Sustainability Reporting

By Derek Loh

Population growth has become the be-all and end-all for economic prosperity, but how on Earth can we cope with the extra billions of people?

While “leafing” – or should I instead say “scrolling” in today’s need to sound tech savvy – through the news websites, the two subjects seemed to have captured the media’s attention: immigration and plastic. The immigration debate has been going on for some time and has been argued and declaimed from all perspectives. But the hyperbolic animadversions to plastic is a more recent phenomenon.

On 1 January 2018, China, the world’s biggest recycler of scrap plastic, stopped importing the waste material. The impact rippled around the world. The United Kingdom alone made three major announcements on plastics in the year’s first fortnight: on 9 January, manufacturers across the nation could no longer use plastic microbeads, and products containing this material cannot be sold from July; two days later, the Scottish government shared its plans to ban plastic cotton buds; on the 16th, one of the country’s largest supermarket chains pledged to eliminate plastic packaging from all of its own-brand products by end 2023. When seen in the context of China’s decision, this frenetic activity is hardly surprising – after all, the People’s Republic handled two-thirds of Britain’s used plastics.
 
It was all very arresting. However, all this angst and handwringing about plastics (and immigration) really is only addressing the symptoms and ignoring the root cause. We all know what the elephant in the room is: there are simply too many people in the world.

The great population explosion

In 1901, the global population was 1.6 billion. Today, it is approximately 7.6 billion. In 117 years we human beings have more than quadrupled our numbers, despite two World Wars, numerous famines, shockingly shameful genocides and a “Great Leap Forward”. At our current breakneck growth rate, we add approximately one billion persons to the Earth every 13 years. In the meantime, the human lifespan is ever lengthening with the rapid advancement and development in medical treatment. It won’t be long before cancer loses its reputation as a death sentence.

In 2011, the UN published a comprehensive report saying that the world population growth rate must slow down significantly to avoid reaching unsustainable levels. The great Naturalist Sir David Attenborough has weighed in on this issue on a number of occasions: “… the Earth is finite and you can’t put infinity into something that is finite. So if we don’t do something about it then the world will do something about it – the natural world that is – we will starve.”

In another interview he added: “… what are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little pieces of land. And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.”

An average human produces a kilogramme of carbon dioxide every single day by the simple act of breathing. If the world population increases by a billion, an extra 365 million tons of CO2 is released into the atmosphere every year. And we have not begun to even look at the plastic consumption! In the face of all of this, humanity (including society and policy makers) has simply shrugged its shoulders and uttered a collective “meh!”

Population growth = economic growth?

China, which for decades had an obsessive fear about a population explosion, and which was the only major country to have an official population reduction policy, ended its one-child rule in 2015, 35 years after it was introduced. The rationale for this reversal was a concern that its population was rapidly greying and that economic growth would be affected.
 
Policy makers and economists seem to be fixated, if not obsessed, with “greying populations” and “fertility rates”. It has become a constant refrain, to the extent that population growth has become a canon in the religion of economic growth and human development. Is it true that a greying population will inexorably lead to an inevitable dizzying downward spiral of a country’s economy or social implosion?
 
There is a real life example to hand – Japan. What is occurring here seems to run counter to these doomsday prophesies. Yes, its population is contracting rapidly. Yes, its economy is sluggish if not stagnant. Yet its standard of living remains one of the highest in the globe and its economy remains one of the largest. Recently the Japanese economy has even started to stir. I am no expert but perhaps we should re-consider the economic hypothesis of “grey is bad” being accepted as a universal truth.
 
As if the economic argument for population expansion simpliciter is not sufficiently damaging, we also have the societal and cultural contribution to population growth. Recently the Indian government estimated that the desire among the country’s parents to have sons instead of daughters has created 21 million “unwanted” girls, thanks to couples reproducing until they had a boy. To give the issue some perspective – there are about 140 countries with a population of less than 21 million, including Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Greece.
 
The other major (and obvious) effect of the population explosion we are witnessing is the huge migration of people from poorer countries and regions to wealthier ones. It is not my intention to enter into a discourse on this topic as it has already been debated at many levels and in many mediums. Suffice it to say that the rise in, and growing acceptability of, extreme political parties is an irrefutable direct consequence of this wave of human migration.
 
The world’s press and governments keep baying on about climate change and greenhouse gases and braying about Mr Trump’s refusal to accede to the Paris Agreement, but it seems that the very cause of the problem, the unbridled population explosion, just doesn’t seem to feature or fall to be considered.

The need to change direction

The penny appears to have dropped for some. Moderate countries are beginning to recognise the crux of the issue. In a speech on 11 July 2017, Denmark’s Minister for Development Co-operation pledged more funds for family planning in developing nations saying that this could help “limit the migration pressure on Europe”. While such developments are positive, they remain insignificant compared to the magnitude of the problem.
 
Which brings us back to the title of this piece. By 31 December 2018, listed companies in Singapore are obliged to issue their first sustainability report, which “should set out the issuer’s policies, practices and performance in relation to the material ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] factors identified, providing descriptive and quantitative information on each of the identified material ESG factors for the reporting period”. Perhaps the more enlightened listed companies will identify population growth control as part of its “policies, practices and performance” on sustainability and perhaps the Singapore Exchange may even accept this as part of a report. Personally I doubt it.
 
Back to the old tried and tested method – it is about time every couple in the world capable of reproducing acquired a television set. Or, again in the interest of sounding tech savvy, two personal tablets coupled with subscriptions to Netflix (chill specifically excluded).

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