No, India’s population growth is not a climate problem


A crowded street in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, in March 2020. Photo: Shashank Hudkar/Unsplash


  • India’s population is now 138 crore and could overtake China by 2024 as the most populous country in the world.
  • Some experts and political leaders have pointed to this growing population as a problem for the climate to be solved.
  • This view confuses the problems caused by population growth with those caused by unequal levels of resource consumption.

Cochin: The population of India in 2020 was 138 crore. According to another source, India currently has 140 crores people – and count.

Let’s put that number into perspective.

India is the second most populous country in the world. At the rate we are going, it should overtake China to reach the top spot by 2024 – apparently earlier provided that.

A growing population comes with several costs, we are often told.

A common assumption is that a higher population means greater consumption of natural resources. For example, some have argued that a growing population means we will need more food and more land and water to grow that food. This could put more pressure on wild lands and our limited natural resources.

“There is not enough land for all the land-hungry people, and much of the land that is currently being cleared under population pressure – some of it beautiful evergreen primary forest – will surely be abandoned in a state of permanent ruin, another martyr of human irresponsibility,” ornithologist Salim Ali told national radio in 1976.

Others also said that more people could lead to more pollution. More people means more cars, houses, etc. This in turn means more impact on the climate. For example, it could mean more use of fossil fuels and therefore more carbon emissions, as the growing population will also require more energy.

India’s natural wealth is already stretched and a burgeoning population is consuming it faster. At a time when India, like the rest of the world, is witnessing extreme weather events due to climate change, population explosion is becoming a major concern.

Logically then, controlling our population can ease the pressure on nature and curb climate change.

But it’s wrong.

India’s population growth is not a climate issue. Here are two reasons.

India’s fertility rate is falling

First, India’s population is not exploding, despite such claims by politicians. According to 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 during her lifetime, under certain assumptions.

From 2.2 in the last NFHS, 2015-2016, India’s total fertility rate (TFR) is now 2.0. It’s below ideal. replacement level – the rate at which a population is renewed exactly from one generation to another, without migration: 2.1.

India’s TFR is now below replacement level, shattering ‘the myth of population explosion’ in India, says Population Foundation of India recently wrote.

World Bank data also shows that India’s growth rate fell from 1.73% in 2001 to 1.04% in 2018, Thread reported. According to researcher Sumanta Roy of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s census data also shows a decline in the decadal growth rate, from 21.5% during the period 1991-2001 to 17.7% during the period 2001-2011.

“There is no scientific evidence to show a population explosion in India,” Roy wrote in The telegraph.

By the way, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in 2019 that a “population explosion” is hampering India’s development.

Consumption is uneven

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 does not lead to growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it is determined by the number of consumers and their consumption levels. In fact, the consumption levels of a “significant proportion” of the world’s urban and rural populations are so low that “they contribute little or nothing to these emissions”, according to the study.

He also pointed out that countries with very low emissions per person, and often only slowly rising emissions, have had the highest population growth rates.

Thus, the carbon footprint of people varies greatly around the world, depending on the resources they consume.

An average middle-class American, for example, consumes 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and nearly 250 times the subsistence level of drinking water, according to professors Stephen Dovers and Coin Butler. written for the Australian Academy of Sciences in February 2021.

“Focusing only on population numbers obscures the multifaceted relationship between us humans and our environment, and makes it easier for us to shift blame to others, such as those in developing countries,” they added.

According to a 2015 Oxfam report, the richest 10% of the world’s population contributed 50% of annual global warming emissions. Surprisingly, the poorest half – around 3.5 billion people – would have been responsible for only around 10% of the total emissions attributed to individual consumption.

Put simply: inequalities in wealth and consumption contribute more to climate change than consumption alone.

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