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Hans Rosling

Director, Gapminder Foundation

TEDCRED 200+

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Why do so many think that population growth is an important issue for the environment? Don't they know the facts of demographics?

We face many environmental challenges, but the foremost is the risk for a severe climate change due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

I meet so many that think population growth is a major problem in regard to climate change. But the number of children born per year in the world has stopped growing since 1990. The total number of children below 15 years of age in the world are now relatively stable around 2 billion. The populations with an increasing amount of children born are fully compensated by other populations with a decreasing number of children born. A final increase of 2 billion people is expected until the world population peaks at about 9 billion in 2050. But the increase with 2 billion is comprised by already existing persons growing up to become adults, and old people like me (+60 years). So when I hear people saying that population growth has to be stopped before reaching 9 billion, I get really scared, because the only way to achieve that is by killing.

So the addition of another 2 billion in number constitutes a final increase of less than 30%, and it is inevitable. Beyond 2050 the world population may start to decrease if women across the world will have, on average, less than 2 children. But that decrease will be slow.

So the fact is that we have to plan for a common life on Earth with 7-9 billion fellow human beings, and the environmental challenge must be met by a more effective use of energy and a much more green production of energy.

The only thing that can change this is if the last 1-2 poorest billion do not get access to school, electricity, basic health services and family planning. Only if the horror of poverty remains will we become more than 9 billion.

So my question is: Are these facts known? If not, why?

It is important because placing emphasis on population diverts attention from what has to be done to limit the climate crisis.

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    Feb 15 2011: Thank you Hans for this reality check. The recent Time cover story about population makes some equally balanced comments about population. Yes it is still growing, but the reality is that in every developed country, without the need for any government-mandated population control mechanisms, the birth rate has dropped very close to or below the replacement rate of approximately 2.1 children per couple. What we need more than population control is development and education -- they are the most effective forms of population growth imaginable! And development will eventually solve the carbon problem too as developed societies move towards renewable non-polluting energy and sustainable built environments. The answer to every global-scale problem is to help lift the rest of the world out of poverty and into educated, developed society as quickly as possible.

    Also I like your last comment about placing emphasis on population diverting attention away from the climate crisis. I completely agree. And, even more so, the climate crisis -- which today is almost 100% about CO2 -- is diverting attention away from extremely important environmental issues like non-CO2 pollution. The Great Pacific Plastic Patch. Endocrine disruptors in the water systems giving rise to frogs being born with ambiguous genitalia (with humans to follow). Children burning insulation off of wires in China to harvest the copper. Pollutants seeping from electronic junk in landfills. Huge epidemics of bowel and colon cancer in China from polluted water sources. Hundreds (thousands?) of species going extinct per day. We don't hear much about these environmental issues anymore because everybody is so focused on CO2. And I suspect there will come a time that we'll regret losing a decade or two of sleep over CO2 while we were diverted from what may turn out to be much bigger problems.
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      Feb 17 2011: "And development will eventually solve the carbon problem too as developed societies move towards renewable non-polluting energy and sustainable built environments."

      What is your definition of "development"? Because if "development" means "widespread infrastucture and modernization", from where do we extract the raw materials necessary to develop the entire world?

      Communities living in poverty, whether in developed countries or not, have drastically lower carbon emission and waste product than the affluent ruling-class. A self-sustaining agrarian community produces far less waste and far fewer emissions than Chicago, for instance. "[lifting] the rest of the world out of poverty and into educated, developed society as quickly as possible" just sounds way too white-man's-burden for me to get behind. I'm all for education so long as it's both factual and self-administered as opposed to an ignorant colonial force missionizing "truth", which comes to mean "worldview".

      I'm certainly not arguing that we return to isolated farming communities, but I also don't believe large-scale development is the be-all, end-all solution to basically anything. My apologies if I drastically misunderstood your argument, and I very much agree with the ideas in the second portion, though I'm just saying that don't polluted water sources come from areas with access to things like fossil fuels and synthetic materials?

      I suppose I'm trying to understand your angle here. Feel free to key me into the parts that I'm sure I'm missing.
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        Feb 18 2011: Do not worry max, brown man is carrying the burden now. >Not to mention brown women. They study harder and Asia is in many ways more serious than US and West Europe when it comes to acting upon climate change. But EU respond by putting import tariffs on Chinese solar panels!!
        White man is not crying even his own burden. He is asking Bangladesh to carry it for him. I just listen to a talk by the Minister of Environment of Bangladesh, I was so impressed by his wisdom.
        • Feb 18 2011: It is interesting that in spite of my being a reasonably well informed citizen (BBC, Channel 4, and the broadsheed papers) I haven't come accross any of those two items: The EU putting import tariffs on Chinese solar panels nor the Bangladeshi Minister of Environment speech on the iniquities of the world system. Things will not change until a critical mass of people are aware of what goes on and until the elites feel watched by the people. The media elites are the gatekeepers preventing information from flowing freely. It is very discouraging!
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          Feb 19 2011: Hans, I'd love to hear the Bangladeshi Minister of Environment's speech -- is it online somewhere that you're aware of?
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      Feb 17 2011: Agree with you one hundred percent that bringing basic education and water / land management skills to underdeveloped countries will help stabilize populations faster than government mandates. Additionally, thanks for bringing up the other environmental issues that need to be addressed. All the talk of clean energy and such has been a thin veil used by too many corporations that literally trash our lands and seas.
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        Feb 18 2011: Remember that most of the world population already reach 2 child families as a norm we are talking about the last billion that has to follow in the next decades, and they are with exception of the war torn low income countries. Vietnam, Iran and Brasil have 2 child families. Iran has less children per women than Sweden.

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