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OUR TAKE: China’s Population Push Means A Bigger Carbon Footprint

This article in the New York Times doesn’t mention the climate. Yet it is very much a climate change story. Because of its one child policy, started in 1979 and lasting with some modifications until today, China faces a drop in population of 100 million people between 2020 and 2035, and another 100 million 2035-2050. That is a lot of lifelong carbon footprints that will not stress Earth’s carrying capacity and will not add to the billions of tons of carbon emissions trapping heat in the atmosphere and raising the planet’s temperature. China is changing its policy for social and economic reasons, but the implications for China’s energy policies should be considered as well. China has endorsed the Paris Agreement and is committed to reducing its carbon emissions. To that end it has closed many coal-powered electricity plants and built many solar ones. But China remains the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and given the country’s continued rapid development China’s per capita energy consumption and per capita carbon emissions can be expected to increase. For Earth to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of our 150-year long addiction to fossil fuels, China must continue and accelerate its transition to low-carbon energy sources. Having 200 million fewer people by 2050 will make a significant contribution to that effort. Unfortunately, the Chinese government seems unaware of this dimension, adopting a pro-natalist policy to alleviate the social and economic consequences of its past demographic policy. It is making another big mistake. The consequences of the new policy could imperil not just China’s economy but the very sustainability of the human race.

Many developed countries, the US included, face aging populations. They have been through the demographic transition from high infant mortality-high fertility to low infant mortality-low fertility. They are passing through a transition from high physical labor, on farms and in factories, to high intellectual labor, with computers, robots, and artificial intelligence. The need for workers is dropping fast. Nations’ pro-natalist policies are remnants from a time when a growing population meant strength, power, a young workforce to spur economic development and lots of soldiers for the nation’s armed forces to project it’s power over others. Yet that paradigm is losing its salience. Few nations have confronted or accommodated themselves to a new reality that requires a new paradigm. Perhaps the Scandinavian countries are the furthest along in this transition. All have low fertility, low mortality, high education, high automation, high social safety nets. Finland has experimented with an Universal Basic Income (UBI), which pays people a living wage without having to work for it. China is a long way from an UBI, but it ought to begin thinking about how to get there. It now has 1.4 billion people whose labor is increasingly unnecessary, who are becoming more of a liability than an advantage. China would be stronger, and it’s people better off, if there were fewer of them. It should reconsider its new policy to allow and encourage more births

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