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Environment

Apr 18, 2013

The dirty little secret to tackling climate change

Recent data shows that without Australia's population boom, we'd probably have greenhouse gas emissions under control. So why is no one talking about whether an Australia of 62 million is environmentally sustainable?

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Forget the carbon price, forget the opposition’s Direct Action climate plan. Australia could probably meet its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without either, provided we did one thing. But you won’t hear the politicians talk about it.

A statistical analysis by Crikey, based on data released this week, indicates that if Australia’s high population growth rate were reined in, the country would already be meeting its targets to cut pollution. In fact, we’d probably be under those targets.

The federal government’s data on greenhouse gas emissions for the December quarter points to the major impact the population boom has had on Australia’s emissions. Here’s the Crikey number-crunching that shows why it might be time to talk about the environmental impact of Australia’s growing population. (This is a crude statistical analysis, but you won’t find the government — both major parties support and plan for significant population growth — doing it. So we had a go.)

Australia’s per capita emissions actually dropped between 1989 and 2012. But the population increased by 35% during that period, and overall national emissions soared by 32%. That took national greenhouse gas emissions from 418 megatonnes a year in 1990 to 552 megatonnes in 2012 (a megatonne is 1 million tonnes).

Australia has a high rate of population growth, caused in part by a relatively high rate of immigration. What would the country’s emissions be if that was not the case?

The ABS calculates that in the decade to 2007, the population grew by 1.3% pa on average, with “just under half from net overseas migration” (the rest comes from births). The proportion of population growth coming from migration increased to more than half at the end of that period; last year the federal government said migration “has in recent years had the largest impact on overall population change”. In 2009, migration provided 65% of population growth.

Based on those numbers, if Australia had net zero migration from 1989 to 2012, we can estimate the population would have increased from 16.9 million (1989) to roughly 20.4 million (2012).

And based on the government’s calculation of current per capita emissions, that would give us total national emissions in 2012 of 495 megatonnes. So our actual total emissions are 11.5% — or 57 megatonnes — higher than if we had had net zero migration.

“The short answer is that we may well be meeting that (emissions) target already if we did not have the population boom.”

So what? Well, the body politic is consumed with how to meet the bipartisan target to reduce national emissions to 537 megatonnes of emissions per year in 2020. It’s an issue that has toppled prime ministers, helped decide elections and keeps politicians awake at night.

The short answer is that we might well be meeting that target already if we did not have the population boom.

With the swelling population, it’s a different story. Australia’s headcount stands at a ticker under 23 million. The ABS predicts there will be between 31 million and 43 million of us in 2056. By 2101, the ABS estimates it could be as high as 62 million.

This above analysis is rough and is no substitute for rigorous modelling by teams of economists and demographers. It’s worth bearing in mind that per capita emissions simply divide up national emissions by the headcount, yet a chunk of those emissions are not from individual people, they come from industry (including export-oriented industry). So some of the increase in total emissions would have happened regardless of population growth. Also, it’s difficult to directly compare population growth and emissions for the exact period 1989 to 2012. However, the numbers crunched here do point to an aspect to the climate debate that is seldom discussed at the political level: more people means higher emissions.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd famously declared he believed in a “big Australia“; in the ensuing criticism both major parties toned down the rhetoric, but neither major party has moved away from significant population growth fuelled by skilled migration.

Tony Mohr, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s manager of climate change campaign, calls for a stabilisation of Australia’s population. “More people in Australia means more roads, more energy use and more greenhouse gas emissions,” Mohr told Crikey. “Population is one driver of emissions growth in Australia.”

He says Australia should address the problem rather than “add fuel”. “We’ve already got a really big emissions footprint … certainly taking another look at our skilled migration would help reduce the growth in our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Mohr calls on politicians to debate the impacts of population growth on the environment and cities. He adds the ACF did not support reducing Australia’s humanitarian intake, which is a fraction of the overall migration intake. In the 2010 election campaign, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said:

“I do not believe in the idea of a big Australia; an Australia where we push all the policy leavers into top gear to drive population growth as high as we can. Australia cannot and should not hurtle down the track towards a big population.”

However, Labor has done little to seriously challenge projections of significant population growth (apart from criticising the 457 visa program). Tony Burke, the federal Minister for Population, has issued 46 media releases this year, but none appear to be about population. Last year Burke issued an 86-page sustainable population policy, which appears to make no recommendations on what Australia’s population should be.

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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68 comments

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68 thoughts on “The dirty little secret to tackling climate change

  1. Ian

    Julien@67,

    So are you saying its the high cost of welfare in the northern and western hemispheres that are pushing immigrants to come to Australia and smaller government is the answer there? I’m pretty sure welfare costs have little to do with it and smaller government, the right’s answer to everything, is also no answer.

