Smaller families most effective action on global warming

Credit: @roxeneandersonphotography

Last week, researchers from Lund University and University of British Columbia published a widely-reported article highlighting the top ‘high-impact’ actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon emissions and fight climate change. Having fewer children was overwhelmingly found to have the greatest impact. The findings were in line with another recent report which identified steps to manage population growth as among the most effective measures available to reduce global emissions. 


Meeting climate targets

Each year, countries such as the United States and Australia are producing 16 tons of CO2 per person. Yet in order to avoid severe global warming, it is estimated that carbon emissions must fall to two tons per person by 2050. With this in mind, researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas set out to find which individual lifestyle choices could have the greatest potential to reduce emissions, thereby helping us meet our climate targets.

Researchers reviewed multiple actions which can help reduce individual emissions. They identified four high-impact actions with the greatest potential to reduce our individual emissions.

Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017


  1. Having one fewer child

  2. Living car-free

  3. Avoiding airplane travel

  4. Eating a plant-based diet






In a statement made to The Guardian, Nicholas commented: “We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has.” She also acknowledged that while massive changes will need to be undertaken in order to seriously grapple with climate change, it is important to show that individuals have an opportunity to be part of the solution.


Adopting ‘high impact’ actions

Although having one fewer child far outweighs any other action in terms of reducing individual carbon emissions, it is rarely mentioned as part of a strategy for combatting climate change.

Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

In a survey of government resources across Canada, Australia, the United States, and the European Union, recommendations were found to focus significantly on actions with low to moderate-impact, such as upgrading light bulbs and recycling.

In response to this, Nicholas said the low-impact actions were still worth doing: “All of those are good things to do. But they are more of a beginning than an end. They are certainly not sufficient to tackle the scale of the climate challenge that we face.”

The key message here is that individuals can make a difference when it comes to reducing emissions and combatting climate change. It is important, however, for people to know which actions they can take in order to have the greatest impact overall.


Spreading awareness via our institutions

Population Matters is currently campaigning to persuade organisations which educate the public about the natural world to explain human impact more clearly. Our belief is that by spreading awareness—both of our human impact on the natural world as well as what we as individuals can do to limit our carbon footprints—this will help to inform future actions that people choose to take.

For more on this and our recently launched ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ campaign, please visit here.


To stay up-to-date with the latest facts and figures related to population and our human impact on the world, make sure to refer to our website as well as to follow our Facebook and Twitter pages.

World Population Day 2017: a call for action

This year on World Population Day, we recognise the unsustainable impacts of continued global population growth, putting increased pressure on resources, the environment and those struggling to escape poverty. Yet there remains hope for the future, as action to bring down and eventually reverse population growth can be taken.

Background

According to the most recent United Nations projections, our global population by the end of the century could vary drastically depending on the scenario. The main, “median” projection shows a population of 9.8bn in 2050 and 11.2bn in 2100. However, projections based on assuming half-a-child more on average per family and half-a-child less compared to the median indicate that our population in 2100 could see a massive range: between 16.5bn and, with half-a-child less, 7.3bn—smaller than our population today.

Solutions

In order to ensure that our population growth becomes sustainable over time, effective and ethical measures to reduce the number of children being born need to be adopted. These include:

  • Public education campaigns regarding the benefits of small families
  • Education and empowerment of women and girls
  • Ensuring full, universal access to modern family planning
  • Challenging social conventions which encourage large family size and discourage the use of contraception

Action

Today in London, a major global family planning summit is taking place, co-hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The summit comes as family planning aid has been hit hard by the Trump administration’s reinstatement of the ‘global gag rule’, which bans funding to any organisation providing abortion services or even discussing abortion options with its clients.

In an interview, Melinda Gates said

“Funding is being squeezed when we need it the most, because the biggest-ever generation of girls is entering adolescence. If they are empowered to decide if and when to get pregnant, they can invest in themselves and their families. If they are not empowered, they may well be trapped in the same cycle of poverty as their parents.”

Representatives of Population Matters are attending satellite events at the summit. Population Matters is calling for a benchmark figure of 10% of overseas aid to be devoted to family planning.

Our view

In a statement to the media, Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

“On World Population Day, the global community must begin to acknowledge that the size of our population underlies almost all of the profound problems we face – but also that it’s a problem that we can address. To do that, we must acknowledge the need to start taking positive action now. 

“The progress that’s been made already in bringing down fertility rates is a welcome sign that more women are becoming empowered, fewer people live in poverty and more people are getting the health care, family planning and education they deserve. It is vital that the global community does more, better and faster on all of these fronts.  

“We are already in a crisis and our current trajectory of rising numbers, rising affluence and so increased consumption is unsustainable. We are already using up the renewable resources of more than one-and-a-half Earths to supply our needs – and those of us in the richest countries even more. If we continue on this trajectory, we will need more than three Earths by 2050. We can and must take action.

“Every person born consumes resources and produces carbon emissions. By having smaller families and curbing our consumption, the greater the chances of our tackling the multiple, urgent challenges we face: getting climate change under control, lifting people out of poverty, protecting biodiversity and ensuring that the resources we have are available to future generations fairly and sustainably.”

