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Environmental Priorities

The World is experiencing a global food price crisis which saw prices of wheat rising by 130% in the year to March 2008, and those of soya and rice rising by 87% and 74% respectively over the same period. The consequences of this are real increases of poverty, global inequality and a reduction in life expectancy. Prices have since declined since March, but are still somewhat higher than levels back in 2000.

The causes of this are various, and include the high oil prices of the last few years. However the widespread drive, by many nations, to increase the production of biofuels (which involve turning food into fuel) certainly isn’t helping.

The point here is not to riff on a depressing melody about how the World is slowly starving itself to death through excessive population growth, because it isn’t. Over the last 50 years, while the World’s population has more than doubled (to around 6.5 billion), the food available, per head of population, has kept up and even increased. Instead my point is that while biofuels seem, at a level that appeals to us viscerally, to be a clever way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, in the short-term they cause more harm than good by increasing death rates due to global poverty.

Therefore the question we must ask ourselves is which is the more important problem to address: global inequality today as a result of poverty, or the risk of increased global inequality tomorrow by not adequately addressing the problem of man-made environmental change? Let’s look at this another way. Standards of living and levels of food consumption are a function of the wealth of the nation, and we also know that national wealth is a function of levels of industrialization and economic output. If we then acknowledge that economic growth still, generally speaking, requires increased energy consumption we are faced with the hard fact that reductions in poverty will create increases in CO2 emissions.

Put bluntly, with today’s technology less poverty means more CO2. Placing this in perspective, since 1981 economic growth has reduced the numbers of people living in poverty by a little over half a billion, (or has halved levels of global poverty in comparative terms) at the same time as World population has increased by about 2 billion, from around 4.5 billion in 1980, to around 6.5 billion now. This reduction in poverty has been energized by fossil fuels, and increasing CO2 emissions are the consequence.

Although it is very easy to talk of the World’s “addiction” to fossil fuels and to paint cataclysmic images of global meltdown from out-of-control global warming, but this planet presently forms a home of 6.5 billion people who keep themselves alive using their wit, intellect and, in no small part, the substantial energy resources they have to hand.

Blithely demanding sudden reductions in CO2 emissions without adequately explaining where these reductions will come from may condemn millions of people to poverty and loss of life. Indeed, although we can probably agree that reductions in CO2 emissions are much to be desired, should they be global development priority number one? Is there not a danger that they might instead impede the achievement of other valuable objectives such as the eradication of global poverty?

And there is another thought worth considering. Although the 20th century saw a rapid growth in population, from about 1.7 billion people on 1900, up to 6 billion in 2000 this trend isn’t expected to continue. Preindustrial nations tend to have high birth-rates and high-death rates, giving a low and stable population. As they industrialize and start to experience the benefits of better food and higher standards of living the death-rate drops quickly while the birth-rate diminishes more slowly.

This phase (of high birth rates and low death rates) is associated with the rapidly growing population we have seen in most of the World in the last 150 years. There is a final transition when both the birth rate and the death rates are low, and which is associated with a stable population level. The populations of Europe and Japan have reached this stage (indeed they may even be diminishing) while North America is reaching it (population growth in the US is still driven up by high numbers of immigrants, who also tend to have a higher birth rate).

This suggests that the more quickly countries make the transition to economic affluence, the less time they spend in the hinterland of low death-rate and high birth rate associated with rapid levels of population growth and so the lower their eventual maximum population. So, if measures we implement to stem CO2 emissions in some way slow the rate of economic growth we might inadvertently increase the eventual maximum world population and so actually worsen the long-term drain on the World’s resources!

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