In a major shift, China’s leaders announced last week at the conclusion of a Communist Party Central Committee summit in Beijing that they would now allow all couples in the country to have two children, thereby ending the “one-child policy” first implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970’s. The Party stated that the change “is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population.” But what about the potential environmental impacts associated with this new policy?
Environmental issues were not necessarily at the top of China’s list of concerns when it introduced the one-child policy. Rather, the leadership’s primary concern was to ensure that rapid population growth would not jeopardize the country’s ambitious plans for economic development. In the 1950’s Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged families to have as many children as possible, and by 1979 China’s population had nearly doubled in the span of 30 years to reach about 970 million.
However, even before Mao’s death China had begun to promote family planning and birth control, largely in response to the famine that occurred during the Great Leap Forward. Such efforts led to a fertility reduction of 5.8 children per woman in 1970 to 2.7 by the time the one-child policy was actually introduced. Nevertheless, China’s leaders at the time deemed it necessary to introduce coercive measures in an effort to further limit population growth.
The fact that very few eligible couples applied to have a second child when China loosened the one-child policy last year and that the recent abandonment of the policy altogether is not expected to boost birthrates suggests China’s attempt at population control may have actually had little impact on birthrates after all. Other factors such as increasing urbanization and cost-of-living may have ultimately been more influential than the policy itself.
Even so, by 2009, the vice-minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission claimed at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen that the one-child policy had resulted in 400 million fewer births and 1.8 billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide being emitted each year. She also acknowledged that that the policy had unintended consequences, including “a skewed gender balance and a rapidly ageing society.” Indeed, due largely to the culture preference for male sons, China’s sex ratio at birth rose from a relatively normal 108 boys for every 100 girls in 1980 to over 120 by 2004, resulting in a surplus of about 30 million men of marriageable age. Meanwhile, despite rapid growth in the 90’s and 2000’s, China’s working age population is getting smaller while the proportion of its population aged 65 or over is growing, expected to reach 20% by 2030.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate the claim that the one-child policy directly resulted in fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, China seems to have largely dropped that line of argument subsequent to the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. Feng Wang, Director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, made a compelling argument in 2010 when he pointed out that “[b]etween 1990 and 2007, petroleum consumption in China increased by 189 percent, natural gas by 375 percent, and electricity by 424 percent. During the same period, population size grew by only 16 percent. CO2 emissions since the mid 1990s increased by over 50 percent in one decade, while population growth during the same time period was only 8.5 percent.” What these data suggest is that there is actually very little correlation between consumption and population growth per se. Rather, the dominant economic growth and consumption models have a much greater impact on the environment than sheer population numbers.
Indeed, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of American, even if the world were to adopt a draconian world-wide limit of one child per woman, population levels could still reach 10 billion by the end of the century. The study’s authors state that such a policy could result in environmental and societal benefits for our “great-great-great-great grandchildren,” but it could not be counted on as any kind of solution to our more immediate environmental issues. Instead, the study suggests that “society’s efforts toward sustainability would be directed more productively toward adapting to the large and increasing human population by rapidly reducing our footprint as much as possible through technological and social innovation, devising cleverer ways to conserve remaining species and ecosystems, encouraging per capita reductions in consumption of irreplaceable goods, and treating population as a long-term planning goal.”