Is Birth Control the Cheapest Answer to Climate Change?


Image credit: Sabianmaggy, used under Creative Commons license.

From overpopulation as the elephant in the room, to the idea that less sex and more TV might be the answer to India's growing birth rate, overpopulation isn't exactly a taboo subject here on TreeHugger—but it doesn't get anywhere near the attention of, say, wind energy, electric cars, or the amazing biodiversity of compost. All that has to change, says Peter Preston over at The Guardian, if we are to have any hope of tackling the threat of climate change. In an article on why the human numbers don't add up on climate change, Preston first notes that saving the planet feels a little bit like last year's news these days. With students rioting in the streets over tuition fees, and the latest climate talks barely warranting a mention in the media, he does have a point. But the problem is deeper than just a lack of attention or interest in the topic, argues Preston, it is also the fact that the debate over climate change focuses on energy, but does not register when it comes to some of the most important societal debates of our time. Take the UK's struggle over child benefits, for example:

"In a rational world - of the kind passionately championed by Jonathon Porritt and his Forum for the Future - no system would pay you more government money to have more children. Child benefit is the absolute logical opposite of what's needed. Do we want a UK population spurting to 77 million before we're halfway through this century? Do we want Britain to add an extra 1,000 a day? It isn't immigration that's principally fuelling such figures any longer: it's "natural change" (aka known as births against deaths). Yet the furore that greets any shrinkage in benefit range or cash signally fails to register population impact. It's as though the issue doesn't exist."

Of course not everyone thinks that overpopulation is the environmental issue that Preston makes it out to be. As Brian noted so excellently in his piece on whether overpopulation is a green myth, there is an ongoing battle raging between those who believe that less people equals less emissions is a pretty compelling equation, versus those who argue that it is primarily an excuse for affluent nations to ignore the issue of consumption.

I must admit I get a little frustrated at these kind of either/or comparisons. Surely tackling consumption and energy use, and ensuring sustainable population levels, are not mutually exclusive strategies? We already know that investing in education is one of the best ways to lower birth rates, and given all the other benefits such an approach has to offer, it seems crazy not to include its impact on population levels too when we decide where to invest our efforts. In fact, says Preston, from a simple cost-benefit standpoint, tackling overpopulation might be one of the most effective ways to cut emissions fast:

"China's "one child" policy - which may have stopped 250-400 million births, on official calculations - is not a polite subject for discussion anywhere in the west. Indeed, it's often lumped into Beijing's long list of human rights abuses. David and Sam, Ed and Justine, have their "happy events". Some year soon, perhaps, William and Kate will join in. But set all that alongside some LSE research last year for the Optimum Population Trust. It costs £5 on family planning to abate a tonne of CO2 - against £15 for wind power and £31 for solar power. In short, too many happy events equal global misery. It's the harsh truth where Cancún communiques fall silent."

As a relatively new green dad, I am by no means anti-baby. I love my beautiful little carbon footprint as much as the next parent. And I fully understand that rich, fossil-fuel addicted Westerners have precious little moral high ground from which to lecture the rest of the world. But the idea that discussing how the number of babies we all have impacts our environment, and our society, should somehow be off limits seems like a dangerous concept to me.

It's good to see someone saying what needs to be said.

See our Roundup of The Population Debate

More on Population, Overpopulation and Babies
Quote of the Day: Michael Braungart on Population
Is Overpopulation a Green Myth?
World Population to Hit 7 Billion by 2011
Why Eco-Activists Still Have Children
Ode to Women and Nature: Lessons for a New Green Dad

Tags: Activism | Babies | Economics | Education | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Causes | Poverty

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