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A Less Crowded Planet

20 July 2020

If you wanted evidence that reasonably competent government – not great, not corruption-free, just not awful – produces good results in the end, here it is.

Back in 1971, when the two countries split apart, Bangladesh had 65 million people and Pakistan had 60 million. By the end of this century, Bangladesh will have around 80 million people – and Pakistan will have 250 million.

Bangladesh is usually seen as a seriously over-populated country, and it still is today: 160 million people. But its birth-rate is dropping so fast that its population will halve by 2100, leaving it with no more people per square kilometre of farmland than the United Kingdom.

It has achieved this mainly by educating its girls and young women and making contraception easily available. That’s what’s driving the global numbers down, too. The latest population predictions, published last week in the British medical journal The Lancet, forecast a global population in 2100 of only 8.8 billion.

That’s just one billion more than now. True, we will reach a peak in about forty years’ time of 9.7 billion, but by century’s end we will be sliding down the other side of the population mountain quite fast.

These are ‘surprise-free’ predictions, of course, and the future always brings surprises: wars, pandemics, a new religion or ideology. The forecasts don’t even factor in the impact of foreseeable calamities like climate change. Nevertheless, these numbers are not just fictions, and they really are good news.

The numbers come from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington, and they predict an end-of-century world population that is two billion lower than the UN Population Division’s forecast last year of almost 11 billion people. As they say: a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real numbers.

Even better, the assumption is that the global population will continue to go down after that. Give it another century of gentle decline, and we could hope for a global population of four or five billion by 2200, which would make the task of dealing with the long-term impacts of climate change a lot easier. Meanwhile, there are three other big things going on right now.

The first is that more than two dozen countries will lose around half their population by the end of this century, including all the countries of East Asia (China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan) and most of the countries of central, eastern and southern Europe (e.g. Italy, Poland, Spain and Greece).

Some will fall even further: Bulgaria from 7 million to 2.6 million, Latvia from 2 million to less than half a million. Russia, however, will only drop from 145 million to 105 million.

The problem for all of these countries will be a huge overhang of elderly people as the younger population shrinks. The ‘population pyramid’ will be stood on its point, more or less, with each person in the working population having to support at least one retired person (unless retirement ages are raised radically, as they may well be).

The second group are countries, almost all in Africa or the Middle East, where population growth is still out of control. These are the only regions where some countries will triple their populations (e.g. Israel and Angola), or quadruple them (Afghanistan and Nigeria).

Many countries in this category have more modest growth rates, but if just these two regions were excluded from the count, the population of the rest of the world in 2100 would be lower than it is today.

And finally comes the oddest group: the countries where birth rates are already far below replacement level, but the populations will hold steady or even grow somewhat by the end of the century. They include not only the rich countries of Western Europe, North America and Australasia, but also many of the Latin American republics.

What’s their secret? Immigration. They almost all have a well established tradition of accepting immigrants from other continents and cultures, and they’re prosperous enough to be attractive to immigrants.

So Sweden, Norway, France and the United Kingdom will each add a few million people by 2100. Canada, Australia and the USA will each add around ten million (and New Zealand gets an extra million). The rest, apart from Germany and the Netherlands, will attract at least enough newcomers to plug the holes left by their very low birth rates.

This may seem unfair, but it gets worse. When the researchers factored predicted economic growth into the study, the ten countries with the biggest GDP eighty years from now were, in order: the US, China, India, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Australia, Nigeria and Canada.

Six of those ten countries use English as their primary national language. To them that hath shall it be given.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“These are…news”; and “Many…today”)

Germany, Japan and the War on Rationality

Germany and Japan are finally winning a war together. Unfortunately, it is the War on Rationality.

Coal, as everybody knows, is by far the most damaging source of energy we use, in terms of both the harm to human beings and the impact on the climate. It’s twice as bad as natural gas, and dozens of times worse than solar or nuclear or wind power. Yet both Germany and Japan have been building lots of new coal-fired power stations. Why?

Would it upset you if I said it’s because they are, despite their apparent sophistication, superstitious peasants at heart? Well, go ahead and get upset.

Germany still gets more than a third of its energy from burning coal, and most of it is ultra-polluting lignite or ‘brown’ coal. If most of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power had not been shut down after 2012 (the last are scheduled to close within two years), then at least half that coal would not have been needed.

There had been an active anti-nuclear power movement in Germany for some time, but what triggered the 2012 decision to shut the entire sector down was the Fukushima incident of the previous year.

I am deliberately avoiding the words ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’, because while the Fukushima tsunami killed 19,000 people, the subsequent problem with the four nuclear reactors on the coast killed nobody. Yet the German people, or at least a large number of German anti-nuclear activists, insisted that any nuclear reactor anywhere was a mortal danger, and the government agreed to shut all the German nuclear plants down.

The same thing happened in Japan. The Japanese planners were foolish to put four reactors on the coast in a region where earthquakes and consequent tsunamis were to be expected from time to time, but what needs to be condemned is Japanese planners, not nuclear power. Nevertheless, all fifty Japanese nuclear reactors, which supplied 30% of the country’s electrical power, were immediately shut down.

