Population v Climate Change

River in Delhi

Flats back on to a litter-choked river in New Delhi. Photo: David Taylor

Interesting article by Duncan Green, Oxfam’s Head of Policy, in the New Statesman this week.

“People cause climate change, therefore cut the number of people. Right? Not really. A closer look shows that the conventional view is wrong, or at least a gross over-simplification.”

“The population debate matters, especially in these two Copenhagen weeks, because it risks becoming a massive distraction. We need to focus on curbing consumption and emissions, not babies and women’s rights. Otherwise we risk blaming the victims and letting the climate villains off the hook.”

In short, Duncan argues that:

a) Population growth is slowing anyway and will peak in 2050.

b) Carbon footprints are what matter – it’s the few of us in rich countries consuming too much that is the problem, not the billions of poor people emitted very little

c) Population growth should be addressed through women’s rights, access to education and family planning services (contraception and safe abortion facilities).

Duncan as ever talks a lot of sense and he is right in warning that population must not be a distraction from the cut in emissions that need to be agreed this week in Copenhagen.

However, a concern would be around India & China’s growing middle classes, who are acquiring Western-style consumption patterns as they aspire to and reach standards of living similar to us. Of course, in development terms, we want to see a country develop, people lifted out of poverty and their working and middle classes grow. But at the moment, the carbon footprint of a person in India or China is small in comparison with a citizen of the US or EU. What happens when India & China attains billions of middle classes with similar consumption patterns to us? Does that not make limiting population vital to our efforts to stop climate change?

The answer is probably more about curbing consumption and emissions than it is about limiting population. We need to lead by example and show it is possible to have a high standard of living without excessive consumption and cut our own emissions, whilst also helping India, China and other developing countries make their own transition to a low carbon economy (through technology transfer etc).

That said, if the Chinese and Indian governments addressed population growth through an approach that strengthened women’s rights, access to education & family planning based, would that not benefit everyone in India and China, and help the planet?

What do you think?

by David Taylor, Labour Campaign for International Development

Evo Morales – from poverty to power

Evo meets his voters

Exit polls over the weekend put Evo Morales on course for an overwhelming victory in Bolivia’s Presidential election. As the Guardian said in their editorial today, this victory has gone a long way to making the social transformation inside Bolivia irreversible.

Such a transformation was unthinkable as recently as nine years ago. Then, Bolivia was one of those textbook examples we all have as global justice campaigners of the World Bank being bad – not only was Bolivia forced to privatise it’s water supply, people were charged for collecting rainwater on top of their own houses! Somewhat unsurprisingly riots ensued.

You do not have to scratch much deeper into Bolivia’s history to realise that sorry episode was not an isolated injustice. For over 500 years, poor people in Bolivia were marginalised and exploited, with no rights, no voice and no power. And for ‘poor’, read ‘indigenous’.

Those riots, however, were part of new chapter in Bolivia’s history that would culminate in Morales’ election. Indigenous peoples were become more and more vocal. Once such peoples, the Chiquitanos – who had at first had to organise under the guise of a football league to avoid the attentions of the authorities – were marching on the capital. After protests toppled President Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, it become easier for people to run independently of the traditional political parties and indigenous peoples could now make huge electoral headway.

In December 2005 Evo Morales was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous President. Four years later, extreme poverty has been reduced by 6%, illiteracy eradicated, a state pension scheme created, infant mortality reduced by 4%, eye operations given for free to those in need.

This success was paid for by the renationalisation of the gas industry and royalties on hydrocarbons. It is easy to dismiss that move as populism – but Bolivia has had three years of budget surpluses, has $8bn earned in cash reserves, and even won praise from the IMF, which applauded the government’s prudence in saving part of the windfall income from gas revenues. Economic growth was as high as 6.5% and even with the recession will be 2.8% next year according the IMF, no small achievement amongst Latin America counties.

From poverty to power

But perhaps the most important achievement of the last five years has been the redistribution of power. The Chiquitanos have now what for centuries what they could have not – their own mayors and senators, and with that power, land. After a ten-year campaign, the Chiquitanos were granted a ‘land of communal origin’ of 1m hectares. That story has been replicated across the country – according to Morales’ Party title has been given to 26 million hectares benefiting 98,454 families.

Morales and his party are not perfect. It is wise to wary when one man is given so much power, as he has been now the opposition has been so roundly trounced; of too much populism; of his uncritical relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and, inexcusably, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But this election is about more than victory for Morales or his Party. It is about an entire people rising from poverty to power after more than 500 years of oppression. As The Guardian said today,

“South Africa remembers Nelson Mandela, and eastern Europe the fall of the Berlin Wall. What a former herder of llamas has achieved in one of the world’s poorest nations may be no less momentous.”

by David Taylor, Labour Campaign for International Development

[To read more about the transformation of power to Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, please see Duncan Green, Oxfam’s Head of Policy, fantastic book From Poverty to Power (Part 2: Politics & Power). Duncan’s blog is also essential reading too.]