The Forbidden Word in Climate Change Discussions and the Key to a Bright Future

Instead of scientists predicting a rise in global temperature by 3-6 degrees by 2100 . . . we have a chance of not only halting the rise to 1.5 degrees above the norm, but reversing it . . . and to fully restore degraded habitats . . .


  • Why are leaders and many in the media avoiding the issue of population?
  • Having one less child has a massive impact on carbon footprints
  • A global population below 3.5 billion by 2100?
  • Thinking positive about the possible
  • Reconnecting economics with ecology
  • Less people means more land for critical rewilding
  • Book recommendation: Elegant Simplicity – The Art of Living Well, Sartis Kumar


I recently watched David Attenborough’s documentary on climate change. It was sobering. The documentary was well done, especially because it mentioned mass-restoration of jungles and woodlands as obvious remedies to global warming. What it did not mention, however, was the most powerful variable of all – population and the possibility of its conscious reduction. A lower population is the key to a brighter, sustainable world. In the year 1900 there were around 1.6 billion humans on Earth. Now we’re at 7.6 billion with the UN forecasting 9.7 billion by 2050.

Sir Bob Watson, lead scientist in the recently published UN assessment on biodiversity and ecosystems, commented in an interview on BBC’s Radio 4 that population growth and especially consumption per person are the underlying drivers of an 82% drop in the global biomass of wild animals and a degradation of 75% of land area worldwide. And this is before the rest of the world catches up with Western consumption levels. Yet the possibility of lower population was left unexplored.

Fewer people, consuming less, means more land available for the rest of nature whose biodiversity is vital for the entire ecosystem, humans included. It also means less pollution and less disease.


Why are leaders and many in the media avoiding the issue of population?

If population is so important why is the subject repeatedly avoided, especially in politics? Several reasons come to mind:

  1. Economics – our system’s addiction to destructive economic growth requires a rising population that continues to consume.
  2. Fear – mentioning population is considered political suicide.
  3. Guilt – many people have more than two children.
  4. A lack of vision – addressing population opens up a can of worms (e.g. how can our current economic system, or an alternative one, support ageing populations?).
  5. Scale – trying to reduce our population across a complex multi-cultural world seems too big a beast to tackle.

One root of our dilemma is our perception of rights and responsibilities. We want the right to have as many children as we wish. The same could be said of the number of cars or houses we aspire to own, or flights we would like to take. But we often don’t balance these choices with our responsibility to the world at large. Personal freedoms, beyond a critical point we’ve far exceeded, enslave us at the collective level, threatening us and other species with extinction and denying us of a deeper-feeling freedom born of sustainability and authentic community.

We need a mature, open-minded, imaginative exploration of this key theme of responsibility and global population, focusing on the possible, not the probable, accepting that currently there are more questions than answers but having the courage to ask them.

It is not a questioning of existing lives, but a decision on our appropriate size going forward in the context of the entire ecosystem. It is an opportunity to slow down, come together and to focus on quality over quantity, visualising how beautiful the world could be in thirty years time, and even more so in a hundred years time, and acting now to bring it about (e.g. London National Park City launching 22nd July, 2019 – run by a charity). As climate spokespeople have recently commented, we are the first generation to see the effects of climate change and the last generation with a chance to do anything about it.


Having one less child has a massive impact on carbon footprints

By far and away the greatest impact individuals can have in countering climate change, along with pollution and loss of biodiversity, is to have one fewer child. A study published in 2017 in Environmental Research Letters, highlighted in the The Guardian newspaper, showed that one less child reduces each parent’s annual carbon footprint by a massive 58 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), taking into account the child’s descendants. To put that into perspective, annual CO2e per person are around 16 tonnes in the US and Australia, and 7 tonnes in the UK. The same article notes that CO2e emissions need to fall to 2 tonnes per person to avoid severe global warming. The next high impact actions are living car-free (saving 2.4 tonnes p.a.), avoiding one round-trip long-haul flight (1.6), switching to an electric car (1.15), a plant-based diet (0.82), with recycling down at 0.21, though still important.

