News & Media Opinion Pieces Food, Population Policy and Climate Change

Food, Population Policy and Climate Change

Walking to the shops instead of driving would seem to be one way that each of us can reduce our greenhouse emissions. Unfortunately, your emissions may be less if you take the car. If you take your family in the car as well then greenhouse will benefit even more. This seems counterintuitive. The reason is that if you eat an average Australian diet with meat and dairy, the calories you use walking to the shops will probably create more greenhouse emissions than driving. If you grow your own food, don’t use fertiliser, collect your rainwater and are mainly vegetarian then definitely walk to the shops.

A calculation given in “How to live a low carbon life” is as follows. Walking three miles uses about 180 calories. Assuming you don’t want to lose weight, would mean eating about 100 g of beef. This would generate 3.6 kg of emissions in its production. Driving the 3 miles instead (the calculations were made in the UK) with an average car generates 0.87 kg of emissions. So if you are sparing on the meat you may have a choice of car or walk.

Our latest DEA poster recommends walking in preference to driving for many other reasons, particularly health, but the above oversimplified example illustrates the difficulty in making recommendations when there are a large number of variables. A more logical approach would be to recognise the huge production of emissions from Western diet food chains and in relation to this the emission production by beef quoted above does not include all the trimmings—transport, slaughter, packaging, cold storage etc and to radically change our lifestyle. An even more logical approach would be not to exist as a consumer of food and everything else. The crux of the problem is the number of people on the earth. Since it is not suggested that you make the ultimate sacrifice to terminate your emissions immediately, then you must consider accepting some responsibility for your procreation.

World population

UN Environment Program has issued its fourth Global Environmental Outlook. In the past twenty years world population has increased by 34 percent from 5 billion to 6.7 billion. The human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns. We are living on capital.

Much of this ‘natural’ capital upon which so much of human well being and economic activity depends—water, land, the air and atmosphere, biodiversity and marine resources—continue their seemingly inexorable decline. Suffice it to say that our future health and well being depends on the restoration of balance between resources and consumption. This imbalance is reflected in the environmental footprint of the world’s population which is now close to 22 hectares per person whereas the biological carrying capacity of the planet is somewhere between 15 and 16 hectares per person.

Population and Poznan

Population wasn’t on the Agenda in Poznan. the U.N.’s top climate official Yvo de Boer said “A lot of people say population pressure is a major driving force behind the increase in emissions, and that’s absolutely true but to then say ‘OK, that means that we need to have a population policy that reduces emissions,’ takes you onto shaky ground morally.”

Various arguments were used to avoid addressing population control policies; family sizes are reducing any way; Africa with the largest families has very low emissions; lessons in India and China have produced concerns of coercion; developing countries see population policy as a Western driven policy mechanism to control them.

US, UK and Australia: Responsible policies?

This raises the question as to what can be done and attention must be turned to those Western high consumption countries where population growth will make it very difficult to reduce greenhouse emissions significantly. By 2050 the US population will have increased by 45 per cent from today’s 302 million. In Australia the present population of 21M is projected to increase to 35M by 2056. In the UK, the population is 61M projected to reach 71M by 2031 and 100M by the end of the century. What is the population policy in these countries? In the US there is no official policy for containment. Australia –no official policy but incentives and statements like Treasurer Peter Costello’s widely publicized sound bite ‘If you can have children it’s a good thing to do–you should have one for the father, one for the mother and one for the country” suggests a policy of increase. Strategic plans of State governments also depend upon population increase. There is no population policy in the UK despite this country being able to supply only 30 percent of its food and essential resources. But there is one ray of hope “This government isn’t going to allow the population to go up to 70 million” new Immigration Minister Phil Woolas announced in an interview with The Times on 18 October 2008.

The Moral Excuse

Let us return to Yvo de Boer’s excuse of “shaky ground morally”. It implies that it is morally correct in terms of human rights to allow every couple to produce as many children as they wish and this carries human rights precedence over the misery, starvation and death from lack of food resources in many countries. How can educational programs that explain the consequences of population growth be on shaky moral ground? The truth of the matter is that elected representatives don’t want to get into this issue for personal or elective reasons. And de Boer recognises this but cannot say so.

More information

UN information on national policies

Sustainable Population Australia

Optimum Population Trust UK


David Shearman