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Global Population Growth

Volume 810: debated on Thursday 11 March 2021


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether issues relating to global population growth will be on the agenda for COP 26; and if so, what proposals they have to address any such issues.

My Lords, at COP 26 we will seek to address the steps needed to reduce emissions in line with the Paris agreement. The UK presidency will focus on five campaigns in the areas of energy, transport, nature, finance and adaptation and resilience. Population growth is not an explicit focus for the COP. At the Climate Ambition Summit in December, the COP 26 president-designate set out four strategic aims for COP 26: a step change in mitigation; a strengthening of adaptation; getting finance flowing; and enhancing international collaboration.

My Lords, does the Government not recognise that the pressures of increasing global population lead to cut and burn of vegetation and a number of other pressures, including, of course, drought and conflict? The question is what the Government are going to do about it. If they fail to raise it at COP, will they do something more and raise it, for example, at the UN Security Council? Will they encourage by their development policies family spacing, which is very much a women’s issue and could lead to a more acceptable population movement globally?

My Lords, population growth is clearly an issue, but the bigger factor by far is consumption levels. The average UK citizen, for instance, has significantly higher levels of consumption and CO2 production than the average beneficiary of any UK aid. For example, it takes the average UK citizen just five days to emit the same amount of carbon as the average Rwandan does in a full year. The challenge is to move towards an economic system that recognises the value of nature and understands the cost of waste, pollution and the use of scarce resources.

My Lords, I have to agree with and commend the Minister’s comments just now. However, given the announcement from the Biden Administration that their intention is to protect and empower women around the world, will the Government follow suit and, as chair of COP, acknowledge that climate justice demands that women have free reproductive choices, including access to contraception, abortion and treatments to addressing fertility?

Voluntary family planning programmes undoubtedly empower women and girls to choose whether and when to have children and this in turn supports the health, prosperity and resilience of their communities and countries. Where population projections show continued rapid growth, effective family planning programmes can change that trajectory. Voluntary family planning is one of the most powerful drivers of sustainable development and prosperity. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK reached an average of 25.3 million women and girls per year with modern methods of family planning and we continue to ramp up our efforts in that area.

My Lords, as my noble friend has just acknowledged, it is well accepted that access to contraception should be prioritised in development spending, because it is the right thing for women to choose their birth spacing, leading to empowerment and enrichment of families, communities and countries. I wonder whether my noble friend agrees with me and Sir David Attenborough, who said:

“Today we’re living in an era in which the biggest threat to human well-being, to other species and to the Earth as we know it might well be ourselves. The issue of population size is always controversial because it touches on the most personal decisions we make, but we ignore it at our peril.”

My Lords, I certainly agree, as do the Government, that the greatest challenge that we face is the broken relationship between our species and the natural world around us. The statistics and facts are virtually unarguable, so I certainly would not take issue with anything that my noble friend has said. On population growth, in addition to the answer that I just gave on family planning, we also know that quality girls’ education, especially at secondary level, in combination with voluntary family planning, can help girls to assert their fundamental reproductive right to choose the number and spacing of their children. At the same time, smaller family size can reduce demand on natural resources—food and water and so on—and help to limit environmental degradation.

My Lords, ensuring that women and girls around the world have access to reproductive and sexual health services is not only the right thing to do but is also important for global sustainability. What does the Minister have to say to the millions of women and girls in Sierra Leone, where one in 17 women die in pregnancy or childbirth, who rely on such services from the International Rescue Committee, whose programme now faces 60% cuts as a result of the Government’s unlawful reduction in the aid budget? When will the Government reverse this immoral and unlawful decision?

My Lords, like any normal person, I look at the situation in places such as Sierra Leone with horror. I remind the noble Lord of the answers that I have just given about the UK’s contribution to supporting quality girls’ education and its contribution to family planning for empowerment and sustainable population. We are among the world’s most generous donors across the board. While we are ramping up our support for action to tackle climate change and to try to reverse nature loss, this is not happening at the expense of the intensity of our support for the issues that the noble Lord has raised.

My Lords, my noble friend said in his initial Answer that population was not an explicit theme of COP 26. Do the Government accept that the fundamental reason for global warming is human activity? More humans, wherever they appear, mean more human activity and more global warming. In the light of this, will he expand on his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, by telling the House what proportion of our aid budget is targeted at educating women and helping them to control their fertility and by how much that is planned to be cut?

My Lords, the education of women and girls is a personal priority of the Prime Minister. It is a top international priority in relation to our spending of overseas development assistance. I cannot give the noble Lord figures going forward, because these decisions are still being taken, but I can absolutely assure him that the education of women and girls will remain a top priority, alongside climate change and tackling nature destruction. We will continue under all and any circumstances to be among the world’s most generous supporters of the kind of initiatives that the noble Lord has just cited.

Following the helpful proposal over the five priorities, how will the Government encourage others to increase aid for the education of women and girls in a sustainable way, including sustainable energy production and sustainable agriculture and public health measures, in order to create sustainable education programmes in the long term?

The principal goal of COP 26—our job, in a sense—is to make real the commitments that were made in Paris under the Paris Agreement. We want countries cumulatively to bring emissions down in line with those commitments and that means all countries coming forward with realistic plans for 2030—improved nationally determined contributions and long-term strategies to reach net zero as soon as possible. Part of that involves increasing finance, so we are putting a lot of pressure on other donor countries to increase the finance that they make available for climate change and for nature-based solutions to climate change.

The Minister has mentioned nature a number of times. Scientists tell us that nature can provide us with almost 40% of our climate solution through forest and woodland conservation, restoration, sustainable land management and improved agriculture working that supports our climate. However, OECD data shows that investments that harm nature come to well over $500 billion per year. What action are the Government taking in preparation for COP 26 to put investment in nature and a reduction of these damaging economic impacts at the heart of tackling climate change internationally?

The noble Baroness raises perhaps the most important issue of all. There is no pathway to net zero without massive increase in our support for protecting and restoring nature. Nature-based solutions could contribute a very significant proportion of the solution in the most cost-effective manner. Only about 3% of global climate finance goes on nature, which is madness. We are challenging that and attempting to change it. The Prime Minister committed last year to doubling our climate finance to £11.6 billion. Since then, he has also committed that £3 billion of that, nearly 30%, will be spent on nature-based solutions. We are asking other donor countries to do the same. But we need to go beyond public money, so we are attempting to build a coalition of countries committed to shifting land-use subsidies, so that instead of incentivising destruction, they incentivise protection, and much more besides.

My Lords, addressing population growth through much greater support for family planning is one of the key solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss, as proposed by the Dasgupta review. Why will the Government not use COP 26 to call on the world’s leaders to fund family planning?

My Lords, COP 26 is just one staging post this year. It is a significant and major event, but we also have the Convention on Biological Diversity, we are presidents of the G7 and we will have the G20 as well. We have a number of events hosted, for example, by the new US President to raise these issues up the agenda. We will be using all these events to do all that we can to push for a coherent approach to tackling climate change and nature destruction. That of course includes increasing support for initiatives around family planning and the education of women and girls.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed, although the screen has become a little eccentric in its recording of that. We come now to the second Oral Question.