Population and immigration are difficult topics to discuss, given the current prominence of populists. The significance of the existential threats facing humanity and the biosphere this century, however, means that we cannot ignore population as a multiplier of environmental damage. The challenge is to discuss population, which we must, in a manner that is both evidence-based and respectful.
Population as an issue at the global level
Human Footprint analysis reveals that humanity is using the equivalent of 1.7 Planet Earths each year to provide our resources, and to remediate our wastes. In other words, we are living beyond the means of our planet, and eating into natural capital. If that continues, natural systems will collapse, causing major social upheaval. Climate change is just one expression of this breaching of planetary boundaries.
The importance of population in environmental impacts is highlighted in the illustrative equation I = P x A x T, where
I = impact on the environment
P = population
A = affluence (effectively per capita consumption) and
T = technology (which translates as the resource used and pollution created per unit of consumption).
Considering ‘T’ first, technological improvements can reduce inputs used and wastes generated per unit of product. Von Wieszacker and others identified a broad suite of areas where industrial production can reduce environmental pressures by up to 80 per cent. These improvements can be pursued as ‘no regrets’ measures, but technology cannot alone counter the ongoing increases in consumption, driven by indefinite economic growth. Such technological innovations will inevitably deliver diminishing returns over time. The Jevons paradox also predicts that efficiencies in production reduce the price of a product, enabling consumers to demand more of the product, thereby increasing the requirement for resource inputs. For this reason, more efficient production may have limited impact on reducing resource consumption.
We could focus on per capita consumption, particularly the profligate lifestyles of wealthy nations, noting that a relatively small proportion of the global human population is responsible for the vast majority of consumption, while much of the global population needs to increase its per capita consumption so as to reach a decent standard of living. Some argue incorrectly that because current global population increase is mainly in poorer nations, population can be ignored as an environmental factor. There is, however, no avoiding the fact that population is a multiplier of per capita consumption in both poor and rich nations. The two are inseparably linked to environmental impact by the I = P x A x T formula.
Nor is population a problem only if it is growing. Arguably, the current overpopulation issue is actually in wealthy countries, many with relatively low population growth rates. At our high levels of per capita consumption, there are simply too many of us in wealthy countries. We, therefore, should be encouraged that populations can plateau and even decline in wealthy countries, such as is happening in Japan.
There is a more difficult point here; we should all support residents of developing countries gaining access to a decent lifestyle, and this will inevitably increase their consumption and environmental footprints. A projected increase in global population from the present 7.7 billion to 11 billion in 2100 makes even more difficult the task of equitably sharing global wealth, while returning to within the Earth’s physical capacities. The total consumption of 11 billion people living comfortable lifestyles would certainly breach planetary bounds. The ‘doughnut’ band of consumption satisfying both social justice and environmental sustainability proposed by economist, Kate Raworth, may not be possible with that many people. Again, the responsibility for reducing global environmental impacts should be with wealthy countries and should not be shifted to developing countries, but we do need to understand that population is an important factor in the significant global threats we collectively face.
The importance of using any means available to reduce global consumption is highlighted by considering global economic growth, which is currently increasing at about 3.9 per cent per annum. If this growth rate were to continue until 2050, global consumption would more than triple. If it were to continue until 2100, it would increase by over 22 times. Given we are already beyond Earth’s biocapacity, neither of these situations is sustainable, and are probably unattainable, due to environmental constraints.
Population is a very relevant factor in climate change mitigation; the lower the populations of high emitting countries, the lower their total emissions would be. One study found that
…slowing global population could provide 16–29 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.
High rates of population increase are also a challenge for the developing countries themselves. While those in the West must not dictate population policies in these countries, we should be assisting those countries that want family planning initiatives. A paper by Dr Jane O’Sullivan has illustrated that until fertility rates are brought down, it can be very difficult for developing countries to improve standards of living.
Population as an issue in Australia
Australian population and environmental impacts
Not all causes of environmental degradation relate to population levels, but the Australian Government’s 2016 State of the Environment report found that
In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population and economic activity.
The report continued
The concentration of Australia’s population near the coast, mostly in urban areas, creates substantial pressure on coastal ecosystems and environments in the east, south-east and south-west of the country.
The greatest impacts of population growth and demographic change on the environment are in our capital cities and along the coast of Australia, particularly in Queensland.
