If we look at some recent scientific literature regarding the state of the natural world, such as the WWF Living Planet Report or any of the Australian Government’s State of the Environment Reports, it is very clear our natural world is in decline, globally and at home. The purpose of this article is to discuss the impacts of population growth on both our natural environment and quality of life, and what should be considered by policy makers when determining a population policy.
In determining how Australia/Tasmania should develop its population policies, we need to think about what might happen if current trends continue and whether that would be a desirable outcome.
Australia’s population is growing at the fastest rate of any developed nation at 1.6% per year (about 3 times the developed world average), ahead of the global average of 1.1%, and on par with the Philippines.
We hit 25 million residents in August 2018, exceeding the recommended maximum sustainable population size of 24 million suggested by the Australian Academy of Sciences in 1994. Approximately 60% of our population growth comes from net overseas migration, the remainder from natural increase. The target number for permanent residencies to be granted in Australia is set every year by the Federal Government. The recent large increase to yearly immigration numbers started in the later years of the Howard government and has been maintained by every government since.
Our current State Government is keen to increase our population to 650,000 by 2050, and has even committed to spending $700,000 on an advertising campaign to lure residents from Sydney to help them achieve this goal.
Who are the winners and losers under high population growth?
When determining a population policy, it is important to consider who the winners and losers will be. Under the present national high growth scheme, Federal Governments enjoy the boost to gross GDP and the tax base, while State Governments and councils are left to deal with the increased loading on infrastructure.
Corporations also benefit from the constantly expanding number of customers, and property owners benefit from capital gains on their properties as a result of higher demand in the commercial and residential real estate markets. It is important to recognise that when pressed about current housing unaffordability, the Federal Government will only comment about the need to increase the housing supply. They do not acknowledge that demand could also be managed through lower immigration numbers to alleviate wild house price inflation.
Nationally house prices have increased approximately fourfold since 1998. This might be alarming to anyone looking to break into the housing market, but not to federal politicians who own 2.4 homes each, on average. Having a direct personal financial incentive to maintain a policy of high immigration puts federal politicians at odds with anyone looking to purchase their first home.
Scott Morrison and Peter Gutwein are both adamant that population growth is essential for economic growth. The problem with this attitude is that not only does it prioritise the pursuit of a narrow definition of ‘economic growth’ over every other possible objective; it does not consider per capita impacts, or environmental impacts. It is true that high immigration leads to more market participants, which will boost aggregate economic figures like GDP. A recession is considered to be a period of negative economic growth over 2 quarters. Our Federal Government likes to advertise the idea that Australia hasn’t had one since 1991, and that this is proof that things are going smoothly. But in fact this is only true if we use gross GDP. On a per capita basis Australia has had multiple recessions since 1991.
We need to ask ourselves what is the point of the economy if not to improve the quality of life for the individual. China has an enormous GDP, but a big GDP figure does not equate to better drinking water, air quality, access to education or higher wages. We are being deliberately misled, told to look at the wrong figures and prioritising the wrong objectives.
What happens to our natural environment as human population grows rapidly?
I would encourage anyone to look into the resultant environmental problems from rapid population growth in places like Bangladesh, Nigeria and the Phillipines, and to consider whether that is a desirable trajectory for Australia or Tasmania. Closer to home, there are still some lessons to be learned from the recent population growth seen in Victoria and New South Wales.
About 90% of Victoria’s population growth is attributable to Melbourne. Melbourne currently grows by about 100,000 people per year, and has added 1 million people in the last 10 years. It would be hard to argue that Melbourne’s natural environment has improved over the same time. Victoria has added 500,000 motor vehicles to its roads in just the last 5 years, most of them registered in Melbourne. Huge areas of green space and farmland have been lost to housing developments. River and marine water quality have declined. The cost of landfill is increasing as sites closer to the CBD fill up and waste has to be trucked further, all while per capita and aggregate waste generation is at an all-time high.
We need to be asking ourselves and our policy makers - is this a desirable outcome? and is this the only choice?
Tasmanian historical growth
Tasmania has long had the lowest population growth rate out of any state in Australia, growing by roughly 20,000 people over the last 10 years to a total of 520,000 people in 2018.
It is interesting that a lot of the positive lifestyle aspects (access to nature, housing affordability, shorter commutes etc) are being spruiked in the Tasmanian governments ‘You in a year’ ad campaign (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFkHKprYCjw). These exist in part due to our relatively low population density and low population growth rate. I think that if Tasmania were to achieve a population growth rate comparable to Victoria a lot of these positive lifestyle aspects would be lost.
There is no imperative that Tasmania matches the population growth of Victoria or New South Wales. What would happen if we didn’t? I’m sure the environment would breathe a sigh of relief.
Addressing population myths
Myth #1 - Population size doesn’t matter; we just need to live greener
I often see well intentioned environmentalists promote various aspects of green living as being the solution to our current environmental crisis. However, without addressing population, any single improvement to our per capita ecological footprint is ultimately ineffective.
Let’s look at just one driver of environmental change - carbon dioxide. We can illustrate the total yearly human released portion of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by a simple equation: total number of humans x per capita CO2 emissions = total CO2 released from human activity. If our goal is to reduce the total amount of CO2 released, we can either reduce the total number of humans, or reduce the per capita amount released, or both. Reducing the total CO2 output while constantly increasing human numbers is difficult because this increase must be offset by a corresponding decrease in per capita output. The same holds true for any negative human environmental impact: waste ending up in the ocean, soil erosion, deforestation, and land conversion.
Combating these impacts becomes harder the more people we have generating waste, requiring food from our agricultural system and land for housing. In Australia, our per capita consumption of crude oil has been decreasing in recent years, but our national consumption continues to increase due to population growth.
Massive improvements in our per capita footprints are desirable and should be pursued, but in actuality they are hard to implement as people are reluctant to change their lifestyles. Interestingly, the single most effective thing an individual can do to reduce their carbon footprint (by a huge margin) is to have fewer children (http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541/meta)
Myth #2 - Population increase is inevitable
Most discussion on population in government and the media focuses on how we should accommodate projected population growth, but never should we accommodate projected population growth. Immigration comprises the largest component of population increase in Australia. The permanent immigration intake is set by our Federal Government. We elect our government. Given sufficient awareness of the issue and subsequent pressure on government, policy can change and outcomes can change.
In summary, we need to consider quality of life for individuals and the quality of our ecosystems as the fundamental priorities when determining population policies, not just aggregate economic figures.
Australia’s immigration intake is dominated by economic immigrants, with refugee and humanitarian intake accounting for just 7% of the total annual intake.
Australia could stabilise or reduce its population by decreasing economic intake while maintaining or even increasing the refugee intake.
If you would like to discuss anything further with me you can email me at richard64422 @ gmail.com.
Article by Richard Hatcher - TCT Councillor