Economic planners do not reckon with climate crisis bearing down on us

Dec 18, 2021
As politicians shy away from the debate, it is clear that a national population policy would help Victoria understand the crucial role of its forests. (Image: Forests Victoria)(Image: Unsplash)

The current population of 25 million may be Australia’s limit, unless we are prepared to reduce our lifestyle footprint.

Population policy is vital to the future of Australia and the world in setting out the parameters by which environmental, social and economic sustainability can be achieved.

Unfortunately population policy is the ultimate sleeping dog issue for if awakened a bite is certain. The Coalition and Labor only mention population in an economic context and in general the environmental movement finds it difficult to use it in advocacy.

Internationally, humanity’s de facto position is for our species to proliferate beyond the limits of nature’s resources and our social willingness to change, so eventually we will be contained by famine and other calamities.

Yet to retain our civilisation the linked climate and biodiversity emergencies must be addressed in tandem and both are closely related to the world’s expanding population.

Each child born becomes a consumer, by using energy, currently fossil fuels, so creating more greenhouse emissions, and by degrading existing environments. When extraction of resources and dumping of waste exceeds nature’s capacity to repair, natural capital shrinks as do essential environmental services.

Professor Partha Dasgupta, an eminent economist from Cambridge University explains in his report “Economics of Biodiversity” commissioned by the British government that our application of economics is faulty because it does not include “depreciation of assets” such as the degradation of the biosphere.

Environmental assets must be included in national accounting and GDP.

Examples are detailed in the media every day. Currently Victorian forests are felled and their product used for building capital, but their role in absorbing carbon dioxide is lost and new trees will take decades to mature. Soil erosion will slowly compromise Melbourne’s water supply which will necessitate expensive filtration systems. We know that even the creation of vehicular tracks through pristine forest compromises the ecology and its future.

So the Victorian government, faced with Melbourne’s growing population and in a drying climate, is sacrificing a “forever crucial life support service” for a short-term capital gain. Victoria’s adjusted GDP would perhaps be negative if this disaster is allowed to continue.

This is a health, environment and sustainability issue which the Victorian government seems unable to understand in their most densely populated state in Australia and the most cleared of native vegetation. Victoria’s record on biodiversity conservation is shocking for logging has continued for many years despite evidence from eminent scientists of severe damage.

The issue is now subject to alleged corrupt conduct perpetrated by the Office of the Conservation Regulator, and the forest regulation unit in the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Population growth drives many such environmental degradations. But in the economic and political mind the need for jobs and a stable economy which provide electoral success override all else. We need more aged-care workers for an ageing population, but we purloin them from countries who need them more than us. The demand for more immigrants by the construction industry and the real-estate lobby nearly always trumps consideration of environmental sustainability.

However governments imagine they have an even more compelling need to keep the savage dog soundly asleep. To the public the words “population policy” or “population control” carry the whiff of coercion and an attack on human rights, whereas contraception provides a decision of personal choice and is of vital importance to women in poor countries and indeed for their national development.

The federal government’s budgetary position for the next 40 years, detailed in the Productivity Commission’s Intergenerational Report, has a long section on fiscal sustainability but social development and environmental sustainability is absent. In the 198-page report our rapidly declining biodiversity receives 189 words; water security gets even less: 155 words.

The report has nine pages on climate change “in which the seriousness of the problem is acknowledged, along with the assurance that the government is dealing with it. However the report’s main concern relates not to the impact of population on sustainability but to the impact of an ageing population on economic growth and GDP.

The challenge for Australia is that the current population of 25 million may be our limit, unless we are prepared to reduce our lifestyle footprint. Indeed there may already be too many people, taking into account a likely 2 degree or more increase in temperature, a scenario which increased significantly with COP26 failures to act on a 2030 target for emissions reduction by several fossil-fuel countries including Australia.

A further reason for inaction on population resides with failure of most politicians to grasp that impaired ecological systems, damaged by population growth and climate change threaten human survival. These systems enable food, water and natural resource production, “life support systems” upon which we depend. As explained in a submission on ecosystem decline in Victoria by Doctors for the Environment Australia this is a crucial human health issue.

Admittedly the topic is wickedly complex but is further confounded by political polarisation, climate denial and the denigration of environmental groups opposed to development.

How do we advance reform? An important task for the next federal parliament is to establish a sustainability commission of key scientists and social thinkers to present a relevant intergenerational process, including a population policy. The commission must have a key role in both education and action over the next rapidly changing 40 years.

Key questions will be; with likely temperatures in Australia rising to 2 degrees or more in coming decades, what does climate and water modeling tell us about the size of sustainable population and how much of this fragile continent will be habitable.

However it is much too optimistic to believe such reform is currently within the ability of the Federal Parliament, so we might ask which state might gain most from such reform. Victoria is the obvious choice to lead with a commission.

Hopefully such a federal or state commission will inform parliamentarians and the public of the dismal fact that Australia’s share of the world’s natural resources is consumed by March 31 each year. This is accompanied by an illusion of prosperity and indefinite abundance. In fact, it is profligacy, fuelled by the consumption of our children and grandchildren’s future.

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