    Good healthcare and education are services that affluent societies seek. They can be provided as a public service via governments without a profit motive or by private enterprises with profit or other motive, (eg religious) driving them. Where profit is the motive, health provision or education is merely a means to achieve that profit and only those that can afford it get the service. (Of course that is so if governments don’t intervene by providing subsidies or other inducements.)

    Australia is actively seeking immigrants (while at the same time actively discouraging refugees) and the mining development boom (in order to a large extent to convert natural assets into consumption) is what at the moment is driving the immigrant boom.

    In fact it is the austerity drive in the northern and western hemispheres that seeks to gut the welfare state and government services that creates economic refugees – not the reverse. The financial crisis has been caused by the sort of policies you are seeking to impose.

    There is more to say but I will leave it at that for now.

  2. Julien Peter Benney

    Microseris,

    the myth to be dispensed with is that Australia has ever been a first-world nation: it never has and never will be.

    What Australia has been ever since European settlement is a high-income mineral-exporting nation, whose closest allies are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and the Gulf oil states.

    These nations have the very lowest primary productivity in the world, but are sufficiently rich in inorganic resources that they match the high-productivity extratropical northern and western hemispheres in wealth in a manner Michael Huston overlooks somewhat.

    However, whilst the extratropical northern and western hemispheres tend to lean politically to the left because of their mountainous terrain and limited high-cost housing stock, Australia and its allied nations are mainly flat and have abundant housing space. Along with the strong political power of their mineral companies, who largely control government policy as even the sceptical Kevin Williamson on page 137 of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism admits, this causes Australia and allied states to lean politically far to the right, with much smaller welfare states and very limited business regulation. These drive the high immigration and fertility in Australia, although as Tim Flannery and Jared Diamond show Australia has been overpopulated relative to the carrying capacity of its ancient soils for a good fifty years.

    The only way to deal with the immigration problem lies in making Australia’s relative living costs much higher – which actually means the “Enriched World” (extratropical Eurasia and the Americas, plus New Zealand) needs to lower relative living costs through smaller government, which the political power of unions and large welfare populations strictly forbids.

  3. Roy Inglis

    Aidan Stanger @ 64

    Astounding conclusions.

    “There are none more blind than those that will not see.” J.Heywood 1546.

    Ian @ 65 is right.

  4. Ian

    Aidan@63,

    You are playing with words which is not the reason I got into this debate so I’ll say no more.

  5. Aidan Stanger

    Roy Inglis #60
    The link you cite doesn’t appear to contain any examples of a shortage of resources limiting growth. The discovery of errors in some of the criticism of the Club Of Rome’s work doesn’t say much about the basic point they were trying to make, and the comparisons with reality are too limited to draw any useful conclusions.

    At the mement, growth isn’t being limited by a shortage of natural resources, but rather by economic factors. Environmental degradation is a different issue, and is the result of failing to properly recognise the value of nature.

  6. Aidan Stanger

    Ian #61
    If the population growth rate is slowing then by definition it is not exponential. If it were growing exponentially then thhe rate would not be slowing.

    We’re not actually running out of phosporous. The stuff is geologically abundant – the average rock is 0.1% P and some rocks have a much higher content. What we’re running out of are the high quality phosphate reserves, which means the price will rise substantially unless there’s a lot more recycling of it. But even if that wasn’t the case, a lot more recycling would be needed for environmental reasons – a surplus of phosphates in waterways tends to lead to algal blooms, which is likely to result in oxygen depletion where they subsequently decay.

    At sewage works, recycling can be done by physical, biological and chemical methods. A lot of it stays in the sludge when it is separated from the water. That which is in the water can be precipitated out, or plants can be used to remove it, or IIRC it can be filtered out somehow, though I don’t know the details.

    There’s also scope for more P recycling in intensive farming.

    Of course phosphorous can also be recycled by nature (with plants removing it from seawater) albeit at a slower rate.

  7. Ian

    Aidan@56,

    Sure antibiotics, the green revolution and other technologies have allowed us to increase population phenomenally over the past half century, that is a fact. Can we rely on future technologies to continue providing for more and more people to inhabit the planet for the next half century? I don’t think so especially since we are running out of so many of the resources vital for our existence including as I said, phosphorous.

    We agreed that the population growth rate is slowing but it is still growing exponentially and in absolute terms it goes up annually by increasing amounts. For instance between 2000 and 2001 it rose by 76.7 million and between 2011 and 2012 by 93.6 million. This info is available on indexmundi.com.

    Now it’s your turn to back up some of your assertions and perhaps explain how phosphorous can be recycled in meaningful quantities.

    Any facts you can supply will be handy thanks.

  8. Aidan Stanger

    andrew36 #57
    Of course I’ve heard it. I’ve also heard the moon is made of cheese. I go with the evidence, and the evidence is clear that human activity is resulting in a substantial amount of climate change.

