The green movement at 50

The green movement at 50: Can the world be saved?

Population growth and climate change are the big problems facing the earth in the next 50 years. But are there any solutions?


Many of the issues the Environment Movement has faced over the last 50 years have been difficult, but none has been as formidable as the two challenges confronting it over the next half century, confronting the earth: population growth and climate change.

These two colossal problems, it is clear now, cannot be "solved"; they can only be coped with, and the coping will have to be by governments. The task of the Green Movement will be to keep the pressure on governments, and companies, and individuals, to do what is necessary, however difficult that is.

Both issues are controversial. Some believe the rise in human numbers, from a world population of 7 billion to perhaps 9.3 billion in 2050 – that's the UN's medium estimate – will not be a problem, and certainly there is no plan to bring the estimated 2050 figure down.

But finding food for an extra two billion mouths in a mere 38 years, on top of those who are hungry today, is clearly going to be a Herculean task, and if we disaggregate the world figure into the projections for individual nations, the task seems more daunting still, especially with some of the "high growth" countries in Asia and Africa.

Bangladesh, with an estimated 148 million people at 2010, goes, according to the UN medium estimate, to 194 million in 2050; Pakistan goes from 189 million to 274 million. In some of the poorer parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the projections are quite remarkable, with doublings and even treblings expected in four decades: Kenya goes from 40 million people in 2010 to 96 million in 2050, while Niger, a country in the Sahel semi-desert belt where agriculture is difficult at best, will see its population go from 15 million to 55 million.

Yet the concern for the environment movement will be, can these extra billions be not only fed, but brought out of poverty through economic growth, without the planet being trashed? Can it be done without rainforest being torn down for agriculture, without the fish stocks of the oceans being exploited, without the atmosphere being swamped with climate-changing carbon from thousands of new power stations?

The idea that grapples with this is sustainable development and next week the world community meets in Rio de Janeiro to try to shape the first global sustainable development goals, which would probably concern food, water and energy, and run from 2015.

But even if they are agreed, they can be destabilised by a changing climate. A great fear of far-sighted environmental thinkers is that global warming and its effects will combine with population growth, in interactions which will make things much worse. For example, Bangladesh will find it much harder to accommodate its extra 46 million people by 2050 if, as is expected, it begins to be affected by climate-change-induced sea level rise, with much of the nation below sea level already.

Yet climate change has slipped down the pubic agenda. There are three reasons for this, one being the recession, which affects us now, while global warming is a concern mainly of the future.

The second is that climate change sceptics, hardly any of whom are climate scientists, and many of whom are funded by the fossil fuel industry, have induced a certain amount of uncertainty in the public mind about the issue. And this has been able to take root over the last few years because – and this is the third reason – the warming process appears to have paused.

No-one really knows why. A good guess is the gigantic cloud of sulphur emissions from Chinese power stations, which doubled their output of waste gases between 1996 and 2006: the sulphur particles have the opposite effect of the carbon emissions, and reflect back the sun's heat. But unless the laws of physics are altered, those global carbon emissions, now 33 billion tons annually and rising at six per cent a year, are going to make world temperatures rise considerably in the coming decades with potentially disastrous consequences.

What can the Green Movement do about this? Quite a lot, really, as was evinced by Friends of the Earth's (FoE) "Big Ask" campaign for a climate change law, which would commit the UK Government to make legally-binding annual cuts in its carbon emissions. It succeeded, and in the Climate Change Act, 2008, Britain now has the toughest climate legislation in the world.

Tony Juniper, the FoE director who oversaw the campaign, is aware that climate change is the most difficult of all environmental problems. "It's bloody huge," he says. "It's about everything – aviation policy, transport, energy, nuclear power, agriculture, recycling. With the other issues we can get a tactical victory without all that baggage, but climate is different, and so is the timetable."

So he doesn't think the Green Movement has failed?

"No," he says. "It's work in progress."

There's going to be an awful lot of that work needed by the greens over the next half century.

Rio plus 20: Another talking shop?

The UN sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro next week is called "Rio Plus 20" as it marks the 20th anniversary of the celebrated Earth Summit, held in the Brazilian city in June 1992.

The earlier gathering, which brought together more than 100 heads of state and government, created two major institutions to help the world deal with its growing environmental crisis: the UN Convention on Climate Change, to tackle global warming, and the UN Convention on Biodiversity, to tackle the increasing assault on wildlife and the natural world.

The summit's success marked a huge step in integrating environmental concern into world politics. But 20 years on, this summit looks like being a pale shadow of its predecessor, and the most positive outcome is likely to be merely an agreement to talk about sustainable development goals. The lack of excitement is reflected in the guest list.

The heads of state of Brazil, Russia, India and China will be there, But President Obama and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will not, nor for that matter will David Cameron. He is sending the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Raheem Sterling of Liverpool celebrates scoring the opening goal
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One quarter-finals
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Life and Style
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Not quite what they were expecting

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at the Golden Globes in 2011
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

Th Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

Rebranding Christmas

More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise