by Phil Cafaro
In the run up to elections to the European Parliament in May, 2019, the coalition of European Green parties has put forth a statement of principles and political goals: “Priorities for 2019: What European Greens Fight For.” Organized around twelve key goals, all in line with “core Green values that we pursue in the quest for popular democracy,” it articulates a strong and progressive environmental vision. Its environmental goals start with fighting climate change—“the defining challenge of our times”—by phasing out all coal use by 2030, promoting energy efficiency, and moving quickly to 100% renewable energy sources. It continues with commitments to boost trains at the expense of (more polluting) air travel, reducing air and water pollution within the EU, and eliminating non-recyclable plastics. “To preserve our valuable nature,” Greens advocate that nations “expand protected natural areas significantly so that they cover key ecosystems.” They also seek to reorient EU agricultural policy, by “producing good local, GMO and pesticide-free food” and “farming without cruelty to animals.”
Curbing population growth, however, is not one of these key environmental goals, or even a subsidiary one—despite the fact that many EU nations are currently on track for substantial population growth in the coming decades, which could undermine environmental protection efforts. Neither in “Priorities for 2019,” nor in the related “Manifesto 2019: Time to renew the promise of Europe,” nor in a more elaborated list of policy positions on its website, does the EU Green coalition affirm the need to limit, end, or reverse population growth—either as a stand-alone policy goal, or as necessary to any of the environmental goals it does endorse. In discussing the means to decrease carbon emissions, increase protected areas, or achieve any other environmental goals, limiting European numbers is not mentioned.
Immigration policy is discussed in these documents—not for any potential role in impacting future population numbers, but as part of affirming immigrants’ rights and combatting xenophobia and racism. A core Green goal in “Priorities for 2019” is to “defend the right to asylum and establish legal and safe channels for migration,” as a matter of “solidarity” and “humanity,” with the strong implication that attempts to limit immigration manifest a lack of humanity. A related statement on “Human Rights and Migration” advocates “a more ambitious resettlement and relocation scheme,” with the clear goal of increasing immigrant numbers. “We Greens are uncompromising on defending the rights of asylum seekers and migrants,” it states—while remaining silent regarding any rights that EU citizens might have to limit immigration, or set immigration levels for the common good.
Having reviewed recent policy manifestos from several national Green parties, these coalition statements appear to accurately represent the national parties’ own positions on population matters (see for example statements from the UK Green Party on population and migration). Based on these documents, the EU’s Green parties appear to hold the following implicit hypothesis: Population size has no important role to play in the efforts of EU nations or the EU as a whole to meet their environmental challenges and create ecologically sustainable societies.
To be clear, the Green coalition does not affirm such a position explicitly, nor do any of the national Green parties (so far as I know). However, they act as if this hypothesis was true: ignoring current European overpopulation and proposing immigration policies that could greatly increase future EU population sizes, while simultaneously pushing for a number of very ambitious environmental goals. None of these parties have embraced lower fertility or other European demographic trends that could lead to smaller populations, which suggests that they see no environmental value in them. Some, such as Norway’s and Austria’s Green parties, argue for more immigration for conventional economic reasons, which implies that they see little environmental disvalue in higher populations. All this indicates that European Greens believe the implicit hypothesis—which is why it needs to be made explicit and tested against reality.
If immigration into the EU was a minor factor influencing future population numbers, Europeans might set immigration policy without worrying about its environmental impacts. But that is not the case. Consider population projections out to 2100 for Germany, the EU’s most populous country, under five different potential immigration scenarios, from zero net migration through a continuation of recent immigration levels up through 4X the status quo net migration level (all projections below are from Cafaro and Dérer, New Policy Based Population Projections for the European Union with a Consideration of their Environmental Implications):
Annual net migration into Germany has averaged about 260,000 over the past twenty years. Continuing at this level for the rest of the century would lead to a relatively stable German population, according to our calculations, while increasing or decreasing annual immigration levels would lead to populations that were tens of millions higher or lower by 2100, with all that implies environmentally. Setting net migration at 4X this status quo level roughly models sustaining the immigration levels reached during the mass influx of 2015-16. This would lead to a 123% population increase: from 82 million Germans today to 184 million by 2100.
