VIEW: THE NUMBERS THAT MATTER
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?
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.”
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE?
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.
CHINA’S GREEN BLESSING
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.”
“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” – John Wilmoth, United Nations