders of the world's industrialised, industrialising and fringe population groups wrestled with the climate change problems for 12 days, almost non-stop, but could not come up with an effective solution which would overcome them. Climate change is a serious problem by itself, but now I would like to throw a spanner into the mix -- the problem of over-population.
The root cause of climate change lies not so much in industrialisation, but in sheer number of people undertaking industrialisation at the same time. Every country wants to improve the living standards of its population by offering adequate food, proper housing, education, health care etc., through increasing production and speeding up industrialisation. At the same time, the population in almost every country is increasing and so the economic development must outpace the population growth to have any impact on standard of living.
When pressed at the Copenhagen conference to cut greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission by a certain amount and that the agreed emission reduction must be verifiable, China (the biggest polluter in the world) took exception to it as a blatant attempt by the West to put a stop to its industrialisation process and, by implication, to deny the improvement of living standards of its population.
The US (under George W. Bush) did not sign the Kyoto Protocol because that would deny or curtail the exploitation or exploration of hydrocarbon resources (oil, gas and coal) in America and thereby stunt the growth in living standards of the Americans. The EU, comprising 27countries, has only agreed to cutting emission by 20 percent by 2020 when, it is thought, it would be good for the economy to use renewable sources of energy and that the emission reduction could be managed by technological innovation without risking the living standard of the population.
Neither population nor climatic conditions are static. But the driving force is the population growth, some would even dub it "population explosion." It is obvious that the sheer volume of people would place an unbearable demand on the limited resources of the earth, even though the demands are not uniformly spread across the globe. Let us look at population growth.
At the start of the industrial revolution in Europe, ca 1750, following the discovery of the steam engine, the world population was a meagre 791 million, of which the European population constituted only 20 percent. Between 1750 and 1950, the world population increased by over 215 percent (to 2521 million) and the European population increased by about 235 percent to 547 million. This period also saw the rise of science and technology, which resulted in improved medical science and health care and the corresponding reduction in death rates, child mortality etc. The benefits of these improvements were largely confined to European countries and latterly to North America.
Asian countries had always had a large proportion of world population. In 1750, Asian countries had nearly 63 percent of world population. By 1950, it dropped to about 55 percent, as Europe enjoyed the benefits of industrial revolution, better hygiene, higher standard of living and so forth; whereas much of Asia under the colonial rules of the West was deprived of such benefits.
Since 1950, and particularly after the end of WWII, these industrial benefits started to cascade down to Asian as well as African and Latin American countries. The result was a spectacular increase in population worldwide. Within just 50 years, from 1950 to 2000, the world population increased by 135 percent.
It may be noted that over the last two centuries population increased by 75 percent per century, whereas in 50 years, between 1950 and 2000, the world population more than doubled. This increase was largely driven by the Asian population growth. In fact, Asian population in 2000 recovered to over 60 percent of the world population
With the increased awareness of the impact of population growth, the increase right across the world has been brought down by better education of the population. But once population goes up, it is well nigh impossible to bring it down. The proportional increase may be reduced, but still the sheer number will go up. For example, it is projected that over the next 50-year period, from 2000 to 2050, the world population will increase by 50 percent to 8.9 billion (an increase of 2.8 billion, which is higher that the entire world's population in 1950). During this 50-year period, the Asian population will increase by 45 percent.
What is the implication of population growth on climate change? It should be noted that the European and largely American population, constituting just 17 percent, had virtually completed their industrial processes within the last two and half centuries and now have very high standards of living. The large majority of the world population, over 80 percent (including 60 percent Asian), is now at the threshold of industrialisation.
If a small fraction of the population, numbering 1,000 million, can cause a devastation of the global climate to such an extent as to initiate melting of the ice caps, increases in sea levels etc. due to global warming, what the 80 percent of the population can do if similar industrialisation process is undertaken is simply too awful to contemplate.
It is not the intention at all to advocate restraint by the developing countries from industrialisation, which is an essential step to alleviate the poverty of the masses. But there are other ways to improve the economy of the country and raise the living standards of the population than by following traditional hydrocarbon route to generate energy. For example, the energy need can be adequately met by green energy solutions, which will not only cut the GHG emission but also be sustainable.
Developing countries should seek not the financial handout from the rich developed countries to tackle global warming, but technology transfer so that they can solve their own problems. Of course, there would be an upfront cost for the technology transfer and the development of technological infrastructure. They should seek such assistance, rather than register vociferous demands for hundreds of billions of dollars, as had been done at the Copenhagen meeting.

Dr. A. Rahman is a Chartered Radiation Protection Professional and a Fellow of the British Nuclear Institute. He is also the author of the book Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management.

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