How would more than doubling Germany’s population impact efforts to cut back on the use of coal, while keeping nuclear power plants shuttered? How much would it constrain efforts to provide better living conditions for farm animals, or to leave more land fallow in the Elbe River delta for wildfowl? How many more houses would need to be built and how much more concrete and asphalt would need to be poured to accommodate over 100 million more Germans? No one is asking these questions—certainly not the politicians writing Die Grünen’s political platform. But they should be, because young, rapidly growing populations in Africa and the Middle East mean that many more people may want to reach Europe in coming decades.
Across the EU, changes in immigration policy have the potential to increase or decrease populations substantially. Here are our projections out to 2100 for the United Kingdom, again under five plausible immigration scenarios ranging from zero net migration through a continuation of recent immigration levels (averaging about 230,000 annually) up through 4X the status quo net migration level:
According to the official migration policy statement of the UK’s Green Party: “richer regions and communities do not have the right to use migration controls to protect their privileges from others.” “Communities and regions should have the right to restrict inward migration,” they continue, but only when “prospective migrants have, on average, equal or greater economic power than the residents of the recipient area”—a caveat that today and for the foreseeable future would commit the UK to an “open borders” immigration policy. If we take the 4X status quo immigration projection as a (very conservative) proxy for open borders, we find that it would lead to a 169% increase in the UK population over the course of this century, from 65 million today to 175 million by 2100. The environmental implications of such an increase are staggering for such a small and already overcrowded island. They are also largely ignored by the UK’s Green Party, with some noble exceptions (see for example good discussions by Jonathon Porritt and Rupert Read).
These projections illustrate a crucial lesson: that relatively small changes in annual immigration levels can lead to enormous differences in future population numbers. Most European Greens seem oblivious to the power of exponential growth. We encourage readers interested in the potential demographic impacts of immigration policy on particular EU countries, or the EU as a whole, to read TOP’s recent working paper from which these projections are taken. There we provide full population projections out to 2100 under a variety of plausible immigration and fertility policy regimes for all the nations of the EU, in appendix I.
Population size has no important role to play in the efforts of EU nations or the EU as a whole to meet their environmental challenges and create ecologically sustainable societies. Stated explicitly, this hypothesis may seem absurd. How could human numbers not make a difference in our environmental impacts, in whether we can find solutions to our environmental problems or create genuinely sustainable societies? Yes, but in recent years, many environmentalists have stopped talking about population matters and now have little sense of just how consequential they are. Another look at those environmental policy goals from the Green Parties coalition may snap us back to reality.
In theory, the EU might phase out fossil fuels and phase in renewable energy sources very quickly. In practice, increased demands will make it harder to take viable and economical energy sources off the table. In theory, we can limit air and water pollution, or plastics use, to almost any degree we choose. But in practice, every person generates some amount of resource use and trash, so declines in per capita pollution may be offset by increases in the number of “capitas.” In theory, we can increase our numbers while also improving our agricultural practices. But in reality, more benign agricultural practices have costs, both in money and in terms of lost productivity, and it is harder to forego higher agricultural productivity when the demand for agricultural products is increasing due to more people.
“To preserve our valuable nature, we want to expand protected areas significantly, ensure they cover key ecosystems, and guarantee that the protection really works,” the Green coalition writes in “Manifesto 2019.” “We want to increase marine protected areas to 20% of our seas.” Sounds great. And in theory, Europeans could both add a lot more people and devote more land and more marine areas to wildlife preservation. But in practice, population growth tends to sacrifice natural lands to human interests, whether for housing, agriculture, energy production, or any of the thousand and one other uses clever people can find to further our own well-being. It is population decrease that opens up more lands for “rewilding,” cuts human pollution, and in many other ways decreases the relentless human pressures that drive biodiversity losses.
Fortunately, according to the most recent UN population projections, Europe is the first continent to have broken the back of the population explosion that has defined humanity’s demographic trajectory over the past two centuries. Much of Europe is very densely populated, but thanks to sustained below-replacement fertility levels for the past two generations, population decline in Europe is now a possibility. If current fertility and migration trends continue, the EU’s population is on track to decrease 10% by 2100: slowly, gradually and manageably. This is a very hopeful development, which European environmentalists should support and build upon. Instead, Europe’s Green parties have been among the continent’s strongest advocates for continued population increase. Perhaps if “the implicit hypothesis” was made explicit—and rejected, as it should be—that might change. At a minimum, debating the implicit hypothesis would help Greens formulate more honest and consistent policies, through a better understanding of the trade-offs that any immigration policy necessarily will involve.