In 2010, an expert panel provided a comprehensive report to the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the impacts of net overseas migration on the natural and built environments. It identified a range of impacts, including water supplies, motor oil demand and traffic congestion. The report found that
… higher levels of NOM (Net Overseas Migration) impose greater adverse impacts on the quality of our natural and built environments.
… the magnitude of the impacts at all NOM levels suggests that unless substantial and timely actions are taken to address these impacts, some impacts have the potential to disrupt Australia’s economy and society.
…small differences now in the effects of different levels of NOM on various natural and built assets in many cases accumulate to large differences 10, 20 or more years down the track.
Considering some of these impacts in turn, urban expansion destroys native habitat. It also often pushes out agricultural use of the good soils that supported settlement in those areas in the first place.
An expanding population also generates new demand for the construction of new homes and physical infrastructure, as well as a range of consumer goods. This leads to extraction of large amounts of non-renewable mineral resources, causing a range of environmental impacts.
Our growing population also has increasing water needs. Decreasing water catchment yields in southern Australia due to climate change creates further demands for new water supplies. Large dams significantly change downstream ecological conditions, impacting on fish and invertebrate populations.
Urban expansion also can also necessitate the upgrading of reservoirs to mitigate downstream flood impacts. Lake Burragorang is Sydney’s major water reservoir, and there is currently a proposal to raise its dam wall. This would lead to significant inundation of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, destroying habitat for a number of species. A major reason for the dam is to provide better flood relief for expanded settlement in far Western Sydney, a consequence of Sydney’s rapidly rising population.
In pursuit of water security, the exhaustion of Australia’s limited river systems for water supply has led to the building of desalination plants for our major cities, which have very high energy requirements. Australia has one of the world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emission levels and an increasing population makes it ever more difficult for us to make a fair contribution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement.
The impacts of population on the day-to-day lives of Australians
Impacts such as congestion on roads and public transport, overcrowded schools and poorer access to primary health and other services are the almost inevitable consequence of Australia’s high rates of population growth. Recently some politicians have identified increasing community concern about urban congestion and reduced access to services, particularly in our major cities.
Australia has the highest rate of population growth of major developed nations. The increase of 388,100 in 2016-17 represented a rise of 1.6 percent on 2015/16, way above increases globally of 1.1 percent, and in the United States’ (0.7 percent) and Canada (0.9 percent). The rates of increase are even higher in Sydney and Melbourne, the latter experiencing annual population growth rates of up to 280,000, or 6.6 per cent, per annum.
It is unclear whether it is even feasible for infrastructure and attendant lifestyle standards to keep up with such extreme rates of population growth, due to the competing demands on the construction sector and the annual capital requirements. If the average life of our infrastructure is, say, 50 years, then our infrastructure replacement is 2 per cent each year. If we have a population growing at almost 2 per cent annually, then this roughly doubles the necessary annual infrastructure spend just to maintain a standard of service across the community.
The very building of infrastructure, such as transport spines, is generally highly disruptive to local residents and current users. If there were a longer-term goal of an ultimate population size, then infrastructure could be built with that goal in mind. In the absence of such a goal, planners have the expectation of ever-increasing populations to service, but build infrastructure that will only meet a short- to medium-term population projection. The result, particularly with roads, is that every few decades otherwise serviceable structures are demolished or augmented to jam in new and expanded infrastructure.
Finally, lags in infrastructure are likely to impact most on already disadvantaged groups, who often are pushed by housing costs to outer suburbs with inadequate services and which are more distant from employment centres.
The Australian community seems to be becoming more concerned about these impacts of high rates of population growth, with declining support for an increasing Australian population. A 2019 ANU survey found that only 30 per cent of Australians agreed that ‘Australia needs more people’ (70 per cent disagreed), down from 45.8 per cent in 2010. This concurs with a 2018 survey by The Australian Population Research Institute, which found 72 per cent replied ‘no’ to the question ‘Does Australia need more people?’. It seems likely that this declining support for ongoing population growth has been shaped in large part by the lived experiences of urban residents, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.
Discussing population and immigration
Public debate and the media
Until recently, there has been limited public discussion or media coverage in Australia of population and net immigration rates. Federal Cabinet decisions on immigration quotas previously attracted little attention. The ABC, in particular, was largely silent on these matters, presumably because it feared that it would give weight to populist discourses.
