Politics Opinion

Big Australia is the 'elephant in the room'

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Further debate over the Big Australia issue is urgently needed (Image by Dan Jensen)

Population growth is a critical issue for Australia’s current and future environmental and economic sustainability.  

Yet any objective, focused discussion is either censored, quarantined, put in the “too hard basket” or confined to opinions that support the current major parties’ policies of growth.  

Described by Professor Ian Lowe in 2022 as the ‘elephant in the room’, in 2024, a more accurate description might be a “herd of elephants”.  

In 2022-23, migrant arrivals increased by 73 per cent to 737,000 from 427,000 arrivals a year ago, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The largest group of migrant arrivals was temporary visa holders, with 554,000 people.

Essential facts that need to be included in any objective debate about Australia’s population growth are not in the public arena. Primary issues such as the impacts of this population growth on climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as infrastructure, housing, availability of education, water, food resources, agricultural land and native forests, are all involved.

An unusual aspect of this non-debate is the lack of any substantial focus by major environmental organisations when it comes to this issue. Strong policy statements on limiting growth, made by several organisations a decade ago, have been consigned to history. 

For example, according to a 2010 report by the Australian Population Research Institute:

On 22 September 2009, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) released an article warning that, due to current rates of population increase: “Australia’s population is on a collision course with our natural environment”. The group argues that: “We need a long-term population policy aimed at stabilising our population and consumption at sustainable levels and helping other countries to do the same”.


Several days later, in an article for the Canberra Times, ACF President Ian Lowe wrote that: “There is a clear link between population growth and environmental damage” and therefore: “A responsible government would be acting now to curb the unsustainable growth, rather than celebrating the disastrous trend... Our aim should be to stabilise our population. This means we must have a look at migration levels”.

According to the report, the ACF maintained population stabilisation should be between 25-30 million this century:

‘The ACF believes that a population policy that integrates an annual immigration policy that is “based on environmental, social, ethical and humanitarian obligations, rather than perceived economic needs” is necessary for the wellbeing of our country and climate.’

Professor Ian Lowe resigned his ACF position in 2014. He’s currently a patron of Sustainable Population Australia.

Lowe doesn’t mince words:

‘...global environmental problems are getting worse. This intractability will continue unless we address a significant, yet underacknowledged, drive of environmental degradation, namely, the size and growth of the human population.’

Lowe also stated:

“There is no possibility of achieving our stated goal of sustainable development if we don’t stabilise the human population and reduce our resource demands.”

ACF’s current website links on population go to Sustainable Population Australia and its claim that an ‘annual intake of around 70,000, including refugees, skilled workers and family reunion, would allow our population to stabilise in a couple of decades’.

It also claims:

‘Continuous population growth will ultimately overwhelm all our efforts to live less impactfully.’

Greenpeace’s briefing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in part, says:

Projected extinction risk for endemic species in biodiversity hotspots increases roughly tenfold as warming rises from 1.5 degrees to three degrees.


Biodiversity impacts will worsen under the different warming scenarios: near-term warming and increased frequency and severity of extreme events will mean high or very high risks of loss for many terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Projected population growth needs to be carefully managed to minimise impacts: Australia’s population is projected to grow to 37.4–49.2 million by 2066.

Sustainable Population Australia says:

‘Our population has exceeded 27 million and the annual population growth rate is now an extreme 2.2 per cent per annum — the highest in the developed world and closer to rates seen in poorer “undeveloped” countries.’

In 2010, Bob Brown, then Australian Greens Leader, said in response to Kevin Rudd’s vision of a “Big Australia”:

“This population boom is not economic wisdom, it is a recipe for planetary exhaustion and great human tragedy.”

The 2024 Australian Greens principles fail to mention any number, instead providing a list of commitments that should determine Australia’s population policy. Carbon emissions from population increases are not mentioned, nor is the catastrophic biodiversity loss.

The Greens state:

‘Our environmental impact and ecological footprint is not determined by population numbers alone but a range of factors.’ 

This statement deserves further analysis.

NSW’s Nature Conservation Council recognises climate change as ‘an existential threat to civilisation and nature’. Burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests are a focus but population growth misses out. 

Population Matters indicates that 'every additional person increases carbon emissions’. More than 80 million people are added to the planet every year and another billion roughly every 15 years, says the organisation.

It’s estimated that the average Australian household has a carbon footprint of about 15 tonnes of COper year. That’s way more than the two tonnes recommended for each of us if we want to keep global warming under two degrees Celsius by 2050, according to Sci-Tech’s Particle article.

The Australian Institute’s paper on population growth and greenhouse emissions published in 1999 stated:

‘Clearly, any attempts to rapidly increase Australia’s population will produce a sharp increase in greenhouse gas emissions. However, even modest increases will make it more difficult for Australia to achieve future emission reduction targets.’

In previous reports, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) indicated species rate of extinctions is ‘100 times what would be considered normal without the impact of human activity’. Sir Peter Scott, the late founder of WWF, noted: “If only we had put all that money into condoms, we might have done some good.”

However, WWF Australia’s focus is on wildlife loss. Big Australia and exponential population growth are apparently in the too-hard basket. 

The reluctance of conservation organisations to make a strong stand on population growth in 2024 raises questions about why the historical focus, which clearly defines the significant issues, is no longer relevant.

A substantive, extensive debate on immigration numbers, population growth and limits to Australia’s carrying capacity is long overdue.

Climate change and biodiversity loss demand that governments address these issues which, if left in the closet, will be a dreadful legacy for future generations of humans and non-humans.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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