    John Smith #58>
    Though a higher population does make the pollution and native flora and fauna issues harder to solve, keeping the population steady won’t solve the problem either. We need to stop undervaluing the environment.

    Clean water is an engineering issue – there are many alternative sources we could take advantage of. Congestion is also an engineering issue – and the infrastructure to solve the problem can bring much greater benefits than having a stable population and doing nothing can.

    Unemployment is largely the fault of the Reserve Bank board deliberately keeping interest rates too high, in the mistaken belief that keeping unemployment high is a necessary part of their job of controlling inflation. A bigger population doesn’t mean there’s less jobs to go round, as the number of jobs available isn’t fixed.

    We can have a sustainable population that’s higher than Rudd was aiming for. But to do so we must stop treating the environment as worhtless.

  9. Roy Inglis

    Re Aidan Stanger,
    “Though the world is finite, resources are so abundant that it”s not limiting what we can do.”

    Maybe a debate can be had about limiting “now” vs limiting “soon” but in he scheme of things that would be quibbling. Limits to growth and serious ones there certainly are, even if most choose to ignore them.

    See CSIRO at: http://www.csiro.au/files/files/plje.pdf

    and/or

    http://www.csiro.au/Portals/Multimedia/CSIROpod/Growth-Limits.aspx

  10. Bill Parker

    Its GLOBAL warming. All we did was shift the problem to a different part of the globe

  11. John Smith

    Thank you for turning a spotlight on this important issue. We’re looking at more pollution, less clean water, more expensive services, more congestion and less open space and native flora and fauna unless we aim for a stable population. There’s no point talking about a sustainable population since that point was passed long again. Now we’re into damage control. Our population is projected to grow faster now than even the huge numbers that Rudd was throwing about, it’s just that Gillard isn’t talking about it which I find disingenuous. It’s an awful ponzi scheme which is going to leave us with masses of unemployed eventually.

  12. andrew36

    Really good news guys, havnt you heard manmade climate change isnt happening so no need to worry anymore. As for over population I cant say the same thing, but unfortunately at some stage some nut will proberly start WW111 so that will thin out the population somewhat.

  13. Aidan Stanger

    Ian, you’re the one making extremely bold unsupported assertions – mine are quite tame by comparison.

    65 years ago antibiotics had only recently entered widespread use. They, and other medical developments, greatly increased life expectancy, so it’s not at all surprising that the population rose much more rapidly. But even there the long term effect is stabilizing, as it means parents no longer need to have so many children in order to be confident their descendants will continue to survive.

    If population growth were still exponential, the population growth rate would be steady in relative terms and increasing in absolute terms. You admit that it’s currently slowing, therefore either you know it’s not exponential or you don’t know what exponential growth is.

    Oil is indeed running out, but there are few, if any, things that it’s impossible to make or do withouit oil.

    Phosphorous isn’t exactly in short supply, and more importantly, it’s recyclable.

    And we can increase our planet’s capacity to absorb GHGs, (particularly CO2), thugh maybe not to the extent that we’re currently releasing them.

  14. Ian

    Aidan@53

    You are making some extremely bold assertions in your response to my comment. Do you mind backing them up with some real evidence or providing some link to evidence that supports your claims.

    For example when I was born some 65 years ago the world’s population was about 2.5 billion. Now it is about 7 billion. It took hundreds of thousands of years to reach the 2.5 billion mark it did in about 1950 and only 65 years, as I said, to climb to 7 billion in spite of efforts by some countries to curb their fertility rates. If that is not exponential growth then I don’t know what is. Yes the population growth rate is slowing but whether it does or does not slow in the future is a matter for pure conjecture. Oil and phosphorous are some commonly known examples of non-renewable resources that are peaking and running out. There are many more of them. Climate change is just another example of the earths finite capacity, in this case to absorb our GHGs.

  15. Roy Inglis

    Acknowledging the generalities in this argument, people coming to Australia adopt our lifestyle, energy use and per-capita greenhouse gas (GhG) footprint. Most countries have a lower per-capita GhG than Oz. Thus the arguments that it doesn’t matter which country people are in, GhG production would be the same, is not entirely correct. Depending on where they come from, the increase in per-capita GhG output can be significant.

  16. Aidan Stanger

    Ryan Blake (#48)

    But the main concern is the global push for the remedy to be population based. This is the footfalls of mass genocide either directly or by stealth. The only place to start is for a sovereign state based reduction in immigration and a very small Australia.

    I don’t think this “global push” is the main concern at all – it’s a fringe view with virtually no chance of getting mainstream support. But if it were the main concern, the sensible response would not be to capitulate, but rather to defeat it with logic and innovation, demonstrating that we can slash our emissions despite an increasing population.

    Ian #51
    We do not need to reduce fertility rates everywhere, and certainly not in Australia. Contrary to popular belief, human population is not normally exponential – indeed it’s usually stable unless there’s something preventing it from stabilizing. Penalizing people for having more children is totally unnecessary. In Australia’s case the main reason why people have more children is a perception of underpopulation, particularly in rural areas.