Since 2017, however, there has been a significant increase in public discussion of population and immigration. The rise of the extreme right in Australia understandably makes the progressive left sensitive to discourses that are racist or may have racist motivations. Ethnically diverse people are being explicitly targeted and vilified, so that people of good faith critiquing population growth and immigration policy must be cautious that their utterances do not add to this hurt. It has been argued for this reason that environmentalists should not publicly question immigration policy. But this self-censorship would be to deny the important environmental impacts of population.
Sustainable Population Australia and One Nation both support lower immigration levels, but what needs to be understood is that Sustainable Population Australia seeks a lower immigration rate for very different reasons to One Nation, focusing on the population impacts identified in this article. Sustainable Population Australia is highly supportive of Australia’s refugee intake, seeking an increase in numbers within an overall reduced immigration program.
It is important that such different motivations are acknowledged within discussions about population. Some have characterised those questioning current immigration levels as ‘anti-immigrant’. This is misleading, in the same way as it is wrong to describe coal-mine opponents as ‘anti-coal miners’. It is clearly possible to respect individual immigrants, and to value their contribution to our society, while raising concerns about immigration policy.
Notwithstanding the sensitivities of the topic, the recent public discussion on population and immigration has remained largely civil and measured. The NSW Premier, the daughter of Armenian immigrants, was, for example, able to propose in 2018 that a pause in immigration rates would allow for infrastructure to ‘catch-up’, without significant flaring of populist discourses.
While the media has focused its coverage on the impacts of population growth on urban residents, impacts on the natural environment have rarely been raised. Instead, the voices heard in pieces on population and immigration have been dominated by business interests, politicians and some demographers, who mainly bring free market perspectives. These positions appear to be based on the premise that population and economic activity can expand indefinitely. The absence of environmental voices in these public debates presumably reflects the dominant economic framing in political and media discourses, as well as in our broader society.
Discussion of population issues within the Australian environment movement
Australian environment groups have enjoyed some success in protecting particular natural areas and stopping environmentally-destructive activities, but have done little so far to address the fundamental ‘drivers’ of environmental damage, such as neoliberalism, and ongoing population and economic growth.. It appears that most environment activists do not frame their thinking with concepts such as the I = P x A x T equation, planetary boundaries or limits to growth. The vast majority of the key players in Australian environment groups hold socially progressive views and are uncomfortable with arguments to limit immigration levels, because they do not seem to accord with a compassionate and welcoming national disposition.
As arguably Australia’s foremost environment group, the Australian Conservation Foundation provides a good case study of engagement with population issues. The organisation spent considerable effort developing a very balanced and well-founded population policy, which achieved broad support across the organisation. But the policy was never translated into public action. Each individual had their own reasons for opposing action, but it would appear key players were concerned that advocacy on population would be, or would appear to be, ‘anti-immigrant’ or racist.
That said, there are other reasons why an Australian environmental group would decide not to enter population debates. These include:
- a judgement that in today’s unnuanced and combative public debates, legitimate concerns will be twisted and misrepresented as racist, thereby reducing the group’s reputation and credibility
- that it will be more effective to direct limited organisational resources to other targets, such as reducing Australian per capita consumption or reducing the environmental impacts of current economic activities, including through improved resource use efficiency
- a moral view that there should be few constraints on migration, as they prevent those from poorer countries improving their lot. This view can recognise the impacts of population, but give greater weight to moral considerations. It might argue that from a global perspective that any environmental impacts due to migration are just being shifted from one country to another.
The only significant Australian environment group campaigning on population is Sustainable Population Australia, and it has very firmly distanced itself from extreme right-wing views, supporting non-discriminatory immigration policy and a generous and humanitarian refugee program. Given the values and perceptions of Australia’s environment movement, it appears very unlikely that the Australian environment groups will campaign on population issues any time soon, and there is no plausible risk that they will be co-opted by nativists. In avoiding limits to growth issues such as population, however, environment groups are arguably not tackling some of the primary causes of environmental degradation.
Population and immigration policies
Australia needs a population policy for a range of economic, demographic, social and environmental reasons, and this need was endorsed by the Productivity Commission in 2016. Even so, there is little interest in the major parties in developing such a policy. Perhaps governments have feared alienating migrant groups or business interests. The Gillard Government’s foray in this area ended abruptly and led to no obvious policy change. In the absence of an explicit population policy, the Productivity Commission has noted that our immigration policies are our de facto population policies.
Better environmental regulation and infrastructure can mitigate environmental damage, but they can only go so far. The equation I = P x A x T reminds us that everything else being equal, environmental impacts increase directly with population. Australia’s population is growing because of ‘natural increase’ (i.e. more births than deaths) and net overseas migration. Both impact on the natural and built environments, and both warrant consideration in any population policy.
