This is the way the world ends

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The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) seems to be shutting up shop with more of a whimper than a bang. After 41 years in being, its final report, on demographic change and the environment, is a bit of a let down (see pp 29-30).

There is almost zero discussion of global population change. As for the UK, the RCEP avoids any recommendation aimed at influencing overall numbers in these densely populated islands.

Its farewell report plods around the familiar I=pxaxt formula (environmental Impact equals Population size multiplied by Affluence [or consumption levels] per capita multiplied by T for technology). This T is a factor denoting the eco-efficiency with which we consume natural resources.

The report finds that nothing much can or should be done on P and A, but there should be a “step change” (that well-worn phrase) in ‘T’. The UK needs to “radically decouple consumption from environmental impacts”.

The dozen wise people on the RCEP rightly recognise that it is never going to be easy for government to devise policies to influence population growth. And that any conceivable policies would make little difference in the next few decades.

And no government is going to want to limit overall affluence. Put aside the Prosperity without growth? Case made by the bolder, also doomed, Sustainable Development Commission (see p 55). Out in the mainstream, the only argument is about how affluence should be spread around.

But the thing is this. It really would be good for us all if the global population stopped growing now. That is an implication of the Foresight report on food and farming (see pp 28-29).

There is nothing the UK can do to make this happen, nor is it going to happen anytime soon. The total sum of humanity, soon to exceed seven billion, is an uncontrollable outcome of the decisions of individual parents and sovereign nations.

But if developed countries such as the UK began setting out long term targets aimed at stabilising their own populations, along with broad but credible strategies for hitting those targets, they would be better placed to make the global argument for stabilising the Earth’s population as soon as possible.

Such a strategy requires no brutal or inhumane policies and would sound like common sense to most people. The RCEP is right to question the concept of environmental limits, but there is an argument for halting further population growth in the UK.

In its final days, the commission might have dared suggest that green-minded parents should stop at two. Its report calls for “more open and rational discussion about demographic change”. But in ducking the big issue, its final thoughts will probably go unnoticed.

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