The reason why the 58 number is so much higher than the other already-high numbers is because it’s showing the multiplier effect of having a child. When one child grows up and partners with another, the couple have the potential to create an infinite number of descendants, placing yet greater burden on our environment.

themosteffecSource:  Wynes & Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters

The study concluded that these higher impact actions are rarely mentioned in government advice or school textbooks, despite the importance of teenagers being prepared to make these shifts. This is likely related to a governmental preference for solutions that are pro-economic growth, along with an over-reliance on profitable technology rather than facilitating changes to lifestyle, which are more powerful though might threaten GDP – a poor measure of welfare. 

If we do not consciously reduce our population from now on, nature will surely do it for us, more than likely before 2050. In fact, a growing number of young people are already stating that they don’t plan to have any children, given how many people there already are in a world whose outlook seems bleak. Others are thinking twice about having second child because of the high cost of rearing one. The average basic cost of rearing a person through to 21 in the UK was recently estimated at £230,000 (Source: Centre of Economic and Business Research).


A global population below 3.5 billion by 2100?

In 2017 Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the USA published a detailed study on whether human population could be dramatically reduced by a worldwide shift to smaller family sizes, based on raised awareness through effective family-planning advise and education rather than the forced approach of China’s controversial one-child policy. The study used a matrix model to analyse nine scenarios, some of which included catastrophic mortality events.

Although the researchers themselves concluded that a significant reduction in population would take centuries, advising dramatically lower consumption in the meantime, in scenario 3 they reduced fertility down to an average of one child per female by the year 2100 from the current average of 2.37. This resulted in a world population of 7 billion in that same year. In scenario 4 they modelled an average of one child per female by 2045, leading to a world population of 3.45 billion by 2100.

Even if fertility was reduced to 2 children per female by 2020 there would be 777 million fewer people in the world by 2050.

The study cited an oft quoted optimum world population of 1-2 billion (possible in 2153 based on an average of one child per female achieved by 2100), suggesting instead that a larger population is feasible if society embraces technological improvements, including sustainable energy, and vastly reduced consumption of primary resources. They urged political and religious endorsement of their common sense proposals and a greater commitment from higher-income countries to fund population awareness programs in developing countries. This is especially urgent in Africa which accounts for 60% of the expected population rise by 2050 and where rising temperatures will be keenly felt, along with the urge to migrate north.


Thinking positive about the possible 

Personally, I feel we need a convergence of the above science with a large dose of experienced optimism, viewing the challenges of our times as a golden opportunity – to question what it really means to be human then to unleash our vast collective potential. A shift in consciousness is undoubtedly underway and gathering momentum. Perhaps a global of population of 2 billion or less is possible by 2100 without the need for catastrophe or control.

In an ongoing excellent series of podcasts about solving the climate crisis – Outrage and Optimism – a key question is whether the various proposals from the public and private sectors to solve the climate and biodiversity crisis will be too little too late. The missing factor is the leverage of a lower global population that can massively amplify any efforts we make to recover balance. Use of dwindling resources will be reduced along with waste. 

Instead of scientists predicting a rise in global temperature by 3-6 degrees by 2100, the lower end of which would likely be a tipping point into an irreversible catastrophic scenario, there’s a good chance of not only halting the rise to 1.5 degrees above the norm, but reversing it, especially if we make the most of many hands today by restoring natural habitats.

This process requires us to open up to the idea that we are one large family of many species and that all children and all life are our shared responsibility. Viewed this way, there are no 1-child or no-child families – all are included.


Reconnecting economics with ecology

At a practical level, perhaps our biggest challenge in making this transition is reconnecting economics with ecology.

During the recent protests in London, protesters called for governments to bring forward zero net emissions of carbon from the 2050 target date to 2025. The immediate response from some politicians and economists was that such a demand was unreasonable, but it is only unreasonable in the context of a system that is obsessed with economic growth – a false economy that is driven by stock market mania, debt and unsustainable, incorrectly priced fossil-fuelled world trade, often propped up by subsidies.

As Viktor Schauberger once said, in a sustainable economy we live off the interest of nature, in balance with other species, rather than destroy the capital that can’t be replaced. Quality of life is the measure of welfare, not GDP. The currency is human energy – something tangible. Real value is in the relationships between things, while money is simply a tool of exchange for essential products to be brought in from outside the local economy, not a measure of wealth.