    Though the world is finite, resources are so abundant that it”s not limiting what we can do. There arent billions of peopple starving, and when starvation does occur it’s never the result of a global shortage. Plenty more food could be grown if there were more demand for it.

  17. Cathy Alexander

    Good on you Patrick!

  18. Ian

    Ryan, population is only one of the remedies and calls for action on that front do not in any way suggest genocide. In fact if nothing is done to reduce population the outcome might very well be genocide as more people end up competing for fewer finite resources.

    We need to work very hard at reducing fertility rates everywhere including Australia; by education, access to birth control devices and yes in rich countries like Australia even by financially penalizing those who insist on having say more than two children. Up until now the baby bonus rewarded people for having children.

    In a finite world every additional human being means a bit less for everybody else and at some point there will just not be enough. In fact I believe we may have already reached that point as billions are starving around the world.

    We should share what we have with others in an equitable way (not now being done) but we should also discourage high birth rates. Sharing what we have could itself lead to lower birth rates in the poor countries.

  19. Saugoof

    As a few people have already mentioned, this is an idiotic approach to addressing climate change. If Australia were to cut down immigration, those people are not going to go away, it just becomes someone else’s problem. Climate change is a global issue and using a “not in my backyard” approach is helping no one. On the contrary, countries like Australia are much more able to address, for example, emission levels than most other countries.

  20. marcfranc

    Mark Duffett quotes Clive Hamilton as saying that “on average an immigrant to Australia is responsible for double the greenhouse gas emissions they would have emitted had they not emigrated.”

    Does this mean that the opposite applies if you leave Australia? If so a starting point would be for Clive Hamilton and those who agree with him to emigrate from Australia.

    Peter W Tait suggests that someone in South Asia has only 1/40th the environmental impact of someone in Australia. That opens up all sorts of opportunities for those who are strongly committed to saving the planet.

  21. Ryan Blake

    Aidan, that much is understood. But the main concern is the global push for the remedy to be population based. This is the footfalls of mass genocide either directly or by stealth. The only place to start is for a sovereign state based reduction in immigration and a very small Australia.

  22. Aidan Stanger

    Eventually our net CO2 emissions are going to have to fall below zero, and that’s well beyond the ability of any population based solution.

  23. Ryan Blake

    “I understand state sovereignty is the bedrock of international law, but the fact is the state-based approach to reducing emissions is not working.”

    It’s a very good article Cathy, but i certainly hope you are n’t suggesting a more “global” government approach to reducing emissions, or for that matter, a “global” government approach to reducing anything. And i hope you are n’t suggesting 3 billion world population is better that 7 billion, like other globalists.

    I guess it’s ok as long as you are one of the 3 billion.

  24. Mark Duffett

    Having committed the heinous crime of putting a hyperlink in a comment, it’s still in moderation 18 hours later. So here’s another attempt sans link:

    marcfranc and Cathy, I think we’ve been here before: (link to ‘Clive Hamilton v Paul Kelly climate death match 2008 Crikey piece)

    According to Clive Hamilton, “on average an immigrant to Australia is responsible for double the greenhouse gas emissions they would have emitted had they not emigrated.”

  25. Patrick Chiller

    Sorry to distract from the issues, but wow, why do people have to be so cruel? If you have an issue with what the author is saying, why not simply argue your case? I really can’t see the need for attacking anyone.

  26. Suzanne Blake

    With the Europe Carbon Price collapsing, the whole green left game is up

  27. Warren Joffe

    A remarkable number of logical posts for Crikey on a subject so close to the lunatic fringe of gotta-believe-in-something-that-worries-me-but-gives-me-a-warm-glow-of-righteousness types.

    Wouldn’t our foreign aid dollars, and our bill for the minute fraction of the world’s refugees we help (by giving that few 100 times the assistance given to the rest) be better spent on scholarships for childless females in Third World countries who are between 12 and 30 and engaged in serious education or acquisition of marketable skills? Pay most of the money to Mum and Dad and the program would be a roaring success.

  28. Simon Mansfield

    The Inn Is Full…

    Just how Malthusian can the inner city Green Left get.

    World population will peak within 17-40 years depending on much further the fertility rate plummets.

    E=MC2 – there can never be an energy shortage in this universe.

    What’s happening to Crikey – is there actually an adult in charge anymore.

  29. David Hand

    Economic growth, leading to increased personal wealth, is the single most effective development in reducing birth rates.

  30. Joel

    As others have said, this is only relevant (outside the specific wording of treaties) to the extent that we have above-average per-capita emissions. And if we deport a bunch of people someplace that won’t actually help anything unless they reduce their emissions over there.

