TED Conversations

Hans Rosling

Director, Gapminder Foundation


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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 17 2011: Don't get me wrong, excessive consumption is a tremendous part of the problem. McMansions, the disposable society etc contribute tremendously to the rape and pillage of the world. The reduction in lifestyle to manage with 1 earth would require giving up, conservatively, 4/5 of our current way of life in the west and more likely 9/10. The rest of the world is doing it's best to catch up thus recruiting more and more consumers. It is unrealistic to believe that addressing the "wasteful lifestyle" of the west will be either possible or effective on it's own. We also need to have less consumers! With respect to the extremist populations the only real way to get rid of them is through education of the peoples in those societies, not accepting products from those societies which unfortunately will make life worse for the common person but will lead eventually to internal revolution and to promote positive change that improves the equality of all the citizens within such a society (simplistic but there's only so much space here). So long as repressive regimes are supported in the name of "stability" and their product bought to the enrichment of the ruling elite we assist in the perpetuation of extremist thinking and increasing populations, the relatively few exceptions to this prove the rule in general. Alex, we can't count on some unseen deus ex machina solution to save us. Yes there is progress but the huge numbers of people as well as deliberate obfuscation by problem deniers and vested interests, such as the Republicans and oil companies, will ensure the solutions come neither fast enough nor achieve sufficient penetration to prevent global collapse. Hans states emphasizing population diverts attention whereas my assertion is that as a tremendous part of the problem, look at the deforestation of Haiti by the poor, not addressing population will cause any other solutions to fail. Population controls need to be part of the solution!
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      Feb 18 2011: Yes but problem is something you can do something about. he fact that Netherlands is small and the Atlantic is big is not a problem for agricultural production.
      And even if you start very actively and gradually become successful in promoting people to have only one child per couple the effect will be so slow on the numbers of humans so that it will be of almost negligible effect on the energy consumption.
      Or how would you go about decreasing a world population that is presently set for an increase with 2 more billion beforeĀ“a decrease may take place.
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        Feb 18 2011: But what will the effect on energy consumption be of raising all those Sub-Saharan Africaners (etc.) to having a good level of existence??

        If the reduction in population through attrition is going to be slow, the net effect is going to be a continuing spiral up in energy consumption by the world which contributes to global climate change and the eventual destruction of the planet (yeah, I know, doom and gloom). The point here is that population has a direct impact on global climate change in the following two ways:

        1. Increase in population causes increase in resource use which has effects on climate.
        2. Increase in resource use by population also effect climate.

        Either we begin looking into "Soylent Green" or we have to find means of resource usage that has *no* effect on climate.

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