United Na­tions Pop­u­la­tion Di­vi­sion Di­rec­tor John Wilmoth sits on the world’s most im­por­tant pop­u­la­tion data­base. His main worry: can hu­man­ity re­act to the chal­lenge of cli­mate change cre­ated by our in­cred­i­ble growth story?

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY ROBERT DE­LANEY

John Wil­moth sits on the world’s most im­por­tant pop­u­la­tion data­base

When it comes to ad­dress­ing global cli­mate change, the emer­gence of an enor­mous mid­dle class in both China and In­dia is hu­man­ity’s great­est threat and op­por­tu­nity. So says the per­son man­ag­ing the most im­por­tant de­mo­graphic data­base in pre­dict­ing the de­gree to which hu­man ac­tiv­ity will al­ter our cli­mate, a data set ar­guably as crit­i­cal as geo­phys­i­cal read­ings col­lected by earth sci­en­tists.

“De­mo­graphic trends are among the most sta­ble of any­thing in the so­cial world,” said John Wil­moth, di­rec­tor of pop­u­la­tion di­vi­sion of the United Na­tions’ depart­ment of eco­nomic and so­cial af­fairs.

Wil­moth is still sweat­ing from the bi­cy­cle ride in to his of­fice, from the west side of Man­hat­tan to the UN’S head­quar­ters on the east side of the is­land. The de­mog­ra­pher, whose long ca­reer in the dis­ci­pline in­cludes a stint as a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, claims to have been the first to sign up

for New York City’s bike shar­ing ser­vice. His affin­ity for the bi­cy­cle de­rives in part from his con­cern about global warm­ing.

“We have es­ti­mates from 1950 to the pre­sent and pro­jec­tions from the pre­sent out to 2100, which is a long time­frame by any rea­son­able stan­dard when you’re talk­ing about pre­dict­ing the fu­ture or mak­ing any state­ment about what’s likely to hap­pen in the fu­ture,” he says.

Wil­moth says the key un­der­ly­ing pop­u­la­tion is­sue is the de­mo­graphic tran­si­tion brought about by the “near-elim­i­na­tion of pre­ma­ture death.” This sci­en­tific and med­i­cal suc­cess led to rapid pop­u­la­tion growth since the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury be­cause the de­cline in the birth rate lagged be­hind the de­cline in the death rate.

There is a wide vari­ance in where dif­fer­ent coun­tries and re­gions are in this tran­si­tion. It’s only just start­ing in Africa, which is why the con­ti­nent will show the world’s largest pop­u­la­tion growth in the next 50 years. China mean­while has al­ready com­pleted the tran­si­tion be­cause of the onechild pol­icy it had in place from 1980 to 2016, when it was re­placed with a two-child pol­icy.

The neg­a­tive side ef­fect of this med­i­cal suc­cess story has been en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, and Wil­moth says he wor­ries about how com­mit­ted the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­tries are to a co­or­di­nated, in­ter­na­tional re­sponse to cli­mate change, par­tic­u­larly the US in the wake of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s with­drawal from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, as well as pol­icy shifts in favour of fos­sil fuel in­dus­tries.

As mid­dle class pop­u­la­tions ex­plode in China and In­dia, which col­lec­tively ac­count for one of ev­ery three hu­mans, so do the stakes when it comes to cli­mate sta­bil­ity.

“If you get it wrong there, the risk is so much greater be­cause of the larger pop­u­la­tions.”

The mid­dle class can be de­fined in many ways, but per­haps the most widely ac­cepted defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic, if not the most pre­cise, is that those in this de­mo­graphic buy a lot of stuff. The pro­duc­tion and trans­port of the stuff they buy and eat (meth­ane emis­sions from live­stock ac­count for about half of the at­mo­sphere’s green­house gases) fig­ure as key com­po­nents in the cal­cu­lus of cli­mate change.

So for any­one in­volved in con­ser­va­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion on a global ba­sis, mid­dle class de­mo­graph­ics, par­tic­u­larly in emerg­ing mar­kets, is key.

The pace of ur­ban­i­sa­tion of­fers one view into the ex­tent of mid­dle class growth. Stand­ing at roughly 50:50 now, China’s ur­ban pop­u­la­tion will climb to nearly 80 per cent of the whole by 2050,

ac­cord­ing to pro­jec­tions pub­lished by Wil­moth’s di­vi­sion. In­dia’s city dwellers, mean­while, will ac­count for about half of the coun­try’s peo­ple in 2050, up from about 30 per cent now.

More­over, China and In­dia will ac­count for more than half of the world’s mid­dle class con­sump­tion by 2050, up from less than 20 per cent at the pre­sent, ac­cord­ing to data pub­lished by the Wash­ing­ton-based Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion this year.

“The cre­ation of a strong mid­dle class is a pre-con­di­tion for an en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment. You don’t have strong green move­ments in poor coun­tries. They don’t have time for that be­cause they’re more wor­ried about feed­ing them­selves,” Wil­moth says.

But he adds that the jury is out on whether a larger mid­dle class in China and In­dia – where gov­ern­ments have made “very con­certed and suc­cess­ful ef­forts to catch up” with the de­vel­oped economies of the US and Europe – will sup­port ef­forts to cap the rise in global tem­per­a­tures.

“A pop­u­lar push for en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble pol­icy slowly catch­ing on across the mid­dle class in China and In­dia could be enor­mously in­flu­en­tial, but it may just be in­flu­en­tial in terms of coun­ter­ing the neg­a­tive ef­fects of greater con­sump­tion. Whether there’s a net ben­e­fit is very hard to say.” And there’s worse. “I’m not sure that we’re there yet in the Western coun­tries,” Wil­moth says, “so I don’t think we should ex­pect more from In­dia and China.”


