16 September 2011

A lot more people, a lot harder to make those emission reductions (Sydney morning herald 20070402)

Sir Nicholas Stern insists Australia must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. Labor agrees. That means that by 2050 each one of us will have to adjust our lifestyles so that we individually produce just 40 per cent of the emissions we are responsible for today. Doesn’t it? Well, not really.

We are going to have to cinch our belts much tighter than one might expect if we are to reach internationally accepted emission targets. And the main stumbling block facing Australia is our population growth.

Australia’s recent population growth rate is 1.32 per cent. Population forecasts of 28 million by 2050 are now unrealistic. A 1.32 per cent growth rate will see us reach 36 million by then. Remember that much of industry joins with government in seeking population growth. And who could forget Peter Costello’s call for Australians to have three children per family, which would match the Philippines.

But what has this got to do with greenhouse gas emissions? Simply this: if our population grows from today’s 20.7 million to 36 million by 2050 (74 per cent larger), our individual emissions would have to reduce to just 22 per cent of our output today, not the 40 per cent that John Howard thought was too hard.

But there’s another stumbling block: the expectation of continuous economic growth. Energy use and economic growth are in lockstep. Most commentators expect energy output to increase and keep up with economic growth. They expect our future energy growth be met by nuclear and clean-coal power stations, with a smaller contribution being made by renewable energy sources. The Australian public won’t accept nuclear power stations and clean coal looks like a very well-polished urban myth.

There is one obvious solution to the problem: to wean ourselves off our addiction to the growth economy. A new system of organisation is needed for our society in the 21st century that respects the limits of our resource base and the ability of our supporting ecosystems to nourish us. This is not a new idea, as much has been written about they way in which a steady-state economy could function. And central to the steady-state economy is a stationary population rate.

It is ironic that Stern, a growth economist, could – by highlighting environmental concerns – prompt us to move away from the growth economy.

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