Food for Thought : Two Elephants in the room - 25 th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development

The UNGA on the 28th of June has agreed that there will be to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development at a half-day, a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly during its seventy-third session, in the afternoon session of 16 July, to be held in the General Assembly Hall. The event will happen at the beginning of the High-level Segment of the High-Level Political Forum.

The President of the General Assembly, in a timely manner, to draw up a list of other representatives of relevant non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, academic institutions and the private sector who may attend the high-level plenary meeting, taking into account the principles of
transparency and of equitable geographical representation, and with due regard to the meaningful participation of women, and to submit the list to Member States for their consideration on a non-objection basis.

The announcement reminded me of an article I had written a while ago which I wanted to share This was originally published in Stakeholder Forum's newsletter Outreach on the 7th of December 2009 during the Copenhagen UNFCCC.

I was very pleased to see the Optimum Population Trust publish last week a report calling for some offset money to be used for family planning in the developing counties. They argue that cutting down the number of children being born is more cost-effective than using solar panels or planting trees. They estimate that the one-child policy in China has had the impact that 400 million additional Chinese citizens have not been born and that that has a significant impact on CO2 emissions we would have had. I would add that this should never condone the way China did it.

Their estimates are that for every £4 spent on contraception saves one tonne of CO2 being added to global warming, a similar reduction from tree planting would cost £8 of wind power would be £15 and £31 for solar energy.

The scheme is called Popoffsets. I fully support good family planning in developing countries and if this scheme is robust then it could be an important contribution.

Which brings me to the second elephant in the room and that is: the developed countries consumption patterns and the crazy economic model that supports it. If we were working within the planetary limits then it isn’t the family planning of developing countries that need to be addressed it is the family planning in the developed countries.

I wonder what the impact would be if the developed countries were to take the radical move to also introduce a one-child policy or even guidance. After all we commend the work that China has done to keep its population down if we kept ours down what would be the reduction in the carbon produced by ensuring that developed countries moved to one child per family?  It would be significant.

Perhaps there is even a third elephant in the room. If governments do not secure planetary stability of only 1.5 degrees rises then we are going to see more and more displaced people. At present, our answer to migration seems to be to build walls and restrict migration. I wonder what will our response be to – say the melting of the Himalaya glaciers - which could displace millions of people perhaps hundreds of millions. Only yesterday the Bangladesh Financial Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said he expected by 2050 from his country 20 million environmental refugees and called on developed countries to take some of them.

Do we need to start preparing our populations in the developed countries for a much more flexible and human response to the future ‘environmental refugees’. They will need somewhere to go. After all, what we will see is due to the historical contribution that developed countries have made in their development. Maybe we need to be starting to have a contingency plan for a new Marshall Plan.

Of course, there is an obvious answer to this before we get there and that is to keep the temperature rise under 1.5 degrees.

Population, consumption patterns, migration not to forget water, food, and energy security. A new landscape is developing which does remind me of a saying of Albert Einstein. “There are two infinites, the universe, and human stupidity and I am not sure of the former.” Lets hope he is wrong.


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