George Monbiot recently remarked that while organisations such as the World Bank call for just 3% GDP growth per annum, this equates to a doubling of the world economy in just twenty-four years when we’re already at ecological limits.

To encourage the transition to sustainable economies, today’s products need to be priced correctly, factoring in their full cost, in particular their carbon footprint. Anything imported will likely become multiples more expensive, especially products flown in. Where possible, this will spur the creation of a cheaper, better quality, local supply, creating jobs in the process. Though in the short term this may favour consumers with more money, our system of human values is on the verge of a revolution. Within a decade, it’s not difficult to imagine that the individual accumulation of large amounts of money will be correctly seen as an expression of fear in times where real security comes from restored community and trust. This genuine system of care, in which everyone is considered family, also negates a deeper reason why many people have children – to be taken care of in their old age.

During this transition, all businesses can play a role by shifting their focus from quantity to quality, by evolving, while new enterprises will spring up in the push for sustainability. The emphasis can be on people-intensive creative projects rather than automation. In other words, real intelligence rather than intelligence that is artificial.

It is also possible that forced migrations of what are largely younger populations from economically-developing countries may, over time, help to solve the dilemma of ageing populations elsewhere, though the scale of the potential numbers will likely pose a serious short to mid-term challenge (Outrage and Optimism, Episode 8 – Finding Refuge with David Miliband). To reduce the risk of large scale migrations, richer nations can do more to help restore degraded land in countries that have experienced large scale deforestation and desertification – forests create cooling and restore water to the land. Assistance can also be given in the development of sustainable agriculture. Meanwhile, restoring wildlife corridors will help migrations that are essential.


Less people means more land for critical rewilding

A much lower population will also free up large swathes of land for rewilding.

With fewer people, less land will be required for industrial agriculture – a major contributor to greenhouse gases and loss of species. Land required for housing and for renewable energy will also be reduced, especially if we learn to live better by consuming less. Both factors will free up space for rewilding on the huge scale that is required, not only to absorb carbon, nurture biodiversity and protect our long-suffering wildlife, but to restore largely-depleted underground reserves of water – one of the many vital functions fulfilled by indigenous forests. This process will be amplified by a lower population. Rewilding will also restore soil stability and fertility. Like forests and oceans, healthy soil sequesters vast amounts of carbon. Expanses of wild space are also vital for our spirit and overall health.

It is awesome to see the young rise up in peaceful protest. Leaders at every level, in both the public and private sectors, have a small window of opportunity to act boldly. They are surrounded by brilliant people who have been working on the alternatives for decades and know the solutions. Leaders just need to pay attention and to work closely with all nations. As David Attenborough’s documentary notes – the cost of action today will be dwarfed by the cost of inaction.

But I for one am optimistic. Nature repeatedly shows us how quickly it recovers if given the chance and humans are part of this miracle. In just thirty years, saplings become a forest. Our population can be far less than it is today – through a smooth process of transition rather than nature forcing it upon us. Instead of the prospect of grim survival, we can thrive – co-operating rather competing, contributing throughout our lives rather than working, fulfilled rather than depressed, living in a way that benefits all life. In short – true freedom.

Robert Luck
UBS 1995-2003
Author of The House of Tusk,  a fantasy tale of our times

Book recommendation: Elegant Simplicity – The Art of Living Well, Sartis Kumar (see below).



Climate Change – The Facts, David Attenborough

Radio 4 – Costing the Earth

The Guardian, 12-03-2019, BirthStrikers: meet the women who refuse to have children until climate change ends

The Guardian, 12-07-2017 – Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children

Environmental Research Letter, 2017: The climate mitigation gap: education and
government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions

The Telegraph, 22-01-2015, Average cost of raising a child in UK £230,000

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA – Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems, by Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Barry W. Brook

Outrage and Optimism – a series of podcasts hosted by Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac and Paul Dickinson.

George Monbiot with Frankie Boyle: Climate change – what do we need to do to address it

Elegant Simplicity, Sartis Kumar, founder of The Small School and Schumacher College.

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