A crowded street in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, in March 2020. Photo: Shashank Hudkar/Unsplash
- India’s population is now at 138 crore and could overtake China by 2024 as the world’s most populous country.
- Some experts and political leaders have pointed to this growing population as a problem that needs to be solved for the climate.
- This view confuses the problems caused by population growth with those caused by unequal levels of resource consumption.
Let’s put that figure in more perspective.
India is the second most populous country in the world. At the rate we’re going, it’s set to overtake China to reach the first spot by 2024 – reportedly sooner than expected.
An increasing population comes with several costs, we’re often told.
A common assumption is that a higher population means more consumption of natural resources. For instance, some have argued that a growing population means we will need more food and more land and water on which to cultivate that food. This could put more pressure on wild lands and our finite natural resources.
“There is not enough land for all the land-hungry, and much of the land that is now being cleared under population pressure – some of it magnificent primaeval evergreen forest – will surely be abandoned in a permanently ruined state, another martyr to human irresponsibility,” ornithologist Salim Ali said over national radio in 1976.
Others have also said that more people could lead to more pollution. More people means more cars, houses and so on. This in turn means more impact on the climate. For example, it could mean more fossil fuel use and therefore more carbon emissions, because the growing population will also need more power.
India’s natural wealth is already stretched and a burgeoning population consumes this faster. At a time when India, like the rest of the world, is witnessing extreme weather events due to climate change, an exploding population becomes a bigger worry.
Logically, then, controlling our population can ease pressure on nature and curb climate change.
But this is wrong.
India’s population growth is not a climate issue. Here are two reasons why.
India’s fertility rate is dropping
First, India’s population is not exploding, despite such claims by politicians. As per data from the fifth and latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS), for 2019-2021, India’s fertility rate has dropped. The fertility rate is the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime, under certain assumptions.
From 2.2 in the last NFHS, 2015-2016, India’s total fertility rate (TFR) is now 2.0. This is below the ideal replacement level – the rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration: 2.1.
India’s TFR is now lower than the replacement level, busting “the myth of population explosion” in India, as the Population Foundation of India recently wrote.
Data from the World Bank also shows that India’s growth rate decreased from 1.73% in 2001 to 1.04% in 2018, The Wire has reported. According to researcher Sumanta Roy of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India’s Census data also shows a decline in the decadal growth rate, from 21.5% during 1991-2001 to 17.7% during 2001-2011.
“There is no scientific evidence to show a population explosion in India,” Roy wrote in The Telegraph.
Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in 2019 that a ‘population explosion’ stands in the way of India’s development.
Consumption is unequal
Second, population growth is a decoy – a concept created to distract us from the real and invisible problem of inequality.
A 2009 study found that population growth doesn’t drive growth in greenhouse gas emissions. It is driven instead by the number of consumers and their levels of consumption. In fact, consumption levels of a “significant proportion” of the world’s urban and rural populations are so low that “they contribute little or nothing to such emissions,” the study found.
It also reported that countries with very low emissions per person, and often only slowly growing emissions, have had the highest population growth rates.
So the carbon footprints of people vary drastically across the globe, based on the resources they consume.
An average middle-class American, for instance, consumes 3.3-times the subsistence level of food and almost 250-times the subsistence level of clean water, professors Stephen Dovers and Coin Butler wrote for the Australian Academy of Science in February 2021.
“Focusing solely on population numbers obscures the multifaceted relationship between us humans and our environment, and makes it easier for us to lay the blame at the feet of others, such as those in developing countries,” they added.
According to a 2015 Oxfam report, the richest 10% of the world’s people contributed 50% of annual global warming emissions. Shockingly, the poorest half – around 3.5 billion people – were reportedly responsible for only around 10% of total emissions attributed to individual consumption.
Simply put: Wealth and consumption inequity contribute more to climate change than just consumption.