    Now reigning in global birth rates is something to look at, as we do have too high a global population, but all playing a shell game with the emissions doesn’t actually help. Greenhouse gasses don’t trap less heat if you play clever accounting tricks with them.

  31. Ian

    The question of refugees when debating population growth in Australia is a difficult one because it presents a challenge as to whether we should perhaps give up some of our own wellbeing for truly humanitarian motives. I believe we should be prepared to do a great deal more to accommodate these people than we reluctantly do now particularly because to a fair extent we ourselves share culpability for their circumstances.

    Immigration driven by business concerns on the other hand is really just about satisfying the corporations lust for more profits and it is these migrants that make up by far the greatest share of the migrant intake.

    And let us not forget that it is not only climate change that must be addressed here as elsewhere but resource shortages of many,many other things here in Australia and worldwide.

    Australia are high per capita polluters and resource consumers and individuals who live here cannot, through their own life style adjustments, significantly reduce overall GHG emissions.

    Nearly all migrants to Australia come from countries with substantially lower emissions than our own so on average their move will increase global GHG emissions.

    Alex is right also to point out that lowering immigration would just mean we would have to slow the mad rush to dig up and flog our non renewable resources the proceeds of which we then use to consume more things.

  32. Margaret Ludowyk

    Microseris -when you start throwing personal insults I know you are on the back foot. Study some geography and you might see that scandinavian countries are not only smaller in population but also a little smaller in size. It’s about population density.

  33. Achmed

    Margaret a small country called Norway has over $300 billion in a future fund. And renewable energy is at over 60% and they are aiming for 89%

  34. Microseris

    @ Margaret Ludowyk, why on earth does infrastructure require a higher population? Scandinavian countries have good infrastructure and low populations. We once had adequate infrastructure, however we stopped investing and wasted tax revenues on middle class welfare and pointless wars.

    We will alway be insignificant on the world stage. If that troubles you, councelling may help.

  35. Stephen

    Population is just one of the many policy domains in which Rudd-Gillard Labor has faithfully followed in John Howard’s footsteps.

    It is a truism that a large electoral majority no longer favours high population growth, and hasn’t for some years, but both parties just pretend they haven’t heard.

    Tony Burke’s Population ‘Strategy’ of 2011 was a disgrace. It couldn’t even say ‘population growth’, referring instead to ‘population change’. Just to rub it in, he launched it at a Gold Coast housing conference.

  36. Mark Duffett

    marcfranc and Cathy, I think we’ve been here before: http://www.crikey.com.au/2008/12/11/clive-hamilton-v-paul-kelly-climate-death-match/?wpmp_switcher=mobile#comment-6632

    According to Clive Hamilton, “on average an immigrant to Australia is responsible for double the greenhouse gas emissions they would have emitted had they not emigrated.”

  37. Achmed

    If we dont do something one day we may wake up and find its too late. It will be too late to act.

    Sorta like trying to insure your house the day after it burns down. There was always a chance it would never burn down, stats would say chances are low….but when its too late its too late and nothing you can do

  38. Gerard

    Silly non sequitur – of course there would be fewer emissions with fewer people – but what the has that to do with the carbon price and “dirty secrets”? Surely the goal is to reduce PER CAPITA emissions – in a world context our absolute emissions are (as the loony denialists are never tired of whining) pretty much irrelevant – pulling our weight by getting the average co2 output of each one of us down is another matter entirely.

  39. Coaltopia

    Like population, air-conditioning and aluminium aren’t themselves the problem, but they chew a lot of resources. Can we sustain that many A/C units? Is it wise to smelt aluminium with brown coal?

    The issue, as always, is dirty energy. Phase it out and strike right balance between population growth and an ageing population and you might be ok.

    Population density could be also be equated with energy efficiency and so huge (GHG) savings are possible here if we discourage urban sprawl and foster better mass transit.

  40. Sean Doyle

    The term is “GLOBAL Warming”, not “Australian Warming”. Migration only affects Global Warming if a migrant creates more carbon pollution in their new country than in their old one. Given that Australia has one of the worst per capita carbon emission rates in the world, this is the case for the vast majority of migrants. As far as I can see, there are only two logical solutions:

    a: global population control and reduction that’s agreed to by all governments (lol); or
    b: Australia actually gets serious with tackling the causes of its abysmally high per capita emissions, such as coal power plants, fossil fuel subsidies, rubbish public transport and city planning, et al.

    Any “environmentalist” arguing for Australia specific migration controls as a means of fighting global warming deserves to be treated with deep suspicion, at best. Crikey subscribers deserve better analysis in exchange for their fees rather than this “just asking questions” type effort, while we’re at it.

  41. Margaret Ludowyk

    We need to grow our population if we are to justify the infrastructure we all want. And so we are not so insignificant in the world politically.

  42. zut alors

    I was under the impression our planet passed the sustainability limit in 1977.

