16 September 2011

ISOS abandons population issue.


National Director of Sustainable Population Australia



Bryan Furnass, Bob Douglas and I sat down a year ago to organise this ISOS conference. We chose nine themes, broadly divided between environmental, social and economic issues. The national executive of my organisation, Sustainable Population Australia, was less than amused that population had been excluded. The response of the ISOS committee was that the need for population stabilisation was intrinsic to all themes and didn’t need one of its own. We assumed we would have many papers that included population as an issue.

This was not the case. Apart from the indefatigable Dr Valerie Yule who submitted a paper on all nine themes, each one of which mentioned population, and a handful more contributors, we were hardly overwhelmed by papers on population.

So… I have five minutes to make amends to my executive.

In less than three weeks, on 4 December, Australia’s population will pass the 20 million mark. (For those readers of the Australian who think we have passed the mark already, the paper got it wrong.) Is 20 million a sustainable population? No! … not at current standard of living. How do we know? Because, according to the Australian State of the Environment Report 2001, all our environmental indicators, apart from urban air quality, are falling. So what is a sustainable level? For those of you familiar with the I=PAT formula or with the concept of ecological footprint, it is a variable based on level of affluence and use of technology. Just because it is a variable, however, does not mean that we cannot estimate what a sustainable population might be at a certain level of consumption. And according to the Optimum Population Trust in Britain which has produced estimates for all countries based on certain definitions in the World Wildife Fund’s “Living Planet Report 2002”, at current standard of living a sustainable population for Australia would be half what it is today:10 million. That figure assumes 12 per cent of the land is set aside for biodiversity. If Australia reduced its consumption to a “modest” level, however, again retaining 12 per cent of the land for biodiversity, we could support 21 million. But! …if we are to keep global emissions of carbon dioxide down to 2.5GtC/yr, and assuming there’s global equity in emissions, we could only support three million people.

We have about 6.38 billion people in the world today. According to OPT, the sustainable level at current standard of living (remembering two billion are very poor) is 4.6 billion. If everyone lived at a modest level, however, that is, with we in the rich countries reducing our consumption and those in poorer countries increasing theirs, then the sustainable population would be 3.1 billion, or half what we have now. But if we abide by the global CO2 emission limit of 2.5GtC/yr, then only 2.8 billion can be supported globally.

Last week I attended an interesting seminar at the Australian Bureau of Statistics offices in Belconnen here in Canberra on natural resource accounting. The Eurobadalla Shire, a rural shire to the east of Canberra extending from Batemans Bay to just north of Bega, is not only trying to implement triple bottom line (social, environmental and economic) into its accounting, it is trying to implement sustainability principles into its policy making. Recognising that the population in the shire is growing by about 1450 people a year, and on the basis that the average Australian ecological footprint is now 14 hectares, it wanted to know how many years it would take before it reached the limits of its natural resources. By calculating the number of productive hectares it had at its disposal, it found that it would only be another 11 years before that point was reached! If the ecological footprint was eight hectares as was assumed to be the case until recently, then it would take 20 years to reach their natural resource limits. If the footprint were only three, then it would be 50.

This is our choice: if we want sustainability and we want more people, then a fall in consumption, a reduction in our ecological footprint, is the price we have to pay. But if we are serious, as we must be, about stabilising the atmosphere and preserving appreciable parts of the planet for biodiversity, then we have to have a reduction in both human population numbers and in consumption, hoping meanwhile, that new technologies based on renewable energy will keep us from freezing in the dark.

Jenny Goldie is the national director of Sustainable Population Australia. Its website is population.org.au


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