Start­ing in the 1970s, the US made sig­nif­i­cant progress in clean­ing its air and wa­ter. The Chicago River and other wa­ter­ways in the Great Lakes re­gion, for ex­am­ple, caught fire reg­u­larly be­cause of ex­ces­sive in­dus­trial runoff. Burn­ing rivers sparked a widely sup­ported back­lash that prompted lo­cal gov­ern­ments to crack down on pol­luters. That push has for the most part kept in­ci­dents of en­vi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion from re­cur­ring.

is a world leader on these is­sues right now. They’ve stepped up and they’re try­ing to fill some of the void cre­ated by the US un­der the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion.” Wil­moth makes his po­si­tion clear when it comes to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stance on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues: “I be­lieve in sci­ence.”

Iron­i­cally for some­one who di­rects the world’s most im­por­tant pop­u­la­tion data­base, Wil­moth says pop­u­la­tion con­trol won’t be the most im­por­tant or ef­fec­tive way to solve the cli­mate change co­nun­drum. Mea­sures aimed at curb­ing births, par­tic­u­larly those that are un­wanted or un­planned, should be part of the ef­fort to re­duce en­vi­ron­men­tal bur­dens. Gov­ern­ments must do more to give their cit­i­zens ac­cess to birth con­trol and fam­ily plan­ning, Wil­moth says, but there are lim­its to how much bu­reau­crats can do to stem pop­u­la­tion growth be­fore it in­vites a back­lash.

Wil­moth’s back­ground as a pro­fes­sor comes through as he makes his point with a chal­leng­ing ques­tion: “Would you rather the gov­ern­ment tell you that you can’t have a car, or that you can’t have a child?”

Tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion will be the most ef­fec­tive ways to ad­dress the fac­tors driv­ing cli­mate change. By those mea­sures, China could emerge as the world’s most im­por­tant fac­tor in the ef­fort to rein in green­house gas emis­sions.


The cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bei­jing is mo­bil­is­ing some RMB 2.2 tril­lion (HK$2.6 tril­lion) as part of a 10year plan to boost in­no­va­tion in 10 strate­gic sec­tors. In May 2015, the State Coun­cil an­nounced its “Made in China 2025” plan – also known as MIC 2025 – iden­ti­fy­ing ten pri­or­ity sec­tors in­clud­ing In­ter­net of Things (IOT) tech­nolo­gies.

Slammed by some groups as be­ing an un­fair state sub­sidi­s­a­tion of Chi­nese com­pa­nies that are also com­pet­ing glob­ally (the US Cham­ber of Com­merce has been the most vo­cal in this), MIC 2025 would at the same time please en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. IOT in par­tic­u­lar en­ables ve­hi­cles and ma­chines to run more ef­fi­ciently by sens­ing when they need ser­vice, re­place­ment, or some other kind of tweak. More ad­vanced lev­els of IOT tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions will han­dle equip­ment op­ti­mi­sa­tion au­to­mat­i­cally. When de­ployed over many fa­cil­i­ties or fleets, IOT tech­nol­ogy can in­crease ef­fi­ciency and thus re­duce emis­sions for en­tire in­dus­tries.

IOT tech­nol­ogy is driven by low-cost semi­con­duc­tors, and China’s MIC 2025 plan in­cludes an “In­te­grated Cir­cuit Fund”, which will al­lo­cate as much as US$161 bil­lion to de­velop chips through merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions (M&A) and in­vest­ment.

“There are many more re­al­is­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties on the side of con­sump­tion than on pop­u­la­tion,” Wil­moth says. “Choices about which sources of en­ergy to sup­port through reg­u­la­tory change or tax­a­tion. Also find­ing tech­nolo­gies that pro­duce the same ef­fect or what­ever you’re try­ing to ac­com­plish and do­ing it with a tech­nol­ogy that’s cleaner and has less en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact. Those have the most im­pact.”

China’s well-doc­u­mented pol­lu­tion prob­lems – be it with the air, soil, wa­ter or some com­bi­na­tion thereof – have pushed the cen­tral gov­ern­ment to the fore­front of ef­forts to ad­dress en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems from the lo­cal level to cli­mate change.

One made-in-china so­lu­tion to cut down tailpipe emis­sions has al­ready landed on US shores. Ofo, main­land China’s bike-shar­ing ser­vice, started op­er­a­tions in Seat­tle this sum­mer. Ofo pi­o­neered sta­tion-free bike shar­ing as a way to give the ser­vice more flex­i­bil­ity. If Ofo spreads to the US east coast, the com­pany might ad­dress Wil­moth’s com­plaint, and those of many who use New York’s Citi Bike ser­vice, that a lack of dock­ing sta­tions of­ten makes us­age of the ser­vice in­con­ve­nient.

Where In­dia fig­ures in terms of tech­nol­ogy and reg­u­la­tions that will ad­dress cli­mate change isn’t as clear, Wil­moth says. “We can hope that In­dia will step up and play a lead­er­ship role in these ar­eas as well. It has po­ten­tial, but it’s not quite at the in­come level yet where you might ex­pect that. It has a per­capita in­come that’s only about half of China and 10 per cent of the US.”

He stresses, though, that while China and In­dia are key to our cli­mate fu­ture, the ef­fort to pro­tect our en­vi­ron­ment shouldn’t stop with them. “We’ve cleaned up the cities. We’ve made life much more live­able, and it shows up in the health and the longevity of the pop­u­la­tion, but now there’s a need for sol­i­dar­ity and joint ac­tion on a global scale.”


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