Policies affecting Australian natural increase
Australia’s social services policies are pro-natalist and, for a mix of legitimate and questionable reasons, favour families relative to those without children, irrespective of the number of children parents choose to have. They go beyond providing a safety net for the needy. Peter Costello’s ‘baby bonus’ is but one example of these pro-natalist policies. Understandably, governments do not want to interfere in the reproductive decisions of adults, but there are few if any social signals that having more than two children places increasing demands on communal resources and the environment. Having one less child reduces a person’s carbon footprint far more than any other single measure they can take.
What is important here in government policies is the normative message that is sent, rather than the financial impact. While the average size of Australian families has decreased dramatically over the last fifty years, there does not appear to be significant public questioning of the legitimacy of having large families, which are still often celebrated in the popular media. Social service payments flowing to parents could be changed in a number of ways. Child support payments, for example, could peak at family sizes of one or two children, and even reduce with additional children. Alternatively, equivalent benefits could be provided to all people at a certain income, whether they have children or not.
Without a significant public education on the impacts of population growth, such policies are likely to be electorally unpopular. Anything that appears in some way to be managing population would be characterised as draconian. Support for ‘families’, which generally means nuclear families, is the bread-and-butter of political rhetoric from both major parties. Parents see government support as a legitimate expectation of their decisions to have children. The factors influencing people to decide whether to have children are complex and it is unclear how many people already factor into their decisions the environmental impacts of adding to Australia’s population.
There are, however, a number of measures which would reduce national fertility, which are non-coercive ‘no regrets’ initiatives with co-benefits, such as the empowerment of girls and women. A recent example is the provision of free contraception to Colorado teenagers, which halved teenage pregnancies. It is estimated that almost half of Australian pregnancies are unplanned and better family planning support could help address this, as would less restricted, unjudged and more freely available access to abortion.
Reducing Australian natural increase would arguably have a greater impact on reducing global environmental degradation (such as climate change) than reducing immigration. This is because Australian natural increase adds to the global population, while immigration is a transfer of people from one country to another. Australian fertility rates, however, are now close to replacement levels and would be difficult to lower much further. Natural increase also accounts for less than 40 per cent of our population growth and this proportion is declining, so it is probably difficult for further reductions in Australian population growth to flow from changes in fertility rates.
Net overseas immigration contributes 60 per cent of Australia’s current population growth. Leith van Onselen contends that this actually underestimates the contribution of immigration to population growth, because children born to migrants are counted as natural increase.
The Greens’ Population Policy acknowledges limits to economic growth concerns, noting that
The current level of population, population growth and the way we produce and consume are outstripping environmental capacity.
The policy, however, does not make any explicit recommendations as to population growth rates or immigration rates, and instead sets out principles which would frame a population policy. The Greens’ immigration policy does not include such considerations. In practice, the Greens rarely if ever speak publicly on population policy.
The policies and public statements of Labor and the Coalition support high levels of immigration and a ‘Big Australia’, reflecting the free-market paradigms of these parties. Their support for a large immigration program is predominantly based on contentious economic arguments. The natural environment appears to be ignored in these policies.
The financial benefits to the bulk of Australians from high immigration rates are questionable. Australia has a much-vaunted run of 27 years of uninterrupted GDP growth. This is in large part due to our high immigration rates, as each new resident consumes and contributes to economic demand. GDP is, however, a very poor measure of social wellbeing; while still flawed, per capita GDP is a better such indicator. Ross Gittins has questioned the value of increasing GDP through immigration, noting that while GDP grew by 1.8 per cent in 2017-18, per capita GDP only grew by 0.2 per cent. Productivity Commission figures raise questions as to whether immigration leads to increases in per capita GDP. Gittins goes on to conclude that it is business, the main proponents of high immigration rates, that benefits from immigration, rather than the broader Australian public.
A further argument presented for a large immigration program is that it is needed to avoid an ‘ageing population’ and higher ratios of ‘economic dependents’ to those in the workforce. The problem is that immigrants also age, requiring ongoing high rates of immigration, with its attendant challenges. The approach resembles a Ponzi scheme: its benefit is only maintained if the high levels of immigration are continued. The Productivity Commission dismissed the ‘ageing population’ argument in its 2017 report. A better approach would be to execute a planned transition to a new age structure. The identification of this problem also arguably under-estimates both the contribution of the aged in unpaid contributions to society (such as childcare and charity work) and the extent of their financial self-reliance. It is instructive that this dependency argument is never mentioned in relation to children, who may be financially dependent until their twenties.
