Slower Population Growth Is Not Harmful, New Report Finds

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told the families in Iran, over the summer, to make more children after saying the government was wrong to promote slogans like “fewer kids, better life.” His concern was of the consequence of declining population growth.

Many countries around the world (Russia, South Korea, Italy and Japan to name a few) are seeing a decline in population growth, a concern among some folks. Even economist Paul Krugman believes it will lead to “secular stagnation.” A story released in the Washington Post on Oct. 31, 2013 summarized the belief as bad for countries:

Bigger populations can mean bigger economies (and bigger militaries), but only if the state can provide the necessary infrastructure and services. More people means more pressure on natural resources, but it can also mean more businesses, more exports, more tax revenue.

In contrast, a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds a slower population growth is helpful to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Economist David Rosnick authored the report and essentially asked, “what is the harm in slower population growth?”

“Slower population growth could play only a role among many policies for heading off further climate change.  Faster population growth will make avoidance much more difficult than slower, and so it is important to avoid encouraging faster population growth and giving families options for slower growth,” Rosnick said.

Climate change is an issue constantly discussed among scientists considering the significant ramifications it holds for the future of the planet. NASA reports it currently produces effects such as heat waves and droughts in different parts of the U.S. Furthermore, the effects are estimated to be catastrophic should nothing be done with reports of major migrations and loss of animal populations for instance. All of this is due to a growth in carbon emissions in the past century.

The report mentions the impact a high population growth may have for the planet:

As such, the harm caused by faster population growth is clear. A larger population requires more farmland to produce food, and increased economic activity means greater carbon emissions and more intense climate change. A recent study estimated that by 2100, slower population growth could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent, significantly slowing the projected rise in average global temperatures.

Perhaps the biggest worry among those policymakers concerned about the slow down in population growth is how the youth may be able to sustain older population. Indeed, Pew Research Center devoted a report earlier this year to this issue and warned “it is not surprising that public expenditures on pensions and health care are generally projected to increase as a share of gross domestic product.”  Paul Taylor, also of Pew Research, wrote a report on Apr. 10 on the Millennial generation and pointed to this issue too:

[T]he cost of our programs for seniors will soon exceed half of the federal budget. This spending continues to crowd out budgeting for education, research and infrastructure – investments that would help build a better future for Millennials and their children.

Rosnick disagrees with this and writes productivity gains will cover more than enough in terms of the consequences of sustainability. In fact, economist Dean Baker, co-director of CEPR, wrote about such a crisis as “nonsense” and found even a gain of one percent in productivity growth can dwarf “any potential negative impact from a declining ratio of workers to retirees.”

The report provides different models connecting GDP, carbon emissions and population growth with each other, where, for example, there is a correlation between economic performance and an increase in carbon emissions. Moreover, Rosnick provides a “rule of thumb” when it comes to the relationship of population growth and changes in temperature:

An additional 1 percentage point of population growth through the end of the century may coincide with an additional 2 degrees Fahrenheit in average global temperatures

Rosnick does say the issue of population growth is unpopular among some groups, but effective policies can help curb the effects of climate change:

On another part of the political spectrum, there is a reluctance to discuss the impact of population growth on climate change for fear of promoting a Malthusian or even racist discourse. However, even if one were to focus on the geographical areas with the fastest-growing projected population–most importantly, Africa–the most important policies that would reduce population growth aim to satisfy the basic unmet needs of individuals and families,

The paper does describe solutions for changing society into one where there are low-birth rates, but, in general, the report deals more with the effects of climate change and population growth. However, Rosnick does say solutions like less working hours, which he wrote about in in early 2013, can help the environment.

“If we leave that to more leisure time, we will have less [carbon emissions] and climate change,” Rosnick said.

Of course, such a slow down would not be the solution to the problems of climate change and the report acknowledges it. However, it is a start in ensuring effective policies can be made to reduce the worst of global warming.

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