Planetary woes

Published November 21, 2022
The writer is researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.
The writer is researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.

THE world’s population hit eight billion on Nov 15, which the United Nations declared as the Day of Eight Billion. Twelve years ago, the population figure passed 7bn. One report in Scientific American noted how it took all of time for the global population to reach 1.6bn; and then it shot to 6.1bn in about 100 years.

There’s been a lot of work by demographers to track population growth.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna in 2018, for example, forecast that the global population would be about 9.5bn in 2100. It is now revising that estimate to between 10bn and 10.1bn. That revision is due to “higher observed and expected survival rates among children in lower-income countries. Another factor is higher estimates of fertility rates in some large countries, including Pakistan”, it says.

Popular theory has long been that population growth contributes to global warming, as more people use fossil fuels to power their lives. More people means more demand for gas, coal, oil and other mined fuels, and therefore more climate change. During the less than a century it took for the population to grow to 6.1bn, emissions of carbon dioxide grew 12-fold according to the aforementioned Scientific American report.

Pakistan can’t pretend it doesn’t have a population problem.

While it makes sense to link overpopulation to climate change — too many people consuming energy — is it fair? And does it absolve developing countries from addressing the very real issue of overpopulation in their countries?

Thomas R. Malthus is often credited for sounding an alarm bell in 1798, when he wrote in an essay about how the earth would not be able to sustain the dizzying speed of a growing population, and it could result in war and famine. The book The Population Bomb in 1968 by Paul and Anne Elrich painted a grim picture of environmental destruction if there was no halt to population growth. Many critics believe such thinking led to the creation of flawed, racist birth control policies in the Global South.

Today, more and more scientists are saying that it’s not a matter of overpopulation but overconsumption. It isn’t the number of people as much as how a small number of those people are causing considerably more than their share of carbon pollution.

The average Canadian, Saudi and Australian put out more than 10 times the carbon dioxide into the air though their daily living than the average Pakistani, according to a report by the Associated Press. Qatar’s per capita emissions are 20 times Pakistan’s, according to the World Bank.

“The question is not about population, but rather about consumption patterns,” climate scientist Bill Hare told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

That’s why climate scientists want people to see who is consuming the most and who pays the price for that consumption.

It is no wonder that climate activists call for rich nations to make reparations to countries like Pakistan, which have suffered. Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman is right to raise Pakistan’s case on world forums and remind leaders that the country contributes less than one per cent to greenhouse gas emissions.

Countries and companies responsible for greater emissions should be making greater efforts to fix the problem. And it shouldn’t be misdirected as an overpopulation issue in Africa and South Asia. Brown and black people shouldn’t be sterilised so that people in the Global North can continue their reckless consumerism without a care for their fellow humans.

The Berlin Institute for Population and Development says global population growth is showing signs of slowing but carbon emissions are growing faster.

Plenty of evidence shows overpopulation is not having the most impact on climate change. Activists are correct to call for a redistribution of resources and push towards use of renewable sources of energy.

But as I said earlier, there is a link.

While Pakistan is correct to call for climate justice, it would be unfair — and foolish — for it to pretend it does not have a population problem. It needs to revisit its family planning programmes and create stronger messaging on the benefits of spacing children, for example. It would do well to study how well Iran and Bangladesh tackled their population growth using birth control programmes that were created bearing religious sensibilities in mind.

The UNFPA says half of all global pregnancies are unplanned, and nearly a quarter of all women do not have enough agency to refuse intercourse. More funding is needed to educate women on a whole but especially in birth control, safe pregnancies and safe terminations. Women should not have to die because they could not get access to healthcare for themselves or their unborn babies.

The writer is researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.

Twitter: @LedeingLady

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2022

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