The New Zealand Herald

GROWING PAINS Why family size matters

Beating climate change is a global team effort, which starts with government­s and polluting industries - but we can all play a part. In the fourth of a series from the upcoming book Climate Aotearoa: What’s happening and what we can do about it, Herald sc

- Jamie Morton This extract series continues tomorrow, as part of the Herald’s Covering Climate Now coverage, with a look at population.

Being more mindful of what we eat and buy, how much power we use and how often we fly or drive is one thing. But one climate-driven movement is taking action to a new extreme: opting against having children.

One small but headline-grabbing group based in the United Kingdom, dubbed BirthStrik­e, describes itself as a “radical acknowledg­ement that our planet has entered a sixth Mass Extinction event due to man-made impacts on the environmen­t”.

The group points out that it respects other people’s wishes to have children, and isn’t calling for population control at the expense of climate action, but is merely taking the step itself.

So does family size matter? Scientists indeed say human population growth is intangibly linked to the mass-extinction event the group mentions.

In fact, it’s one of the largest ever recorded in the Earth’s history, threatenin­g a million species of plants and animals, and often discussed by heavyweigh­t naturalist­s such as Dame Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborou­gh.

The idea gained further weight when influentia­l US Congresswo­man Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told her Instagram followers in February 2019: “There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult — is it still ok to have children?”

In the last major assessment by the United Nations’ Intergover­nmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it was estimated that global carbon dioxide emissions might be lowered by nearly a third if contracept­ion was available to all women who expressed a need for it. Another study, published by Sweden’s University of Lund and Canada’s University of British Columbia in 2017, found that the single most effective measure an individual in the developed world could take to cut their carbon emissions over the long term was to have one less child.

In fact, their study establishe­d that this step was 25 times more effective than the next most effective measure — living without a car.

Dramatical­ly, a group of environmen­tal scientists have argued that societies should embrace population ageing, as is being experience­d in New Zealand, and even decline.

They cited multiple reports of the socio-economic and environmen­tal benefits of population ageing, while pointing out that smaller population­s made for more sustainabl­e societies.

That sentiment also rings true in the IPCC’s most recent report, which warns that high population growth will be a “key impediment” to hitting the critical target of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

Those nations with massive population­s, such as India and China, are among the most significan­t contributo­rs to climate change overall, despite relatively low impacts from each individual.

While India and China have reasonably low population growth, it’s expected that people born today in countries whose population­s are still expanding rapidly will have a climate impact for generation­s to come.

It might be argued that slowing population growth is already happening here in New Zealand — but not for environmen­tal reasons.

Population growth since 2013 has been dominated by net migration, rather than the number of births, which, before the Covid-19 pandemic, had been running relatively steady at about 60,000 a year despite a decline in birth rates.

In other words, the number of births for every 1000 people is falling — but the growing population means total births remain at relatively high levels, reaching a recent peak of almost 65,000 per year in the period from 2007 to 2010.

However, New Zealand’s total fertility rate in 2017 was down to 1.8 births per woman, its lowest recorded level. In any case, many environmen­talists argue that focusing too much on population distracts us from tackling the root causes of the ecological crisis we’ve created.

The global network behind the most commonly used indicator of our impact on the world, the ecological footprint, calculates that humans are chewing up natural resources about 1.7 times faster than they can be regenerate­d.

Even if everyone lived like people in supposedly “clean and green” New Zealand, which in 2012 had the 31st highest ecological footprint out of 188 countries, we’d need about 2.8 Earths to sustain our consumptio­n.

As Climate Change Minister James Shaw has pointed out, 18 countries managed to slash their emissions between 2005 and 2015, even while their population­s and economies grew over the same period of time.

“So while there’s obviously a correlatio­n between population growth and use of resources, particular­ly in wealthier countries which, like New Zealand, have the highest per capita emissions, the evidence shows that it is possible to decouple emissions growth from population and economic growth,” he said.

“The main challenge lies in adopting new technologi­es and business models and in being far more efficient with resources, which New Zealand has, so far, been slow to get started on.”

Put another way: people might be the problem, but we’re also the solution.

 ??  ?? Read Jamie Morton’s Q&As with climate change experts at nzherald.co.nz/nz/ environmen­t H
Read Jamie Morton’s Q&As with climate change experts at nzherald.co.nz/nz/ environmen­t H
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