In presenting the Intergenerational Report to the National Press Club Treasurer Peter Costello claimed that, “Demography is working against us”. He’s right. Australia’s population growth is like a runaway train – and the Treasurer is furiously stoking the furnace as we career towards an uncertain post-peak-oil future in a climate-changed world.

A record 135,000 babies were born in the last six months in Australia, and immigration has reached a 17 year high. Australia’s recent population growth rate is 1.32%. Population forecasts of 28 million by 2050 are now totally unrealistic. A 1.32% growth rate will see us reach 36 million by then.

United Nations projections show that from 2005 to 2050, Europe’s population will fall by 75 million (or 10%), Japan’s population will decline by 12%. Europe and Japan are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions – Australia rejects Kyoto. Professor Tim Flannery in his 2005 book The Weather Makers, noted that the main hurdle to Australia reducing its emissions is its pursuit of population growth.

Australia’s contribution to the planet’s total greenhouse emissions is only 1.5%, but the consequences of climate change, for us, are serious. Water supplies for Sydney, Melbourne and the Murray-Darling basin will be 25% less; it will be hotter and rainfall will be less reliable.

Yet, the Intergenerational Report fails to examine the prospects for future generations of Australians in a climate-changed world. Our Treasurer seeks population growth to achieve workforce growth and economic growth – as if the economy can operate in isolation of environmental and resource limits.

Within the Report’s timeframe, oil shortages will impact on Australia. Agriculture uses huge quantities of oil and gas in fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, ploughing, planting and harvesting and in transportation. Agricultural production can reasonably be expected to decline from today’s levels, once cheap, reliable supplies of oil and gas are no longer available.

We run the considerable risk of exceeding the human carrying capacity of this drying continent.

Twelve years ago the Jones Report, Australia’s Population Carrying Capacity: One Nationtwo ecologies, noted that, of the 270 submissions received by the inquiry, “over 90% advocated population stability or lower population growth”, and recommended that the Australian Government should develop a population policy and a consumption strategy – neither have eventuated.

Twelve years ago no-one was talking about climate change and oil shortage, but these compounding challenges should now prompt Peter Costello to stop the train and seriously reconsider his population growth policies.

** Source of United Nations projections: State of World Population 2005, United Nations Population Fund NY.

*** Australia’s Population Carrying Capacity: One Nation two ecologies, Australian Government Publishing Service Canberra, 1994. Recommendation 10 recommended that the Australian Government should develop a population policy. Recommendation 11 recommended that the Australian Government should develop a consumption strategy.