    Since then the wealthy nations have been in blissful denial the earthling party will come to an end.

  43. Peter W Tait

    Fantastic Cathy to see the links between GHG emissions (and by inference other human environmental impacts) and population levels being explicitly spelt out. Population is a key driver, but resource use levels and technological development are others. They also interlink with both positive and negative feed-backs.
    Resource use addresses a couple of comments (doesn’t matter which country the person is in). Actually it does. Residents of “northern” countries such as Australia have much higher resource (energy and material) use than in many other countries. So a family moving from say south Asia will magnify their environmental impact significantly; I don’t know the current figures but in the 1990s it was by about 40 times.
    So population control by access to reproductive services and female child education as well as making resources use across the planet fairer and by making technology more efficient will all contribute to reducing human impact including to global warming.

  44. Matt Moran

    As William Bourke says:
    It’s a double whammy “in terms of GHG emissions, relocating someone to Australia not only increases their per capita GHG emissions by up to 3-4 times, it encourages/delivers MORE population growth in BOTH countries.”

    Instead, better to get help where it’s most needed through access to education and family planning and ultimately improving the quality of life of the most populous countries whilst these improvements would also slow birth rates to give them and ourselves a fighting chance as the money goes a lot further.

    At our population growth of 375+K per year, that’s 75-150 billion a year we need to increase our infrastructure by to maintain our standard of living. If it’s about reducing our standard of living (which is very much happening), then by how much? Do people want increasingly triaged access to healthcare, schools, public transport, wildlife etc etc?

    Stabilizing our population whilst working in partnership with the most impoverished countries to improve their quality of life and as such, help them remain in their homes (the major preference) is win-win. Any other strategy that involves high immigration into Australia is lose-lose.

  45. Adam K

    Basically what marcfranc said. Talking about the effects of migration makes sense in the context of problems that are limited to Australia – global warming is not such a problem.

    Interestingly I would suspect that if people migrate from a poorer country to a richer country they would adapt their lifestyle to suit the new country, so their emissions would actually increase. This isn’t a compelling point in this debate, though, because we basically need to accept that at some point in the future most countries will be living the lifestyles that we have here – keeping emissions low by not allowing people to adopt our lifestyle isn’t a fair or sustainable approach.

    Ironically, the conclusion Cathy should be reaching here is that we should be trying to *increase* the proportion of our population growth that is driven by migration, by reducing our other sources of population growth, such as good ole’ reproduction, because it’s those sources that are actually going to increase emissions.

  46. David Hand

    Cathy,
    It is pointless to debate “treating humanity’s emissions as a whole” or having “a sectoral approach”. The earth has decided this for us and treats our emissions as a whole. So the act of moving from country to country has absolutely zero, nil impact on global warming. If you are thinking about the actual international travel, a better target would be the million overseas holidays a year Australians make.

    Go to Singapore darling and look up. You might occasionally see blue sky through the haze of burning forests across in Malaysia and Indonesia. Check out the amount of air-conditioning operating there. Read the newspaper there. Multiply what you see by about 200, as there are about that many cities of similar size in that region. China, India and the countries between them are putting enough carbon into the atmosphere right now to make any IPCC target unachievable. If Australia’s emmissions were zero it would make virtually no difference, whether it’s 20 million, 30 million or 50 million people here.

  47. cyberfysh

    As others have said, “correlation is not causation” – and surely we need to be smarter in the way we use resources and deal with waste, rather than just saying, “If x people cause y pollution, then 2x people will cause double the pollution.” By that logic, we could never have expanded our cities beyond their 19th century population levels, because there’d be nowhere to stable the number of horses required or to dispose of the nightsoil, etc. etc.

  48. marcfranc

    Cathy Alexander, I don’t have any suggestions for a different approach, other than not treating people like idots (which some environmentalists have been as guilty of as climate change deniers). Climate change is obviously a global rather than a national issue, but of course it must be addressed through the existing goveranance institutions, which are generally national rather than international. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to divy up emissions allowances on a national basis. A global per capita basis would be fairer.

    I’ve been deeply sceptical of this type of simplistic analysis since listening to an interview on local ABC in Canberra two or three years ago with Clive Hamilton, then director of the Australia Institute. He was arguing against a push by Canberra Airport to introduce direct international flights on the grounds that this would dramatically increase the ACT’s emissions output. (This proposition appeared to be based on the practice of allocating responsibility for emissions according to the airport of departure. On this logic, it made sense for Canberra people to drive or fly to Sydney and then fly overseas, because emissions generated by the overseas leg would be attributed to NSW.)

  49. Cathy Alexander

    This report by academics for the Immigration Department (2010) is good stuff. It looks at the impacts of immigration on the natural and built environments.

    http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/research/_pdf/physical-implications-migration-report-1.pdf

    Key findings: “The modelling demonstrates an approximately linear correlation between the NOM [net overseas migration) level and the magnitude of many impacts at any given year.”

