Asia, population growth and climate change
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Asia, population growth and climate change

This week people around the world have been marching in support of action on climate change. On Sunday an estimated half a million gathered in Australia, the UK, India, Brazil and elsewhere to put pressure on world leaders ahead of the climate summit in New York City, a city where over 100,000 turned out in support of action on what many scientists consider to be the most pressing and urgent issue of our time.

Unfortunately, it’s an emergency that is growing in the face of virtual inaction by those who hold the power to effect change. Even the European Union, which has shown a small but general decline in greenhouse gas emissions, is arguably only able to achieve progress by exporting manufacturing to places like China. Yet since climate change is global, it doesn’t matter if you move heavily emitting factories to another part of the globe if you’re still buying what they are selling. It’s a shell game, Europe, and it’s nothing to be smug about.

In Asia, where emissions are growing along with the economy and population, reducing them seems like a pipe dream. If more people are born into the system and with more purchasing power, they’re going to buy more cars and burgers and mobile phones. As previous estimates at population growth levelling off at 9 billion this century are being adjusted to somewhere around 10-12 billion, the climate and those vulnerable to its changes (everyone, but poor people in hot countries far more than others) will suffer the effects of climate change. Nowhere is this more of a concern than those countries where water is scarce, like Mongolia, or sometimes in dangerous overabundance, like in Bangladesh.

From the periodical of the Asia Foundation, In Asia:

Climate change, combined with rapid population growth and urbanization, are placing intense pressure on Asia’s most precious resource. At the same time, extreme weather has led to unprecedented monsoon rains and deadly floods across the region that have eaten away at traditional livelihoods and in some cases interrupted the entire global supply chain for certain industries that are located in flood-prone regions. How governments, civil society, and citizens work together to address these issues will shape Asia’s development trajectory.

There is great debate as to whether population growth is the real threat to a world increasingly strapped for resources and overburdened with ecological hazards. Of course, coupled with a consumption-based economic model that all but deifies continuous and unhindered economic growth, a ballooning population sounds like a recipe for disaster. Yet while the steepest population growth is taking place in Africa, per capita consumption of resources on the continent is miniscule when compared to the industrialized world. Still, an increase of 2-4 billion will stretch Africa’s food-producing capacity in the future.

From China Dialogue:

Asia’s population (currently 4.4 billion) is expected to peak at 5 billion in 2050 and then decline, while growth in North America, Europe and Latin America are expected to stay below 1 billion in each region.

China, which has long used the argument of its low per capita carbon emissions when compared to the West in climate negotiations, has now surpassed the European Union in that category. Its per capita CO2 emissions are estimated at 7.2 tons per person versus the EU’s 6.8. China’s total emissions are well ahead of the US and the EU: 29% of the global total compared to 15% and 10%, respectively. India’s totals are currently at 7.1%, but have seen an increase of 5.1% during 2013 and are expected to eclipse the EU’s by 2019.

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China is the world’s leading emitter of CO2. Pic: Jonathan Kos-Read (Flickr CC)

But how much of Asia’s emissions are simply the West’s outsourced emissions? About a fifth in some cases:

In China about 20% of their emissions are for producing clothes, furniture even solar panels that are shipped to Europe and America. If you look at the emissions in Europe with that perspective, they would be 30% higher if we accounted for those goods that are produced elsewhere.

—Prof Corinne Le Quere of University of East Anglia and the Carbon Project (via BBC News)

So is the problem global consumption or population levels? Obviously these factors are often interrelated, especially in terms of water and food in the poor South. In the case of China, however, we have seen the most draconian measures of population control coupled with rapid economic growth and the result has still been the most globally significant climb in emissions — on both an overall and per capita basis. It seems that the concern cannot be therefore laid at the feet of poor African and Indian farmers with lots of children, but rather on a global system that encourages waste, consumption and materialism.