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The population bombshell

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Population growth in Australian cities is not the environmental bogeyman many people believe but may in fact hold the key to the nation’s ecological redemption, researchers from the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute argue.

CUSP PhD Candidate Vanessa Rauland and John Curtin Distinguished Professor Peter Newman note that the topic of population growth is becoming increasingly political in Australia.

“The debate is dominated by two approaches that appear diametrically opposed,” Professor Newman told Curtin News.

“One involves increasing population to stimulate the economy and generate more skilled jobs, while the other advocates decreasing the number of people in order to cope with environmental pressures such as climate change.

“What we’re now saying is these two approaches are not necessarily conflicting but can in fact be complementary.”


Ms Rauland said that if Australia were to transform its cities – by shifting from big resource infrastructure such as dams and power stations to smaller, decentralised systems – then it would be possible to support more people while reducing carbon emissions.

Professor Newman said such decentralised systems were far more sustainable, but usually required higher population densities to make them viable.

“So we argue that population growth in our cities – long considered a major problem by many people concerned about the environment – could actually become the key factor in reducing Australia’s per capita carbon footprint,” he said.

“Limiting urban populations alone would do little to address the resource and environmental concerns facing the nation, and could produce entirely the opposite effect by locking the inefficiencies of the current system into stagnant or declining cities.”

Ms Rauland said that the polar opposite approach of increasing populations purely on economic grounds – without reforming outdated, inefficient and polluting infrastructure – would not work either.

“We therefore propose a new approach that uses urban population growth, and the associated economic growth, to enable new low-carbon technologies and more intelligent infrastructure that will transform cities into healthier, more sustainable and productive places to live,” she said.

“Reforming the way that cities use resources is so important to the national sustainability effort because the vast majority of people live in cities.”

In 2007, the United Nations forecast that world population would peak at 9.2 Billion in 2050 – which is less than 40 years away.

In May this year, the UN revised that forecast, estimating world population would continue to grow beyond 10 billion into the next century – largely on the back of continued population growth in Africa, China and India.


While population growth remains a serious environmental concern at the global level, Professor Newman said that many developed nations were seeing their natural populations decline.

“Indeed, in coming decades we will see many cities in the developed world struggle to fund the necessary infrastructure reforms because their populations, and by general extension their economies, will be in decline,” he said.

“The continued current growth of cities in places such as Australia should therefore be embraced and turned to advantage.

“We need to capitalise on the opportunities that growth creates for new, sustainable systems while we can.

“We can then use this new model to demonstrate to developing countries how they can grow sustainably, and avoid our past mistakes.”

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