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Can we innovate to zero?

In the late 1700s, Thomas Malthus expressed great concerns that an ever-increasing population will lead to an indiscriminate increase in consumption of scarce resources like food. This led to his prediction of a decline in population due to the expectation that the amount of resources will be unable to cater for the needs of a population growing in geometric proportions. World population grew from close to a billion people in 1798 to about 5 billion people in 1980. In 1980, similar concerns were raised by Chinese officials who mulled on how to reduce population growth, which ultimately led to the one-child policy in China.

In the last few years, the annual world population growth rate has been estimated to be 1 percent annually. Last month, global population hit 8 billion which accounts for 7 percent of humans that have ever lived [1]. Rapid population growth is a great concern to national and international policymakers as there is a clear consensus that we live in a finite world. Constantly, population control has always been observed to be predominantly an economic issue. However, the effects of anthropogenic climate change and other environmental quagmires have led to some considering population growth and control argument to reducing emissions overall. In this think piece, we challenge this notion.

Population Growth and Environmental Challenges:

Although nuances exist between the relationship between population and GHG emissions, there is a strong correlation between the aggregate global population and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since the deployment of technologies that helped to improve human prosperity, global GHG emissions have been increasing year on year. And considering that these technologies have been mainly fossil fuel driven across the 20th and early 21st century, it is practicable that through population growth and economic prosperity, emissions would usually follow.

Figure 1. Global Population Growth vs Carbon dioxide Emissions. Data obtained from [2] and [3]

Studying the emissions per capita of individual nations, the disparity in emissions between various nations was observed. For example, the emissions per capita in Kuwait is close to 300 times greater than the emissions per capita in Somalia. Also, the top 10% of countries have the same emissions per capita as the combined emissions per capita of the bottom 80% nations. Similarly, these kinds of inequities exist in our societies between individuals.

Population Growth and Innovation

Probability and simple statistics suggest that the more people there are on the planet, the greater the chance of more people developing impactful inventions. In business, the advantages of economies of scale such as increased output and efficiency are demonstrable. Similarly, a rising population bolsters the chances of high-impact innovation.

In the United States, studies [4] show that innovation has thrived in dense population centers where:

· People had the ability to interact with one another easily;

· Innovators had access to connected markets;

· Strong capital markets that financed innovation existed.

Innovation and Sustainability:

A 2017 study [5] demonstrated how human population can continue to grow, whilst maximizing socio-economic well-being in a sustainable way. However, this hypothesis is predicated on a planet rife with positive technologies that generate benefits surpassing their fiscal and environmental costs and have positive feedback loops of generating other new and more efficient technologies (sustainable technologies being used to develop other renewable technologies).

Other studies have also shown that innovation is key to maintaining a highly populous and sustainable world. Innovation is shaping the alternatives to a current fossil fuel run economy. Innovation in battery technologies have brought the price of lithium-ion batteries down by over 97% in the last 3 decades [6], making an electrified road transport paradigm possible.

This is just one of many exciting innovation prospects in the making. Another one is the conundrum of baseload power and the need to make a sustainable nuclear fusion reactor a reality for power generation – a technology with the potential to provide the amplified advantages of nuclear fission reactors whilst minimising the cons of fission such as risk of meltdowns and radioactive waste.

Solar windows, solar balloons and invention in solar thin film technologies also have immense potential to make great contributions to a low-carbon economy.

Wind turbines have undergone significant improvements over time in order to generate more energy and become more efficient. Multiple enhancements such as: blade size, towers being taller, improved aerodynamics and improved control systems have all led to wind turbines becoming more efficient, cost effective, and a viable source of renewables. Furthermore, wind has the added benefit of occupying a relatively small space on land or at sea, enabling multi-purpose land use in a way that traditional fossil fuel power stations do not. The average global cost of electricity from onshore wind fell 15% between 2010 and 2020, while offshore wind fell even further by 25% in the same period.

Per Capita emissions contraction and convergence:

A notable idea in the field of population and the environment is contraction and convergence [7]. The simple principle is as countries globally develop, their per capita emissions will stabilise and converge. Then, as we innovate and develop more sustainably worldwide, the emissions of all countries will contract over time to levels aligned to the Paris Agreement of 1.5C.

Critics of this argument suggest that we simply do not have enough time for convergence to occur within the timeframe of Net Zero by 2050, and therefore contraction must happen regardless, which for many raises a climate justice question. Who will front the bill so to speak?

In the case of convergence, climate justice calls for developed countries to take responsibility for their historical and current high emissions, and provide support for developing countries to do the same, which was a key discussion point and outcome at COP27 in Egypt, resulting many pledges of finance and support for climate mitigation and adaptation.

In the case of contraction, climate justice looks to developed economies to shift the costs of emission reduction away from marginalised communities and countries at the forefront of extreme weather and sea level rise.

Through significant contraction, countries can converge (or align) at lower per capita emission levels. Climate justice ultimately demonstrates that successful and equitable growth, development, and achieving a Net Zero future are fundamentally linked.


In my estimation, the current conceived technological potential of current ideas under research and development are sufficient to drive a sustainable and low-carbon future. The question is how we can bring improvement to some of these nascent ideas and inventions to a level where it is commercially competitive and available, while ensuring that the global commitments to emission reductions remain inclusive, equitable and just. An international problem requires universal solutions.



C. H. Toshiko Kaneda, 15 November 2022. [Online]. Available:


T. I., "Historical carbon dioxide emissions from global fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes from 1750 to 2020," 2022. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 12 December 2022].


Worldometers, "World Population by Year," 2022. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 12 December 2022].


J. G. T. N. Ufuk Akcigit, "When America Was Most Innovative, and Why," Harvard Busimess Review, 2017.


C. Q. P. A. M. V. P. Weinberger, "Innovation and the growth of human population," 2017.


H. Ritchie, "The price of batteries has declined by 97% in the last three decades," OurWorldinData, 2021.

[7] R. Stott, "Contraction and convergence: the best possible solution to the twin problems of climate change and inequity", BMJ, 2012

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