The most popular argument for immigration is that Australia is a nation of immigrants, and that diverse post-World War 2 immigration has created a diverse, vigorous and harmonious multicultural society. This is definitely true; we should indeed value the rich composition of modern Australia, but we would remain a multicultural society even with a reduced immigration rate.
Population levels, immigration rates and moving to a truly sustainable Australia
We have seen that human economic activity has outgrown the capacity of Earth’s natural systems to support us. Climate change, soil degradation and desertification, loss of native habitat and escalated rates of species extinction, disruptions to global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and overexploitation of freshwater sources together pose pressing, interconnected existential threats to humans and our fellow species. Australia is contributing globally to these problems, and we are also degrading our own natural environment.
Given the magnitude and urgency of the threats facing us, we should be pursuing all available avenues to reduce our environmental footprint. This includes population policies, as well as reducing per capita consumption and adopting more environmentally benign production technologies. As David Attenborough said in 2018
All of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.
It is incumbent on Australians to responsibly steward our land and its natural systems. While difficult to estimate, there are limits to the number of people Australia can support. Aboriginal Australians were living in relative balance with natural systems and had a pre-1788 population estimated to be up to one million. In 1994, Tim Flannery proposed up to 12 million as an optimal number. In the same year, the Australian Academy of Sciences recommended limiting population to 23 million. Irrespective of what a sustainable population is for Australia, an arid and mostly infertile continent, that number will be a lot lower in a carbon-constrained, climate change future.
The current Australian population of 25.1 million surpasses all of these estimates of a sustainable population. Our net overseas migration has more than doubled since the late 1990s and we now have one of the highest immigration rates in the Western world. There is no plan to curb immigration significantly so that our population plateaus. Nor is there a target population level. We are acting as if we can indefinitely increase our population, an approach that will inevitably lead to severe impacts on our society as well as to our natural environment.
I will not propose a particular annual immigration rate, but if we are to live within Australia’s environmental limits, we will eventually need to move to a steady state economy. A prerequisite for such a society is a stable or decreasing population. Depending on Australian fertility rates, immigration would need to equal or be smaller than emigration from Australia, which is currently at about 70,000 people per annum. Such a figure leaves significant room for an expanded refugee intake.
While welcoming large numbers of immigrants might seem altruistic, our offshore treatment of refugees and the dominance of business migration raise doubts as to the compassionate basis of our overall immigration program. While it is the decision of individual business migrants to relocate, we also need to recognise that our immigration program is, in many cases, drawing highly skilled workers away from where they are sorely needed.
Looking more broadly, if we are to ever live within Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’, consumption of Earth’s planetary budget will need to be redistributed from current wealthy countries to current developing countries. This transfer would be supported by much higher levels of overseas development assistance. These additional funds could in part be sourced from the very high costs of infrastructure currently required to service our high population growth, and would be far more effectively used to raise living standards in developing countries.
There are no easy solutions to the existential challenges we face, but we do need to talk about population.
 In her 2017 book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that social justice is not only morally necessary, but also essential if we are to achieve environmental sustainability. She argues that there is a ‘doughnut’ band of global aggregate consumption that stays within environmental bounds but provides all humans with a decent living.
 Drawn from work by Dr Jane O’Sullivan. See for example https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/the-huge-hidden-cost-of-population-growth-20160219-gmyddb.html
 It is not clear why the prominence of these issues suddenly increased, but certainly Melbourne’s Age newspaper was an earlier publisher on this topic.
 It might take a long-term to redress the infrastructure deficit, but that is a different matter.
 The Australian Conservation Foundation has, however, recently undertaken work to identify the ‘drivers of unsustainability’ and is now directing some resources to changing Australia’s ‘economic rules.’
 Interestingly, recent research by the Australian Conservation Foundation found that a significant number of young Australian women are questioning having children, fearful of the futures such children would face under escalating climate change impacts.
 …although those immigrants will generally increase their levels of consumption by moving to Australia, particularly if they come from developing countries.
 Our high immigration rates are also masking low rates of improvements in productivity.
 For example, through our very high per capita greenhouse gas emissions and ecological footprints.
 For example, Australia has the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction.