Booming population 'threat to climate change fight'

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The Independent Online

Environmental problems such as global warming can be tackled only if the international community addresses the problem of population growth, a leading scientist warned today.

Professor Chris Rapley, the director of the British Antarctic Survey, said the 76 million annual increase in the world's population threatens "the welfare and quality of life of future generations".

But he said population growth was the "Cinderella" issue of the environmental debate, because its implications are so controversial that nobody dares to raise it.

Scientific analysis suggests that the Earth can sustain around 2-3 billion people at a good standard of living over the long term, wrote Prof. Rapley in an article for the BBC News website.

But the current global population of 6.5 billion - expected to rise to 8 billion by the middle of the century - means mankind is imposing an ever greater "footprint" on the planet.

Advances made in the battle to rein in climate change, such as last month's Montreal agreement, threaten to be wiped out by the need of each additional person for food, shelter, transport and waste disposal facilities.

"Imagine organising the accommodation, feeding arrangements, schooling, employment, medical care, cultural activities and general infrastructure - transport, power, water, communications, waste disposal - for a number of people slightly larger than the population of the UK, and doing it each year, year on year for the foreseeable future," wrote Prof. Rapley.

"Combined with ongoing economic growth, what will be the effect on our collective human 'footprint'? Will the planet cope?

"Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental 'footprint', the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.

"Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.

"So if we believe that the size of the human 'footprint' is a serious problem (and there is much evidence for this), then a rational view would be that, along with a raft of measures to reduce the footprint per person, the issue of population management must be addressed."

Prof. Rapley acknowledged that population control and reduction was "a bombshell of a topic", raising profound moral and ethical issues.

Consequently, the issue was rarely raised when politicians, scientists and campaigners discussed what needs to be done to protect the environment, he said.

But he warned: "Unless and until this changes, summits such as that in Montreal which address only part of the problem will be limited to at best very modest success, with the welfare and quality of life of future generations the ineluctable casualty."

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