    “The level of [GHG] emissions is sensitive to levels of NOM, and grow in an accelerating manner with time.”

    Then there is this rather off finding (not relevant to this story but piqued my curiosity): “The micro-scale analysis revealed that increased traffic congestion caused by higher
    levels of NOM is estimated to reduce people‘s subjective well-being by up to 10% of their income”.

  50. Steve Grant

    Why don’t we just ask the rest of the world for some carbon offsets?
    Stopping someone moving from one country to another will have a negligible effect on global greenhouse gas levels. Maybe a few refugees will adopt a more carbon-intensive lifestyle than they might have had back home, but given the vast majority of our migrant intake comes from the world’s heaviest polluting countries, the net effect would be almost undetectable. By Crikey’s own Fib-o-matic this is mostly rubbish.

  51. Alex

    Perhaps one of the reasons that politicians pursue population growth is because it contributes to higher economic growth, particularly as measured by GDP, so governments can better demonstrate their success. However; GDP figures might be more enlightening if they were quoted on a per-capita basis, but this is rarely done as an increasing population produces a lower figure. Really, our per-capital GDP (a measure of individual wealth) is increasing at 1% p.a., or so, less than the GDP itself. The 1% p.a. difference being the approximate rate of the population growth.

    Also, I suspect that much of our immagration is driven by business interests, particularly in the resources sector, but, I don’t think there’s an overall economic benefit from an increasing population. Mining resources are finite, so they’ll be exhausted eventually, regardless, and rushing to extract them just shortens the duration of Australia’s mining boom. If there was no net increase in the labour force, then, presumably, the mining resources would be extracted at a lower rate, with labour costs reaching a higher equilibrium level than they might otherwise. As well as higher wages, the profits and mineral resource taxes and levies would be spread amongst a smaller population, with each of us being better off on average. The only ones who might not fair as well they do now, are the shareholders of mining companies, so the industry lobbies hard and successfully for as much skilled (and unskilled) labour as possible.

    So, we the encumbant population, would be better off, and the resource boom would last longer if the labour force wasn’t supplemented by immigrants, both permanent and temporary. I don’t believe we need to rush to catch the resource boom, the world’s growing in population and wealth, and there’s always going to be a strong demand for resources, no doubt moderated at times by relatively minor short-term business cycles.

    Whether this is a good reason to curb immigration, is another matter. There’s a lot of very poor and desperate people out there, and I personally feel we can afford to keep our doors open, and we have a moral obligation to do so. We’re a disgustingly well off lot, compared to most other countries, although I have no doubt that there are desperately poor people in Australia and a lot more could be done to spread the wealth more evenly. But, that’s another matter, again.

    I concede my outlook is well over on the left side of the political divide and I’m very comfortable with my values and outlook.

  52. Warren Joffe

    I’m shocked that Cathy Alexander should have needed to be alerted to the point made by marcfranc. Given the usual Crikey blog deficiency in logic and numeracy I was about to make my own contribution rather sarcastically. We should, to follow the CA logic, keep would-be immigrants out and also try to make sure that they couldn’t do anything so notoriously productive of greenhouse gases as improve their standards of living in their home countries….

  53. Matt Moran

    Great to see this getting a mention. Some of the commentators here haven’t quite joined the dots – yes a rapidly growing population of now over 375K per year according to the ABS is a huge contributor to climate change because of the economics involved, the trade deficit which we foot from mainly mining exports, the infrastructure investment, the desertification etc all which mean our carbon footprint is escalating rapidly whilst also contributing to rapid escalation elsewhere through financial pressures.

    A stable population is the key and better for the overwhelming majority including those in other countries (this however is a little convoluted).

    Good to see others are on to it though and the mention of the Stable Population Party is getting around. With a stable population per capita cuts in consumption count. And with a stable population, we can redirect funds to help improve the quality of life of 1000,000s in situ rather than the few we are able to help by bringing them to Australia.

  54. Thteribl

    This is a case of dodgy statistics. If immigration is the main cause of Australia’s carbon emissions, is emigration reducing carbon emissions somewhere else?

  55. Cathy Alexander

    That’s an interesting point marcfranc. The way climate change is being “addressed” internationally is by dividing the world into countries, and pitching country against country (see UNFCCC).

    I understand state sovereignty is the bedrock of international law, but the fact is the state-based approach to reducing emissions is not working.

    I’ve been puzzling over this for years. Is there a different approach – that either treats humanity’s emissions as a whole, or perhaps takes a sectoral approach – that could get us past this roadblock of each country wanting to be the last to cut emissions – classic prisoner’s dilemma.

    Would be interested in what you think about this.

