Politics Opinion

Over-population: The unpopular political hot potato

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Australian Bureau of Statistics population projections put our population between 37.4 and 49.2 million by 2066 (Image by Dan Jensen)

With Australia's ecological footprint putting us among the top five consuming nations of the world, our politicians must tackle the issue of population growth as part of future climate change policy, writes Sue Arnold.

A VERY LARGE elephant in the climate change room is the most telling evidence of a national and international refusal to discuss, much less address, the most critical issue facing humanity.


The major driver of climate change. Too many people for the planet to feed and shelter.

A United Nations (UN) report published in 2017 indicated the world's population would reach 9.8 billion in 2050. *The UN's latest projections for 2050 are similar, at  9.7 billion.

The report projected much of the growth would be concentrated in nine countries, listed in order of their anticipated increase: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, United Republic of Tanzania, USA, Uganda and Indonesia.

Far more complex reporting (see World Population Prospects 2022) by the UN demonstrates a crowded future is still in the timeline.

The world’s population is now projected to reach eight billion on 15 November 2022. India is projected to exceed China as the world’s most populous country sometime in 2023.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency says human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years.

Two geoscientists and a philosopher from the University of Chicago estimated the ultimate cost of carbon to humanity. The results came out closer to $100,000 per ton of carbon — a thousand times higher than the cost to the current generation.

Population Media Centre (PMC) in the U.S. indicates the ecological degradation of overpopulation leads to more deforestation, decreased biodiversity and spikes in pollution and emissions which will exacerbate climate change.  

'Ultimately, unless we take action to help minimise further population growth heading into the remainder of the century, many scientists believe the additional stress on the planet will lead to ecological disruption and collapse so severe it threatens the viability of life on Earth as we know it.'

According to a study in PMC’s report, a family with one fewer child could reduce emissions by 58.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year in developed countries.

The report predicts the population of Australia is expected to experience slower, but still positive, growth through the end of the century. According to a regional population estimate, Australia/New Zealand (lumped together) will reach 31 million in 2022, 34 million in 2030 and 38 million in 2050.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics population projections released in 2018 predicted Australia’s population to reach between 37.4 and 49.2 million by 2066.

None of these statistics takes into account the estimated ecological carrying capacity of the continent or allocates any economic value to forests, biodiversity, rivers, clean air and water.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd welcomed a"big Australia. His devotion to this concept led to major public angst for then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard who said she wasn’t in favour of Australia "hurtling down the track towards a big population”.

In 2011, Professor Tim Flannery suggested our nation’s arid and fragile interior and fickle climate make a population of between six and 12 million a practical carrying capacity.

A paper on Australia’s ecological footprint provides a detailed study indicating the footprint of the average Australian is approximately six hectares per capita:  

'This is more than four times the globally available "fair share", placing Australia among the top five consuming nations of the world. The result highlights the unsustainable global nature of the Australian lifestyle, particularly the level of consumption of energy and animal products.'

Research and reports on the impacts of population pressures are hard to find in 2022. In essence, the issue disappeared from public policy and scrutiny aside from some regular advertisements by Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith and workshops held by Sustainable Population Australia.  

In 2013, the Public Health Association Australia indicated severe consequences that inform:

... population pressures amplify inequities in access to income, education, health and other social resources within and between countries, which contributes to inequities of power between citizens, and can lead to violence and destabilisation of social structures, as well as deforestation, desertification, soil degradation and loss of agricultural land.


Further, inequities in power between nations lead to pressures on less developed countries to grow unsustainable crops at the expense of self-sustainability, in order to pay debts.

According to an article in National Geographic:

Population and climate change are inextricably linked problems. Agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gases but, as Professor Clive Hamilton points out in his book 'Requiem For A Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change': "Population growth will make the task of reducing… emissions much harder because food is the first item of consumption humans must have.".

Black Summer bushfires were estimated to have cost farmers up to $5 billion. No estimate of the economic value of the loss of approximately three billion animals has been made. 

Yet  the World Economic Forum states:

'Humans derive approximately $125 trillion of value from natural ecosystems each year... more than half of the world’s GDP ($44 trillion) is highly or moderately dependent on nature.'

Balance sheets that ignore life's foundations provide an extremely lopsided set of values by which nations’ fiscal policies are governed. Evidence demonstrates that the fundamentals have not been learned despite exponential increases in environmental losses and devastation caused by climate change.

The fact that we are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction has little or no political currency.

Independent Australia spent some time researching major conservation organisations’ policies and campaigns focused on population growth impacts on the environment.

Not one major organisation demonstrated any population policy. Environmentalists prefer not to discuss or focus on this major question. Conflict over the impacts of population growth at the political level ensures the issue remains divisive.

The Australian Greens believe:

'The current level of population, population growth and the way we produce and consume are outstripping environmental capacity. Australia must contribute to achieving a globally sustainable population and encourage and support other nations to do the same.'

The party also contends:

Our environmental impact and ecological footprint are not determined by population numbers alone but by a range of factors including per capita consumption patterns and levels, distribution of resources, agricultural practices for domestic consumption and export, levels and types of industrial activity and production, urban design and transport options.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown disagrees.

As reported by The Conversation in 2020:

Brown recently declared the world’s population must start to decline before 2100, telling The Australian newspaper: We are already using more than what the planet can supply and we use more than the living fabric of the planet in supply. That’s why we wake up every day to fewer fisheries, less forests, more extinctions and so on. The human herd at eight billion is the greatest herd of mammals ever on this planet and it is unsustainable to have that growing.

Sustainable Population Australia states:

'Humanity’s impact on the environment is a product of our population and our environmental footprint per person... Humanity has been exceeding the sustainable carrying capacity of the Earth since 1981, according to the Global Footprint Network.'

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation(CSIRO) noted in 1994 in its submission to the Jones Inquiry into Australia’s carrying capacity:

'Every extra person and every unit increase in consumption increase the need to rectify the situation.'

Vox journalist David Roberts summed up some of the reasons why population growth remains in the too-hard basket:

'When political movements or leaders adopt population control as a central concern... let’s just say it never goes well. In practice, where you find concern over “population,” you very often find racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings. It’s almost always, ahem, "particular" populations that need reducing.'

Adding the fact, according to the Refugee Council of Australia, that one per cent of humanity is currently uprooted, it begs the question as to where this big slice of humanity will be resettled.

The Albanese and State Governments must ensure the issue of population growth sits inside the climate change policy envelope together with biodiversity loss.

It’s time to recognise the limitations of this ancient land.

*Editor's Note: This article was originally posted without the latest UN population projection figures and has since been updated.

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

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