Chinese Minister Links ‘One-Child’ Policy to Emissions Reduction at Climate Conference

Patrick Goodenough | December 11, 2009 | 4:46am EST
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Zhao Baige, vice minister of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, speaks on the sidelines of the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen. (Image: CCTV China)

( – A senior official of the Chinese ministry responsible for the country’s coercive population-control program is citing the controversial “one-child” policy as a successful way to reduce emissions of the gases blamed for global warming.
As developing countries seek to develop in a sustainable way, they should consider China’s experience, said Zhao Baige, vice minister of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission.
“The [Chinese] policy on family planning proves to be a great success,” Zhao was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying in Copenhagen, where she is one of Beijing’s delegates at the U.N. climate conference.
“It not only contributes to reduction of global emission, but also provides experiences for other countries – developing countries in particular – in their pursuit for a coordinated and sustainable development.”
The 400 million births prevented as a result of China’s policy since it was introduced in the 1970s, and the drop in the child-per-couple average from 5.8 to 1.8, resulted in 1.8 billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) being emitted each year, Zhao said.
A report on Zhao’s comments in the state-run China Daily said she acknowledged that the one-child policy was not without “consequences” – but the only ones she mentioned were the skewed gender balance and a rapidly ageing society.
“I’m not saying that what we have done is 100 percent right, but I’m sure we are going in the right direction and now 1.3 billion people have benefited,” she said.
China’s policy generally restricts couples to having one child. Exceptions are made in some cases, with rural dwellers and ethnic minority couples permitted a second child if their firstborn is a girl.
Critics of the policy say it not only deprives individuals the right to choose how many children they want, but also gives rise to an array of human rights abuses including forced abortion and sterilization, infanticide, sex-selective abortions and the levying of punitive fines or loss of jobs for policy violators.
Arguments about links between global warming and population have circulated in population-control circles for years, but climate change negotiators have generally sidestepped them because of the sensitivities surrounding population-limiting policies.
The Sierra Club in a 2007 position paper called for “greater effort to explain how population pressure is affecting the environment and stronger support for the program – family planning, health care, and education and opportunity for women – that most effectively encourages smaller families.”
The environmental organization said it welcomed “non-coercive, culturally sensitive policies that will help lower birth rates, stabilize global population, and make a smaller population a realistic possibility.”
During a visit to India over the summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took part in a roundtable discussion on environmental issues, and said afterwards that “one of the participants pointed out that it’s rather odd to talk about climate change and what we must do to stop and prevent the ill effects without talking about population and family planning.”
“That was an incredibly important point,” Clinton said. “And yet, we talk about these things in very separate and often unconnected ways.”
In its most recent annual report on the state of world population, released on the eve of the Copenhagen conference, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) broached the subject.
The report said that the influence of human activity on climate change is, among other things, “about our growing numbers – approaching 7 billion. As the growth of population, economies and consumption outpaces the earth’s capacity to adjust, climate change could become much more extreme – and conceivably catastrophic.”
“Calculations of the contribution of population growth to emissions growth globally produce a consistent finding that most of past population growth has been responsible for between 40 per cent and 60 percent of emissions growth,” the report said.
The UNFPA’s role in China’s population policies has long been controversial. It denies that its work in China supports coercive measures, but citing evidence to the contrary the Bush administration from 2002 withheld federal funding for the U.N. body in line with legislation prohibiting funds for any agency that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”  President Obama reversed the policy early this year.
‘A mandate to suppress individual freedoms’
In the November edition of the World Health Organization’s journal, the Bulletin, two WHO experts cautioned against linking climate change and population.
Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum and Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan noted that developing countries have the highest rates of population growth, “leading to suggestions that this should be the starting point to reduce climate change. In response, developing countries point out that per capita emissions of children born in poor countries are, and are likely to remain, much lower than those in richer countries, and claim that they are being stigmatized for ‘profligate reproductive behavior’ as a negotiating position over greenhouse gas commitments.”
The two warned that “using the need to reduce climate change as a justification for curbing the fertility of individual women at best provokes controversy and, at worst, provides a mandate to suppress individual freedoms.”
In 2007, an Australian academic argued that a campaign by the former conservative government to encourage bigger families went against efforts to fight climate change.
Instead than offering couples financial incentives to have more children, he said, parents who have more than a specified number of children – two was suggested – should pay a tax, “in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle.”
Earlier this week, Canada’s Financial Post said that humans are overpopulating the world and that a global law “such as China’s one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate…”
According to the newspaper, despite its polluting coal plants, China “is the world's leader in terms of fashioning policy to combat environmental degradation, thanks to its one-child-only edict.”
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