The Elephant In The Greenhouse


In proposing CO2 reductions of between 5 and 15 per cent, the Rudd Government caved in to an industry lobbying campaign unlike any this country has ever seen .

After releasing its White Paper on the matter, one of the ways the Government has sought to justify this target was by citing our relatively high projected population growth. The argument goes that it’s easy for Europe to cut total emissions by a higher figure because their populations aren’t growing. So our unconditional cut of 5 per cent will mean a higher per capita cut for each Australian than a similar cut would mean to each European.

According to Rudd, the option of a 25 per cent reduction for Australia in the context of a wider international agreement was rejected because "[if]the Europeans were to embrace the same per capita obligations that we’re about to embrace, then you’d be seeing European reductions of the vicinity of 30 per cent."

Consistent with this claim, the White Paper states that the 15 per cent cut in Australia’s emissions is equivalent to a 34 per cent cut in per capita emissions. Similar calculations show the 25 per cent cut to be equivalent to a 42 per cent cut in per capita terms, in both cases assuming a projected population of 24.6 million in 2020.

But the problem with Rudd’s argument is that it takes our future population as a given.

This 2020 population projection amounts to as much as a 44 per cent increase on the 1990 level, or a 29 per cent increase on the 2000 level. The Bureau of Statistics projects that by 2056, Australia’s expected resident population (ERP) could be between 31 and 43 million people

As others, including author Jared Diamond have argued, these are extraordinarily high figures for a fragile land under increasing stress. It is time to have a proper debate about the nexus between population and climate change.

Clearly, a lower projected population growth to 2020 and beyond would ease Australia’s burden in meeting a tighter emission target. But what Rudd’s rationale for a 15 per cent maximum cut does is ignore the fact that we are making climate change decisions in the absence of an explicit Australian population policy that is developed with an awareness of the country’s limited carrying capacity, especially in the context of climate change that may already be inevitable.

Prominent environmentalists such as Ian Lowe and Tim Flannery have long argued the ecological dangers of excessive population growth, not least as one major determinant of unsustainable forms of economic growth.

There are certainly those who are engaged with the climate debate, but who do not see population as one of its big issues. In his comments on the deficiencies of the White Paper, Ross Garnaut says:

"Our population grows strongly because, for good reasons, we choose to keep our doors open to people from many lands. Our new citizens need transport, a home with Australian accompaniments and access to employment income — all of which generate greenhouse gas emissions."

Some other environmentalists (such as George Monbiot) also discount population growth as an issue comparable to, and relevant to the excesses of consumerism, or affluenza.

Indeed, confronting the role of population growth in climate change, whether due to natural increase or to immigration, in Australia as elsewhere, is difficult for many reasons, political as well as technical. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid the issue.

Globally, with respect to natural population increase, it is generally agreed that improved living standards, personal security and education, and especially the empowerment of women, tend to reduce family sizes. But population growth will also depend upon factors such as longevity, which in many places is increasing.

The population issue raises ethical questions about the relative condition of different populations in the context of a changing climate (adding to those that we are already familiar with around inter-generational justice). The scenarios of dangerous climate change show that affluent states can impose burdens on the less affluent majority of the world’s population, and will most likely have significant impacts on immigration and population movements.

On the extreme isolationist and elitist right-wing of environmentalism is Garrett Hardin’s notion of "lifeboat ethics"  This envisages the inhabitants of affluent states, having heedlessly created a global environmental crisis such as dangerous climate change, then withdrawing behind their own borders to repel environmental refugees by all means deemed necessary. The image is of a lifeboat that will capsize if too many boarders are admitted.

As we begin to ask these questions, climate change denialists and the "adaptation only" policy pessimists alike can offer only a business-as-usual scenario, both groups failing to support strong abatement of global greenhouse gas emissions. In such a business-as-usual scenario, the affluent states — having predominantly caused the problem — can use their wealth to adapt to such climate change as impacts on their own regions, at the same time choosing to ignore the consequences for the more vulnerable and less self-reliant rest of the world.

Repelling environmental refugees by force — the lifeboat image — is just one component of such a business-as-usual strategy, albeit one rarely highlighted publicly. The Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer has documented military establishments around the affluent world more-or-less secretively planning for just such an eventuality.

Whatever their views on population policy, part of the reason that progressive environmentalists push for sufficient action on abatement of global greenhouse gas emissions is precisely so that such a Hardin scenario, catastrophic for human civilisation and humane values, will not come about.

With all of this in mind, there are two main points to make here. First, the Rudd Government’s rejection of the 25 per cent reduction proposed in the Garnaut report is reprehensible. This is especially so in a political sense, with the Government having rejected any notion of working with the Greens on the issue, instead openly seeking to negotiate just with the Coalition — a strategy that risks even further dilution of targets, and offers little prospect of dividing the Coalition — who are the main political adversary to useful action on the issue.

Second, Rudd’s population gambit has, if inadvertently, highlighted the role of population growth, not least in magnifying greenhouse gas emissions. The Rudd Government, like many of its recent predecessors, has sought to keep population policy off the agenda. Unfortunately, this is an issue we no longer have the luxury of avoiding.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.