On migration, population and ecology

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.

In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:

Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.

A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.

The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:

To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.

I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?

I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.

Does population matter at the global level?

One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.

Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.

So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.

In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.

One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles.  Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.

Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.

Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.

Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).

Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.

If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.

It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.

Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Is migration relevant to this?

The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.

If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).

It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence  would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.

Does population matter at the local level?

I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one  local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.

I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!

household_changes

One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.

Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.

The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.

So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.

However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?

We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!

Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)

My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting.  There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.

But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.

At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.

Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.

Two false hopes that won’t solve London’s housing crisis

Darren Johnson has issued a report arguing that building new homes can’t solve London’s housing crisis alone. He suggests the Mayor should consider other solutions including smart regulations for the private rented sector, taxing land values and setting up land auctions.

But there are two policies you won’t see in his list. Two policies that Greens often bring up in discussions about housing. I wanted to take some time this evening to explain why I think we should talk about them a little less, and in a very different light.

Before I launch in, I would heartily recommend this blog entry by Liz Emerson as an overview of the sources of our housing crisis, to give an idea of why we need to act. The Green Party’s policy platform is chock-full of good ideas to rectify this, but when it comes to building new homes I think Greens sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and sometimes put forward two ideas that frankly aren’t good enough.

I have to make clear – while I worked with Darren on his report I am writing this blog entry in a personal capacity, and this should in no way be taken as reflecting Darren’s views, those of my employer the GLA or of the Green Party.

I also have to make clear that this blog is about London. The national picture is bound to be quite different, but I think many of the basic points still hold.

We should use empty homes before building new ones

The claim runs as follows: there are lots of empty homes in London, we should be making better use of them before building new homes.

Thr problem: It’s true that there are lots of empty homes in London, and that it would be good if we could make use of them. But there aren’t nearly enough to make new housebuilding unnecessary. Not even close.

The latest figures from Empty Homes show that there were 74,811 empty homes in November 2011. But of those, only 29,540 were empty for more than six months. A home empty for a shorter period of time could well be in the middle of renovation or waiting for tenants. So fewer than 1% of homes in London are empty for long periods of time – not very many, is it?

Empty homes are also often quite hard to bring into use. They can be in a bad way, on housing estates awaiting demolition, or owned by some grumpy absentee landlord. Councils, the Mayor and the Government all try to solve these problems, and they could definitely try harder. Our 2012 manifesto pledged to:

Set up a clearing house to offer all publicly owned derelict land to Community Land Trusts and to make all suitable publicly-owned empty homes available to self-help co-operatives to bring them back into short-life or permanent use.

But it would be a tall order to bring every last empty home into use, and to stop any more becoming empty for more than six months.

What’s more, the experts who advised the Government and the Mayor on housing need recommended that we need between 33,100 and 44,700 homes every year for twenty years just to deal with overcrowding and stabilise house prices. So those 29,540 long-term empty homes would deliver at most one year’s supply, leaving at least another 630,000 homes to build over the following nineteen years.

We should re-balance the UK away from London

The policy claim: there are another 250,000 long-term empty homes elsewhere in the UK, and if prices in London are so overcooked because it’s where all the jobs are, then we should give other regions a big economic boost to re-balance the nation.  This way lots of people would move away to Plymouth, Preston and Perth, the market would settle down in London and the south east and we could make better use of the housing stock elsewhere.

The first problem with this argument is that there is already quite a large net flow of people out of London. This diagram from the GLA’s strategic housing market assessment neatly illustrates the point:

The need for housing isn’t coming from job-hungry Yorkshiremen, but from Londoners having lots of babies at a faster rate than people are dying, and from a large net migration from outside the UK. This has changed slightly during the recession for various interesting reasons, but the basic direction of movement remains. A lot of those people leaving are retired, or moving out to commuter towns to raise families. So in fact we would need to persuade even more people to leave London to seek work elsewhere, persuade Londoners not to have so many children, and persuade far more international migrants to settle elsewhere.

The second problem is that these very big changes are far beyond the wit of the Mayor of London and local councils. We can certainly talk about these big trends and our ideas for the national Government. But when the Conservative or Labour government continues to fail to grapple with these trends, we have to be ready to say what we would do if elected in Camden, Lewisham and Bromley. It’s not good enough to throw up our hands and complain about the Government’s economic strategy.

Sticking to the facts

We can definitely say we should do more to bring empty homes back into use, and to re-balance the UK’s economy to boost the north, west, Wales and Scotland. I don’t agree with those who tend to write these ideas off because they are so fixed on new housing supply being the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet, Darren’s work shows that in no uncertain terms. We need every good idea we can get.

But we cannot pretend that they would be sufficient to meet London’s chronic housing need and that they are therefore a reason not to build new homes. Doing so makes us as guilty as those who pretend we can solve climate change and carry on flying more and more if we just build some nuclear power stations and insulate our lofts. We know that the facts don’t support the waffly half-hearted policies of other parties on climate change, so we should be sure that the facts support our policies on housing.

There are often issues with new housing developments. They can be on unsuitable land that should be protected for farming (or they can be on useless pony fields for little princesses); they can be low density car-dependent suburbs (or smart extensions with good transport links); they can feature too little affordable housing (or at least get some built in areas that desperately need it). But we must build housing in parts of the country where the need for housing is greater than the stock available. The social and economic costs are so severe that it should be one of our highest priorities to ensure this happens.

We needn’t be slaves to the market – we can advocate building council and co-operative housing for example – but we also cannot be the party of wealthy elderly councillors blocking housing needed by younger constituents as the Integenerational Foundation has warned.