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We (I'm in EU, Netherlands) are trying to reduce CO2 emissions, and many other regulations (nitrogen, pfas) have been devised to make sure we don't make our planet uninhabitable for humans.

But I don't hear many people talking about the pretty hard to miss elephant in the room: population growth.

We can shut down coal fired power plants, put solar panels on our roofs, but do we don't have any chance at beating (worldwide) population growth.

If current predictions about this growth come true, it seems to me we don't stand any chance at keeping up with power demand, even with all (fossil fuel and other) plants firing at maximum capacity.

I don't consider myself a pessimist, but I just don't see how this is going to work out, seems like something's got to give.

So my question is: do we stand any chance at getting through the next 50 years without most of our earth's human population dying? Obviously power demand is not the only issue here, it just seems to be the most urgent to me at this time and in the near future.

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  • Well, any effort counts, I'd say. The differences between e.g. a 2 degree or 2.5 degree average temperature rise are large enough to justify any measure. And don't forget that with climbing wealth, the global population will stabilize at approx 11 billion. – user2451 Feb 15 '20 at 16:51
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A few trends which help explain why population growth may not receive significant attention as part of climate change discussions (all charts from Our World in Data):

Per capita emissions rise with GDP

CO2 emissions vs GDP per capita Source

Fertility rates decrease with GDP

Fertility rate vs GDP Source

GDP per capita is rising around the world

enter image description here Source

The conclusion from this data (whether correct or not) is that as the global economy grows, carbon intensity becomes a bigger problem, while population growth becomes less of a problem

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    Surely the counterpoint to that is that total emissions = intensity * population. If your population doubles, then you need to halve your intensity. If we stop growing population sooner, then that gives us a little more wiggle room in how we can lower intensity. – Turksarama Feb 24 '20 at 4:45
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    Note that the emissions per capita on the first figure do not account for the imported goods! Including them would significantly increase the impact of Western countries (and subtracting the exports, since they are not consumed in the countries where they are produced, would lower those of Asian countries) – Silmathoron Mar 3 '20 at 19:57
  • Turksarama : but population growth has already virtually stopped in the countries which are responsible for most of the emissions. Cutting emissions to zero by population reduction is an interesting idea, but I don't think it will catch on. – M Juckes Sep 20 '20 at 22:30
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Though it does not make the situation easier, population is not the elephant in the room when it comes to CO2 emissions: we might afford 10 billion with low lifestyles, but the habits of the less than 1 billion Western inhabitants on the planet already make the situation unmanageable. This is the elephant in the room.
10% of the population drives 50% of the impact (and things get worst as you concentrate on the richest percentiles).

See https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/extreme-carbon-inequality for detailed analysis.

So to answer your question directly: there is always a chance, but the people that most urgently need to change their habits are not necessarily the ones making more children...

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  • i.e. The "Western lifestyle" as we currently know it is, essentially, unsustainable. – Tim Feb 19 '20 at 1:25
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Many population growth estimates actually suggest that the growth will slow down in the future.

World population estimate (Pew Research Center

The main arguments are that the global fertility rate is decreasing and that the median age of the world population is going up.

Global fertility rate and median age (Pew Research Center

Reference: World population growth is expected to nearly stop by 2100

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Population control programs have always been controversial. Many compulsory sterilization programs have been implemented by various countries over time. China's now abandoned one child policy was decried around the world because of its social impacts.

One result of population control measures was female infanticide, which was also decried.

The other inadvertent population control is war. The estimated death total during World War 2 was 70 to 85 million, which was 3 percent of the world population of 1940.

Another issue about population control measures is they are mostly implemented/forced onto people of developing countries. Developing a policy that is equitable to everyone is going to be very difficult, because affected people will ask "why me, why not someone else".

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  • War is a lousy form of population control. No war has ever caused a net decrease in the world population (between 1940 and 1950, world population increased by 10%), and outside of extreme examples like the War of the Triple Alliance (which nearly depopulated Paraguay), it doesn't cause local decreases either. – Mark Feb 27 '20 at 1:11
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We can shut down coal fired power plants, put solar panels on our roofs, but do we don't have any chance at beating (worldwide) population growth.

I think you already answered your question over there. What bad energy-related effects does population growth have if the energy is produced by solar panels? The answer is: none.

Some could say well you can't produce solar power at night, and supergrid is way too expensive to transport electricity from the other side of the Earth. That's true, but then again solar power can be stored as synthetic hydrogen, synthetic methane, synthetic methanol, even synthetic gasoline/diesel. No batteries required. No lithium / cobalt required.

Feeding the population with animal meat would of course be another question, but who says we must use animal meat? I have tasted a number of plant-based meat substitutes and they are pretty good nowadays.

If current predictions about this growth come true, it seems to me we don't stand any chance at keeping up with power demand, even with all (fossil fuel and other) plants firing at maximum capacity.

You fail to understand exponential growth. Solar power is an exponential technology. If the population becomes bigger, there are more workers to construct power plants (hopefully clean) so exponential growth is possible. The growth rate of solar is exponential and doubles much faster than fossil fuels. Eventually, we reach the point where worldwide there will be more solar installations than fossil fuel installations.

The cost of solar is falling exponentially, too. Eventually, we reach the point where the solar panel is cheaper than the structure it is standing on! (Not considering the inverter; but then again solar PV can directly feed hydrogen-producing electrolysis cells with no inverter.)

Solar PV will revolutionize electricity production. We must find good uses for electricity that will be most of the time extremely cheap, sometimes even free. The only question here is how much time it takes until solar PV displaces coal. At that point, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions will essentially stop. So the cumulative emissions will be dependent on: (1) how quickly they grow in the meantime, (2) when will be the time they abruptly stop.

So my question is: do we stand any chance at getting through the next 50 years without most of our earth's human population dying? Obviously power demand is not the only issue here, it just seems to be the most urgent to me at this time and in the near future.

Yes, we have a very good chance. Climate change if gone wrong won't kill most of earth's human population in 50 years (it may have bad effects on a timescale of 100 years, though). Fortunately, the falling costs of solar power are going to give fossil fuels a hard time to compete.

Right now the largest threat may be the decline in insect counts worldwide. It could have bad effects on global food production. It is probably caused by too much land being used for agriculture.

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You are right; having a child is by many orders of magnitude the largest CO2 source.

The reason this is not addressed currently is because, politicians still have all the power and will only do popular things. Population control is unpopular.

Therefore it doesn't and won't happen.

Sad isn't it......the planet can easily be saved, but because we leave the running of it to useless idiots...it won't be.😠

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    Valid argument, but can you back this up with some data (That's what Stack Exchange sites are about) and edit out your opinions (That's what Stack Exchange sites are not about). – user2451 Feb 15 '20 at 16:48
  • No. Narrative question. Narrative answer. – cumfy Feb 15 '20 at 18:05
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    Your opening statement is clearly untrue, and that is the reason people don't waste time discussing it. Having children and bringing them up to lead the profligate life-styles of the wealthy western nations is certainly a problem -- but the main issue is the profligate life-styles. – M Juckes Feb 15 '20 at 19:09

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