The Japanese are not as blindly dogmatic as the Germans: two of those nuclear plants reopened in 2015, and seven more reopened recently. A further seventeen are in the lengthy process of restart approval, so by 2030 the Japanese government hopes to be getting 20% of its electricity from nuclear power again.

But that’s only half the amount of nuclear power that Japan originally planned to have available by 2030, and the gap between 20% and the planned 40% of the country’s energy needs will be made up by burning coal. Japan recently announced that it plans to build 22 new coal-burning power plants in the next five years.

This is deeply irresponsible behaviour, and the worst thing is that the decision-makers know it. They are just deferring to public opinion, which in this instance is entirely wrong. The ‘superstitious peasants’ should really be frightened of global warming, for which coal-burning is a major driver, not of relatively harmless nuclear power.

That’s not to say that nuclear power is the solution to all our problems, or even most of them. It is generally the most expensive option because it is costs so much to build the reactors and the associated controls and safety devices. Indeed, nuclear is no longer cost-competitive with other ‘clean’ sources of power like wind and solar.

So there is a case for not building any more nuclear power stations, at least in regions and countries that have ample resources in terms of sun and wind. But there is no case for shutting down existing nuclear stations and burning more coal to make up the difference. That is so stupid it verges on the criminal.

Other countries can be idiotic too. Due to an administrative glitch, Chinese provinces are currently building hundreds of unnecessary coal-fired power stations that may never be used, since the central government expects the country’s coal use to peak this year – and most existing Chinese coal plants already sit idle more than half of the time.

At least China is also building nuclear plants as fast as it can, and last year accounted for more than half the world’s output of solar panels. (On the other hand, it is providing work for the Chinese construction industry by building a planned 300 coal-fired power stations in other countries, presumably on the unspoken assumption that carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere won’t affect China’s climate.)

But nobody is as crazy as the Germans and the Japanese, who have been shutting down nuclear plants and replacing them with coal-fired plants. France will close its last coal-fired station in 2022, and Britain will do the same in 2025, but Germany says 2038 and Japan just says ‘eventually’. That’s far too late: by then the die will be cast, and the world will be committed to more than 2 degrees C of warming.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“This is…power”; and “At least…climate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Korea and Japan: The History Wars

Nation-states, like four-year-olds, find it very hard to admit they are in the wrong and apologise. Adult intervention often helps, but all Japan and South Korea have is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who tried and failed to mediate a week ago in Bangkok). So the trade war between the two grows and festers.

There are obvious similarities with the trade war that Donald Trump is waging against China, with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe playing the Trump role: blustering bully with no clear game plan. Like the Trump trade war, too, the Japan-South Korea confrontation threatens to destabilise both East Asian security arrangements and the global market.

Yet the confrontation between Tokyo and Seoul is not really about trade at all. It’s about the difficult history of relations between an ex-imperial power, Japan, and its former colony, Korea.

Japan is existentially in the wrong in this relationship, because it seized control of Korea in 1905 and ruled it, sometimes with great brutality, until it was defeated in the Second World War in 1945. But Tokyo doesn’t like to be reminded of all that, and claims that it discharged whatever moral debt it owed when it paid $500 million to Seoul in 1965.

Koreans take a different view, of course, but the truth is that the victims of Japan’s wartime behaviour were sold out by their own government. $500 million was a lot of money, more than the South Korean government’s entire annual budget. The newly installed military-led regime in South Korea needed the money and accepted Japan’s terms.

Almost all the money went to building up South Korea’s new export industries. Japan offered to pay compensation directly to Korean individuals who had suffered forced labour and other injustices during the Second World War, but Seoul preferred to take a lump sum (and spend almost all the money on development). Many of the victims got little or nothing.

The resentment this caused was easily diverted onto Japan, which had driven a hard bargain and failed to accompany the compensation with an apology. Anti-Japanese hostility occasionally boiled over in notorious cases like the ‘comfort women’ (young Korean women who had been abducted to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese army), but it is always bubbling away underneath.

Fast forward to last October, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that the lump-sum, government-to-government deal of 1965 did not cover damages for the mental anguish of individual wartime labourers. Subsequent rulings have authorised South Korean individuals to claim compensation from the Japanese industries that used their labour by forced legal sales of those companies’ assets in South Korea

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in did not seek this ruling from the Supreme Court, which is entirely independent. The Court was clearly stretching the law almost to breaking point, but in practical political terms he could not disown it.

Japan, on the other hand, was horrified by the ruling. Accepting it would open to door to huge claims for compensation from people who had suffered ‘mental anguish’ from the Japanese occupation in all the other countries Japan invaded between 1937 and 1945. It also felt betrayed: half a century ago it had paid out a lot of money to extinguish any further claims like these.

There has never been much love lost between Japanese and Koreans, but the two countries have almost always managed to keep important issues like trade and national security separate from the emotional flare-ups that make the relationship so fraught. Last month, however, Prime Minister Abe completely lost the plot. He began imposing restrictions on Japanese exports to South Korea.

