Why it is dangerous to blame overpopulation for the climate crisis

2021-08-20

 |  Making a Difference

I remember being taught in high school and my environmental science degree that overpopulation is one of the biggest concerns when it comes to environmental degradation and climate change. When you think about it, it seems to make sense. With more people on earth, more resources such as fossil fuels are consumed, resulting in more severe climate change. For this reason, I have thought that I should adopt a kid rather than have one of my own. Turns out overpopulation is not the problem it has been made out to be and it is dangerous to believe it is.

Why have we been so concerned about overpopulation? 

The concept started with Thomas Robert Malthus when he wrote an essay on the principle of population in 1798. He claimed that human population growth is exponential and earth’s resources will not be able to sustain the growing population, resulting in famine and war. This concept is known as Malthusian theory and has long been perpetuated. In 1968 Paul Ralph Elrich and his wife Anne Elrich wrote the book The Population Bomb. This book describes a dark future of famine and environmental degradation if human population growth is left unchecked. These theories are flawed but have been used as the argument for many racist birth control policies. Aid packages for developing countries often included contraception and many countries have forced sterilization on people of colour. Canada has performed sterilization without consent on Indigenous people as late as 2018. This is one of the reasons it is dangerous to believe overpopulation is a problem. You can learn more about how Malthusian theory has affected global birth control policies from this podcast. 

The truth is population growth rate has been decreasing steadily since the 1960’s. While the overall population is still increasing, it is doing so at a much slower rate, and the UN estimates that the world population will stabilize just below 11 billion by 2100. That still sounds like an impossible number of people to support but a study from 2012 showed we currently have the ability to produce enough food for at least 10 billion people. Overpopulation is not the issue we think it is.

What should we be concerned about?

The issue is not global overconsumption but the inequity of that consumption. The population growth rate is decreasing, yet greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. This is because those with more wealth are using more resources per person. A new report shows that the wealthiest 10% of people produce 50% of the world’s carbon emissions. Data from 2019 shows that China emits the most CO2 per year at 10.17 billion tons while only emitting 7.1 tons per capita, ranking 46th on the list of CO2 emissions per capita. Canada emits 576.65 million tons of CO2 per year ranking 11th highest globally, while its per capita emissions are 15.41, ranking 15th highest. This data shows that a larger population does not directly equal more CO2 emissions. In order to support the human population and reduce the impact of environmental degradation, we must work towards changing the way we redistribute resources and use renewable sources of energy. These are much more complex problems to tackle therefore it is easier to blame overpopulation and then do nothing about it. Blaming overpopulation is dangerous when we need to be focusing on the issues that are having the most impact on climate change.

Annual CO2 emissions per country from Our World Data
Annual CO2 emissions for each country per capita from Our World Data

It is dangerous to think that overpopulation is the reason for the overconsumption of resources and environmental degradation. It simply is not true. Human population growth is decreasing and we are still facing a climate crisis. It is too simplistic to think reducing the human population will save the earth from climate catastrophe. We must work towards redistributing wealth and transitioning to more sustainable sources of energy. Switching to renewable energy, flying less, and eating less meat are all examples of actions that will have a more significant positive impact on climate change than choosing not to have a kid.