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Does drastically reducing our carbon emissions also require us to drastically reduce the rate at which our population is presently growing?

This essay will explain why global CO2 emissions need to be decreased; will outline dystopian consequences of rapid human population decrease which mirror the dystopia of a high CO2 environment; explore ways to reduce human population while minimising negative social consequences; and, lastly, will suggest that decreasing animal agriculture would be less disastrous than decreasing human population, and will explore the feasibility of this option.

Global warming has dramatic expected consequences. A global rise in temperature of only a few degrees will cause a non-trivial increase in sea levels, exacerbating already volatile weather patterns the world over, increasing the frequency and intensity of nature’s more destructive offspring—cyclones, typhoons, floods—all of which will do great damage to human societies. The desire to drastically reduce carbon emissions equates to a desire to avert these disastrous occurrences. It would be unbelievably misguided, then, if, in our attempt to avert disaster, we invite upon ourselves greater disaster than the one we avoid. 

One such type of disaster would be a precipitous decrease in human population. In order to gauge the level of impact a quick decline of humans can cause, we can look to modern Japan. Japan is experiencing a population drop of approximately 1,000,000 people every year. This is due to a decline in the national fertility rate, which has led to there being fewer births than deaths. This, in turn, has led to a disproportionate skew in age demographics: the average citizen is around 50 years old. The consequences of this are severe: the ageing population has dramatically reduced the size of the national workforce, which has IMF predicting a 20% fall in GDP over the course of the century (see footnote 10). Industry and power generation account for around 60% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. This empirical example of massive population decline allows us to draw a direct correlation between population and CO2. This would suggest that it is possible to decrease atmospheric CO2 concentrations by reducing population size. However, the important question is, Is it possible to drastically reduce population without incurring the disastrous consequences which currently cast so dark a shadow over the land of the rising sun?

The feasibility of reducing human population levels has been explored by various historical societies. It can be done. However, most, if not all, attempts to do so have ended in disaster. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan scrubbed an estimated 700 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere—by slaughtering 40 million people. At its inception, he mass sterilisation program begun by Indira Gandhi was accused of forcing citizens to sterilize (Gwatkin 1979); nowadays, it is criticised for devaluing humankind’s “sanctity” by bribing people with raffle tickets for cars and electrical appliances. China’s One-Child Policy forces people to abort late-term foetuses; destroys the houses of parents who are unable to pay the fee required as compensation for additional children; denies these children basic human rights; and other tragedies too numerous to name. Unfortunately, most attempts by any government to sterilise its people, whether through consent or coercion, is decried as eugenicist, a term which, sadly, is inextricably tied to the eugenics experiments of the Nazis. This observation, coupled with the failed sterilisation experiments of the past and present, and the universal criticism of them, effectively prevents any genuinely beneficial population reduction program from getting off the ground. Far from escaping the fate of Japan, these plans do not even get the chance to try.

Yet this failure to lift off need not be a problem. What the correlation between CO2 and population does not imply is that a significant decrease in CO2 requires a decrease in population. More specifically, there is no reason to decrease human population. Animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It releases more GHGs than transport. This output is expected to more than double by 2050. Reducing the amount of GHGs released by animal production will be crucial to mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Despite animal food stuffs being a staple of the diets of most people around the world, alternative, healthy, animal-free diets do exist, and it is plausible that the public will be more willing to stop eating animals than to kill other people or legislate forced abortions. Reducing farm-raised animal populations will drastically reduce carbon emissions without violating basic human rights—in contrast with the other hypothesised solution, this one has little to criticise. And it is easy to do.

There are two main ways this reduction can be accomplished: by minimising consumption of animal products, and by reforming agricultural practice so that common processes release fewer GHGs. Both are far more easily realised than, say, forced sterilisation. Indeed, the first path is already being walked with the consent of the walkers. Per person meat consumption in the US fell by 10% over the course of 8 years, and this trend is predicted to continue. Sales of meat substitutes are also on the rise. And we are on the brink of a revolution in food production, with the creation of the first burger of in-vitro meat being announced a few days ago. In-vitro meat could reduce animal agriculture GHG expenditure by 90%. Consumer trends are driven by concerns over ethics, health, and the environment. Key to the significant uptake of animal-free products is the pursuance of different reasons for using them. Ecological concern alone would be unlikely to create such a dramatic change in consumer behaviour. A convergence of reasons to reduce consumption of animal products makes it a more plausible and eminently practical means of reducing GHG emissions by reducing population.

A reduction of carbon emissions is required if we want to preserve humankind and its modern way of life. However, accomplishing this by culling many humans is self-defeating, as doing so requires the destruction of much of what humankind holds dear. Historically, programs of eugenics and population control have been total failures which should not be repeated. Luckily, this need not happen. Reducing animal populations can slow carbon emissions without violating sacrosanct human institutions. This is a more desirable solution.

References without hyperlinks

Gwatkin, D.R. 1979. ‘Political Will and Family Planning: The Implications of India’s Emergency Experience’. Population Development Review. Vol. 5 (1): 29-59.