Population growth driving climate change, poverty: experts

PARIS — Unchecked population growth is speeding climate change, damaging life-nurturing ecosystems and dooming many countries to poverty, experts concluded in a conference report released Monday.

Unless birth rates are lowered sharply through voluntary family-planning programmes and easy access to contraceptives, the tally of humans on Earth could swell to an unsustainable 11 billion by 2050, they warned.

The UN currently projects that global population will rise from 6.8 billion today to between 8.0 and 10.5 billion by mid-century.

The researchers said that with one and a half million more humans climbing aboard the planet every week, a recipe is looming for ecological overload, famine and broken states.

"Continued rapid population growth in many of the least developed countries could lead to hunger, a failure of education and conflict," said Malcolm Potts at the University of California in Berkeley, which hosted the conference in February.

The papers, authored by 42 specialists in environmental science, economics and demography, are published by the Royal Society, Britain's de-facto academy of sciences.

"There is no doubt that the current rate of human population growth is unsustainable," summarised Roger Short, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

"The inexorable increase in human numbers is exhausting conventional energy supplies, accelerating environmental pollution and global warming and providing an increasing number of failed states where civil unrest prevails."

Ninety-eight percent of the expected population growth will occur in developing countries, especially in Africa, where numbers are set to double to almost two billion by 2050.

"How Niger is going to feed a population growing from 11 million today to 50 million in 2050 in a semi-arid country that may be facing adverse climate (change) is unclear," said Adair Turner, a member of Britain's House of Lords.

The population of Uganda was five million in 1950, is 25 million today and could reach 127 million by 2050, Turner said.

Concern about population growth is not new.

It was most famously articulated by a British mathematician, Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 -- when Earth was home to about one billion -- calculated that exponential growth would inevitably lead to famine.

Malthus's dire warning was widely taken seriously until the advent of mechanised farming. The surge in food productivity, helped by the Green Revolution of the 1960s, gave the impression that Earth's bounty was limitless.

But relentlessly rising demand, diminishing farmland, depleted fish stocks, falling water tables and the threat of climate change have in recent years placed the Malthusian dilemma back on the table.

In their overview, the authors say that even though the burden of excess population is clear, controversy and taboo stalk the question of how to tackle it.

Some objections, such as the Roman Catholic Church's ban on birth control, are religious.

But the question has been ignored or sidelined in the secular arena too, the authors said.

Population control, for example, did not figure among the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, though it was added later "as an afterthought," said Short.

One reason has been the family planning programmes in China and India that critics say veered into forced sterilisations and coercive abortions, breaching human rights.

The researchers acknowledged these problems but also pointed out that without its "one-child" policy, China would have an extra 300 to 400 million mouths to feed today.

There would be double the number of young people, from 20 to 40 million, who enter the Chinese job market each year.

The researchers agreed with the widely held belief that improving economic conditions generally lead to lower birth rates.

But, they argue, smaller families also lead to greater prosperity, and this can be helped by programmes that are voluntary and inexpensive.

Some 80 million pregnancies -- nearly 40 percent of the total each year -- are unplanned. More than half of those unwanted pregnancies will result in abortion, with five million women suffering severe complications or death.

"Much more emphasis need to be given to meeting the need for family planning -- all women should be protected from unintended childbirth," they said in a collective editorial.