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The critical election issue: population

By Jenny Goldie - posted Monday, 12 August 2013

With one or two notable exceptions, our political parties are not acknowledging that population lies at the heart of most issues.

In 2012, Australia's population growth rate was 1.8 per cent. It meant an extra 394,200 people a year, nearly 400,000 people. Despite lower than replacement fertility rates since 1976, natural increase was still going up and had reached 158,300, or 40 per cent of total growth. Making up the remainder, net overseas migration had also risen, to 235,900 people.

Whether natural increase or immigration makes up the bulk of the growth is not really relevant; it is the size of the growth itself. Our annual increase is even greater than the population of the Australian Capital Territory of 379,600. It's twice the size of the city of Geelong. These new people, be they immigrants or babies born here, must be fed, housed, schooled, and had their health and recreational needs met.


The infrastructure for supplying these basic needs ideally comes before people arrive, not afterwards. You can't wait for the new arrivals to pay taxes before you build the road or the school or the hospital or the energy or water supply. And infrastructure costs, as any state or local government will tell you. And not only does government need to pay for new infrastructure; it must repair and upgrade existing infrastructure. If infrastructure fails to keep pace with population growth, then ordinary people feel it in terms of congestion, crowding, longer waiting times and unaffordable housing.

While the costs of providing for an ever larger population are important, they are not the overriding issue. What really matters is how big a population we can ecologically sustain in the long-term. And the evidence is that even 23 million people, living at current levels of consumption, may not be ecologically sustainable. The most recent Australian Stateof the Environment report, from 2011, notes our unique biodiversity is in decline, blaming human activities, past and present. Population growth, it says, along with climate change and economic growth, is a major driver of environmental change.

We could do better in stopping biodiversity decline through improved stakeholder engagement and connected corridors of vegetation. The K2C or Kosciuszko to Coast project is a splendid example. Yet, even the State of the Environment report warns that it will be difficult, what with the past pressures of land clearing, present pressures of invasive species and the emerging challenge of climate change. Adding more people to the continent, of course, means more land-clearing for urban and agricultural expansion, more invasive species and more greenhouse emissions.

While climate change and greenhouse emissions are a global issue, we do have international obligations to reduce emissions. As part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, the Australian Government has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least five per cent on year 2000 levels by 2020. Yet Treasury models indicate that Australia's emissions will grow from 553 million tonnes in 2000 to 774 million tonnes in 2020. Professor Bob Birrell and Ernest Healy of Monash University found in 2009 that 83 per cent of the forecast increase in greenhouse emissions to 2020 will be attributable to population growth. They concluded that it is very unlikely that Australia will achieve the five per cent reduction target by 2020 should population growth not be reduced.

The biggest concern about climate change for Australians, however, is its effect on carrying capacity. The Climate Commission warns we are tracking on the high side of projections for global warming and, without strong action to move to a low carbon economy, we are heading for 4oC of warming globally well before the end of the century. The World Bank has warned, however, 'if we have any sense of responsibility to current and future generations, a 4oC world is to be avoided at all costs'.

Leading oil and climate analyst, Ian Dunlop, in his contribution to the Australia21 booklet Placing global change on the Australian election agenda launched recently in Canberra, wrote that Australian leaders glibly talk about adapting to a 4oC world with little idea of what it means. It would be "a world with less than 1 billion people, rather than the present 7 billion," Dunlop said.


"Large parts of the world would be subject to extreme drought, with severe impact on food, water and human health, whilst other parts experience intense rainfall and flooding.

As a hot, dry continent, the impact on Australia is likely to be severe. It implies a major reduction in the Australian population."

Climate change is a major concern but oil vulnerability also looms large. Look at any graph of population growth and of oil use, put them together and they are in lock-step. We have only been able to sustain the global and national population with cheap oil. While unconventional oil sources have maintained overall supply for the moment, they are not cheap. Unless we replace oil with alternatives, our oil-based economy will hit the wall and with it the capacity to support a larger population.

And now the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Bank, endorsed by our own Climate Commission, have warned that we must keep four fifths of all fossil fuels in the ground if we are to avert runaway climate change. This has huge implications for our national economy, so heavily based on coal. A contracting economy can support fewer people unless they accept a lower standard of living.

The good times are over. Platitudes about economic growth by the major parties are simply not good enough. We are in for tough times. Only those parties and candidates who are aware of these constraints on population growth and have policies to match are worthy of our vote.

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About the Author

Jenny Goldie is currentatly national president of Sustainable Population Australia, president of Climate Action Monaro, and Canberra co-ordinator of ASPO Australia. She is a former science teacher and communicator.

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