  56. Geoff Russell

    Climate scientists have been saying for more than a few years that emission reduction percentages are entirely the wrong way to think about the problem. The critical thing is to work out the budget of what we can put up into the atmosphere. For CO2, it doesn’t actually matter much WHEN we put it up. The estimates from various scientists agree reasonably well so lets pick one for definiteness. James Hansen has calculated that we need to phase out coal (globally) by 2030 so that most of it is left in the ground. We can afford to burn most of the known oil (but none of the tar sands) and a little gas, but that’s it.

    It’s not a question of when but how much.

    The implication is clear. Reducing by even quite large amounts can fail if it doesn’t get us to a sustainable long term point within the available budget. The sustainable long term point is about 1 tonne of CO2eq per person per annum. We have to plan to have energy systems in place by 2030 that will enable us to stop coal, all of it. If we don’t start building those now, then we won’t have them in 2030. Pissing around putting solar panels on roofs will not get us to that long term sustainable point. Pissing around with coal seam gas won’t get us there either, especially if methane leaks end up making this a far worse energy source than even coal.

    It took the French 20 years to get long term sustainable electricity, they just need much more of it. If we don’t start with nuclear now, we won’t be anything like at the sustainable point by 2030 or even 2050.

  57. marcfranc

    No one (apart from the author and the ACF) is talking about limiting immigration-driven population growth for the sake of reducing greenhouse emissions because on the face of it the proposition doesn’t make sense.

    The phenomenon we’re trying to tackle is called global warming not Australian warming. If someone moves from country A to country B it will increase country B’s emissions but reduce country A’s emissions by the same amount. The net result is zero unless it can be demonstrated that the immigrant increases their emissions due to relocating. Do you have any evidence that this is the case?

  58. David Coles

    It is hard to see that this is a ‘secret’. Of course we would have less of a problem if there were less people here. People living the way they are cause the problem. But controlling population isn’t simple, or perhaps more precisely, is not particularly palatable to most of us.

    We could cut all assistance to those who have children or want to have them, cut the immigration intake, get out of the refugee convention and send back all asylum seekers. And that is all before we get really serious and start to remove those who no longer contribute.

    We could meet our climate change targets but perhaps no one would care much any more.

  59. Tabitha

    Forget the major parties, the Stable Population Party is talking about this and will be contesting this year.

  60. NL

    it is a bit of a stretch calling this a statistical analysis. Just because there is a correlation between net overseas migration and increases in overall emissions does not imply causation. Would emissions intensive industries (read: mining boom) have continued to increase without the net overseas migration? Probably, by this flimsy logic you could state that per capita emissions have been REDUCED by increasing net overseas migration!

    Yes, population growth is problem, so is climate change, neither are going to be solved solely reducing the number of people coming to Australia.

  61. Ian

    I agree Microseris. The whole thing is a ponzi scheme designed to accommodate the demands of big business. In fact in the developed countries there is no correlation between population growth and per capita income growth and I would suggest a negative correlation between wellbeing and population growth.

    Unfortunately the real left as a whole – of which I am one, for different reasons also support high immigration.

    I think there is a tension between the question of refugees versus business friendly immigration in this debate.

  62. Ian

    My comment is awaiting moderation. It’s annoying and hard to believe I’ve said anything offensive in it so I will try again.

  63. Ian

    I agree 100% with your analysis Microseris. The whole thing is a ponzi scheme designed to accommodate the demands of big business. In fact in the developed countries there is no correlation between population growth and per capita income growth and I would suggest a negative correlation between wellbeing and population growth.

    Unfortunately the real left as a whole – of which I am one, for different reasons also support high immigration.

    I think there is a tension between the question of refugees versus business friendly immigration in this debate.

  64. Michael

    Seriously, how can one ever seriously consider renewing the Crikey subscription with diabolical crap like Cathy’s??

  65. MJPC

    Who are these demographers and economists trying to kid, the world environment cannot handle the population it has now, let along Australia. Report in the SMH stated India now has cronic shortages of water, some instances that towns and cities have run out of drinking water. Then we have China where pollution is also chronic and adversley affecting the health of the population.
    Before Australia reaches the capitalist dream of 65 million we will run out of drinking water, arable land (thanks partly to mining, particlularly CSG) and all of the air problems they are having in China.
    Somewhat has to call a stop to this insanity, but it won’t be politicians, it will be forced on us by nature.

  66. klewso

    Human nature and self-interest – only when life becomes uncomfortable will there be anything done like that – then it will be too late.
    We need to plan and act now, for the future (our kids).

  67. drovers cat

    Time to speak out Kelvin

  68. Microseris

    Not only could we meet our target (if not our proportion of what is actually required), capital cities would not be choking in congestion. Our population policy is a ponzi scheme which exists solely as a driver of demand which props up growth which is a religion to economists and politicians and no party will tackle it. More consuming units and cheap labour for the captains of industry.

    We will follow those other high immigration countries, the US & UK into the gutter and become a third world country when our resources are no longer sought.

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