Voices: Why is nobody willing to say the ‘P’ word?

The issue is a minefield due to past authoritarian crackdowns on women’s fertility in countries such as India and China (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The issue is a minefield due to past authoritarian crackdowns on women’s fertility in countries such as India and China (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

With extraordinarily apt timing, the terrifying global “eight billion people day” arrived in the middle of the failed Cop27 in Egypt. It came just 11 years after the previous “seven billion day” in 2011. And the UN predicts we will pass 10 billion day by 2080.

We are adding 80 million to the global population annually. That is just under the population of Britain, Belgium and Ireland combined. All of these people will require land, water and other resources to feed, house, wash, transport, clothe and more. Combined with exploding consumption, the population explosion is pushing humanity over the climate and ecological crises cliffs.

The draft Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in April 2022 stated that “globally, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and population growth remained the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the last decade”.

Between 2010 and 2019, growth in GDP per capita raised emissions by 2.3 per cent annually and population growth raised emissions by 1.2 per cent a year. So why is there a deathly silence from the climate movement and at Cop on the “P” word?

The issue is a minefield due to past authoritarian crackdowns on women’s fertility in countries such as India and China, and because a minority on the left scream “eco-fascism” the moment it is mentioned.

But the solution to the population crisis is one that all NGOs can support. It is simply to ensure that all women have a universal right to voluntary family planning, education and economic independence.

When women are empowered, fertility rates dive to replacement rates or below. This would help to reverse the ecological destruction wreaked since 1900, when the human population was just 1.5 billion.

The main opponents of such rights are patriarchal religions and, increasingly in the global North, nativist populists. These include those in the US, Hungary and Poland, where women’s reproductive rights are targeted by the populist, racist far-right.

Donald Trump cut off US funding of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN body promoting access for women to voluntary family planning. But the Sunak/Johnson government followed Trump with a devastating 85 per cent cut.

To mark “eight billion day”, we asked political parties and leading environmental NGOs two questions: “The IPCC says global GDP per capita and population growth are the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions. What actions do you think the government should take?” And: “Do you back a reversal of the UK funding cut to the UNFPA?”

Of those that answered, all omitted the “P” word, with the exception of Friends of the Earth, which called it a distraction. It told us: “The main drivers of environmental destruction and climate breakdown are overconsumption and demand for energy. Focusing on population growth distracts from the need for action by rich countries to cut emissions.” But it did positively state that it was against all aid cuts, without mentioning the UNFPA.

FoE added: “A sustainable society is about more than fairer shares of resources – it’s about sharing power, protecting rights and freedoms. All women and girls should have equal access to reproductive healthcare, which is a fundamental human right.”

Its website has a bizarre policy stating: “No reliable scientific estimates of sustainable human population size exist, and such estimates would be provisional and technology-dependent. Only focusing on population growth is not the most effective or just approach.” But nobody says that population is the only thing that needs to be addressed.

The problem is the opposite: almost nobody is advocating action on one of the top two drivers of climate and ecological destruction.

Positively, Greenpeace did support the call to reverse the UK cut to the UNFPA, but was at pains to say this was due to support for women’s rights, rather than any impact it has on population.

It said: “Giving women control over their reproductive cycle is crucial to their wellbeing and their communities. We urge the UK government to rethink its cuts to the UNFPA. We support women’s reproductive rights on their own merits, not just as a means to an end.”

The only environmental NGO that addressed the IPCC report’s findings on both GDP and population was Population Matters, whose patrons include David Attenborough, Jane Goodall & Partha Dasgupta.

Chief executive Robin Maynard told us: “The UNFPA cuts are devastating, showing indifference to the world’s poorest. Two-hundred and seventy million women worldwide lack access to or choice over safe family planning – a basic human right. Cruelly, the cuts mean millions more unintended pregnancies and ‘back-street’ abortions, and thousands more maternal deaths.”

Maynard added: “Universal access to family planning and education for girls, according to Project Drawdown, would save more emissions than all offshore and onshore wind power combined.”

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The WWF reply omitted any reference to population, choosing instead to urge more action by the UK government on emissions. Labour failed to provide any reply.

The Lib Dems did reply, saying: “UK foreign aid is a matter of life and death. The government callously refuses to recognise this and the cuts to UNFPA are yet another example. Women’s rights remain under attack globally and the government is abandoning them.” Again, they left out the “P” word.

Since 1975, our global population has doubled from four billion to eight billion, and carbon emissions have more than doubled from 17 billion tons of CO2 per annum to 37 billion tons per annum.

As our numbers have exploded, we have destroyed more than 70 per cent of our fellow species’ populations since 1970. Millions of women and men all over the world are already limiting family sizes as they realise the existential destructiveness of the population explosion. So please email your Tory or Labour MP and demand they support restoration of the UNFPA funding, so that all women have the right to voluntarily do the same.