They are relatively minor restrictions. Three classes of chemicals essential to making semiconducters that South Korea buys from Japan now require export licences. A minor bureaucratic hurdle, unless Japan stops approving the licenses (which it has not done).

More recently Japan has removed South Korea from its ‘whitelist’ of countries that are allowed to buy goods that can be diverted for military use with minimal restrictions. Again, no big deal. Just another little hurdle to cross, meant to rebuke and annoy South Korea, not to cause serious injury.

But it has been very successful in annoying South Koreans, who have spontaneously organised a quite effective boycott of Japanese-made goods. And petty though its origins may be, this confrontation is now raising the prospect that these long established trading partners, both closely allied to the United States and both anxious about China’s rise and the threat of North Korea, are going to have a real trade war.

Which, with help from the bigger trade war Donald Trump started with China, may be enough to tip the world economy into a deep recession.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Koreans…terms”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

North Korea’s Nukes

The last time when North Korean nuclear weapons might have been headed off by diplomacy was 15-20 years ago, when there was a deal freezing North Korean work on nuclear weapons, and then one stopping the country’s work on long-range ballistic missiles.

If they had been negotiated with the same attention to detail that was given to the recent deal that has frozen Iran’s nuclear programme for ten years, maybe North Korea’s quest for nuclear-tipped ICBMs could have been stopped for good – or maybe not, because North Korea has always wanted an effective deterrent to the permanent US nuclear threat.

At any rate, both the nuclear and the missile deals with North Korea failed after a couple of years. Pyongyang and Washington were equally to blame for the break-downs, resorting to tit-for-tat retaliation for various perceived breaches of the deal by the other side.

But it was the United States that had more to lose, since it faced no nuclear threat from North Korea UNLESS the deals were abandoned and North Korea’s weapons research went ahead. What we have seen recently – two ICBM tests in July, another one last month, and now what was almost certainly North Korea’s first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb) – is the inevitable result of the failure then.

It took a lot of time and effort to get Pyongyang’s bomb and missile programmes to this point, and it seems clear that Kim Jong-un’s regime decided the safest way to test the new weapons and vehicles was all at once. He’s right.

Stringing the tests out over a couple of years might have given the country’s enemies time to organise a complete trade embargo against North Korea, or maybe even some form of attack. The safer course was to bunch the tests up, get the outraged reactions over fast, and then hope the whole issue will fade into the background.

That’s what both India and Pakistan did in 1998, and it worked for them. Everybody eventually got used to the idea that they were more or less legitimate nuclear weapons powers.

India and Pakistan didn’t bother doing all their missile tests at once, because they had enough space to carry them out over their own land and maritime territory. North Korea is much smaller and entirely surrounded by Chinese, Russian and Japanese territory, so any long-range tests are bound to pass over one of those countries. Pyongyang chose Japan, because it is a US ally.

But even its ICBM test on 30 August, when the Japanese government ordered its citizens in parts of Hokkaido into the shelters, did not enter Japanese airspace. The missile crossed Japan at a sub-orbital altitude, and the Japanese authorities knew that it would as soon as the boost phase ended. The pictures of allegedly panic-stricken Japanese civilians in shelters were propaganda meant to serve Prime Minister Abe’s project for remilitarising Japan.

There is no good ‘military option’ available to the United States and its allies in the current crisis, even though President Trump says “We’ll see.”

A direct US attack on North Korea using only conventional weapons would not get all of North Korea’s nukes, which are hidden in hardened underground sites or moved around by night on mobile launchers. It would also call down “fire and fury” on Seoul from ten thousand North Korean artillery pieces and short-range rockets.

A US nuclear attack would probably still not get all of Kim Jong-un’s nukes: North Korea is the hardest intelligence target in the world. Pyongyang may already be able to reach the United States with one or two ICBMs carrying thermonuclear warheads, and it can certainly reach all of South Korea and Japan.

The political options for the United States and its Asian allies are equally constrained. Trump’s talk of stopping US trade with any country that trades with North Korea is really aimed at China (which already operates selective embargoes on various North Korean exports). But cutting US trade with China would cause immense disruption to the American economy, and it’s unlikely that Trump would actually do it.

Normally, when human beings encounter a problem that they cannot eliminate, they find ways of living with it. It often takes a while for them to get there, however, and we are currently in the dangerous phase where people (or at least some people) are convinced that there must be SOMETHING they can do to make the problem go away.

The only excuse for radical action now would be a conviction that Kim Jong-un is a crazy man who will use his nuclear weapons to launch an unprovoked attack on the United States, even though it would certainly lead to his own death and that of his entire regime. If you truly believe that, then the right course of action is an all-out nuclear attack on North Korea right now.

Otherwise, start dialing back your rhetoric, because you are eventually going to have to accept that North Korea now has a usable nuclear deterrent. You can live with that, because it’s better than fighting a nuclear war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“India…Japan”)