 

For more information about population, sustainability and solutions, visit our Key Facts webpage

To find out more about the UN population projections, read our article here

Africa: Demographic dividend or population disaster?

By 2050, more than half of the anticipated growth in global population is expected to occur in Africa. While some leaders see this as an economic opportunity, others can sense a looming disaster unless measures to control population and support family planning are put into place.

As Africa’s overall population is predicted to nearly double – from 1.3 billion people today to 2.5 billion by 2050 – many of its national leaders have expressed their belief that a growing and youthful population could produce economic benefits. This theory is referred to as a ‘demographic dividend’, meaning greater potential for economic growth as a result of an expanded working-age population. The African Union has officially designated 2017 as the year of “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investment in Youth”.

A number of expert bodies are concerned that the dividend may not be forthcoming, especially if opportunities remain stagnant. According to estimates by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, around 12 million young people enter Africa’s workforce each year, although the continent as a whole creates an average of only 3.7 million jobs per year. Unless governments can provide better access to education, health care and job training, it may be unlikely for the demographic dividend to occur.

The same can be said if governments fail to implement successful family planning programmes. At the AU Summit in Ethiopia earlier this year, then United Nations Population Fund Executive Director, the late Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin offered this perspective:

“If you don’t have a working family planning programme, it is unthinkable to reap the demographic dividend.”

While there is a growing recognition among many politicians and policymakers in Africa of the dangers of population growth and the need for action, opposition to smaller families still persists on cultural, religious and political grounds.

Food Security

A rapidly growing population in Africa also means increasingly higher demand for food. According to a recent report from the African Futures Project, it appears that the widening gap between domestic food supply and demand across southern African countries could have serious consequences for food stability. Without drastic improvements in food production, the region will have to rely more heavily on food imports.

As a result, it is likely that populations across Africa will become more vulnerable to food price spikes and climatic shocks (such as floods and droughts), ultimately leading to more frequent domestic food shortages. Given the effects of rapid population growth on both poverty and stability, it is therefore viewed that slowing population growth should be part of a strategy to ensure long-term development as well as to mitigate growing food insecurity.


For more information on matters of population and food security, visit here.

UK population growth highest in 70 years

Last week, the Office for National Statistics released its mid-2016 Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These statistics reveal that the number of people residing in the UK increased by 538,000 over theprevious year, the largest rise in actual numbers seen in nearly 70 years. Net international migration continues to be the main driver of growth, while an increase in births and fewer deaths compared to the year before are also contributors.


Estimates show

  • The population of the UK at 30 June 2016 is estimated to have been 65,648,000 people.

  • Over the year to mid-2016, the number of people resident in the UK increased by 0.8% (538,000), this growth rate is similar to the average annual growth rate since 2005.

  • The population increase of the UK reflected increases of 193,000 people through natural change (35.8% of the total increase), 336,000 through net international migration (62.4% of the total increase) and an increase of 9,500 people in the armed forces population based in the UK.

  • The UK population continues to age, but at a slower rate than recent years with only a small change to the proportion aged 65 and over (18.0% in mid-2016 compared with 17.9% in mid-2015) and an unchanged median age of 40.

  • The annual population growth varied across the UK – in England it was 0.9%, Wales 0.5%, Scotland 0.6% and Northern Ireland 0.6%.

 

Annual population change for the UK, mid-1944 to mid-2016
Source: Office for National Statistics, National Records of Scotland, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency


Uneven distribution

These findings also reveal that population growth within the UK has not been evenly distributed. The rate of population growth in London is more than twice that in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and three Northern English regions. Out of the four countries that make up the UK, England’s population also grew the fastest, exceeding 55 million for the first time.

 
Housing under pressure

A report by the housing charity Shelter has highlighted the insecurity of people on low incomes arising from pressure on housing supplies. Factors such as a freeze on certain housing benefits are, according to the charity, threatening one million families with eviction. The underlying mismatch between housing demand and supply – especially in regard to lower cost social housing – exacerbates all the surrounding problems.

 
Our view

In a statement to the press, Population Matters said:

“These figures for the year up to June 2016 reflect the situation as it has been for many years now, with net migration being the highest driver of population growth. The most recent migration figures, however, indicate fewer people coming from the EU and more citizens of other EU states returning home. If this continues and the 900,000 Britons living elsewhere in the EU start considering their positions, population dynamics in the UK could start to change in significant ways.

“More people means more pressure on everything, from our food to our housing and from buses to butterflies.  With Brexit negotiations likely to have such a significant impact, it is inexplicable that the UK still does not have an integrated, effective and realistic policy framework for population. The number of people in the UK already puts too great a strain on our public services and natural resources. Multiple factors contribute to our numbers, however, not least fertility and birth rates that are higher than many other EU countries.

“Managing and eventually ending population growth in an equitable, sustainable way should be a top priority for government and Population Matters is calling on he new government to introduce a National Population Policy.”

For more information about population and its impact in the UK, see our Key Facts UK page.

For more information about the proposed National Population Policy, visit here.

16bn or 7.3bn in 2100? New UN figures say both possible

The United Nations has today released new projections for global population growth up until 2100. Issued every two years, the projections for 2017 show slight increases over those produced in 2015 – increases measured, however, in hundreds of millions of people.

The figures also show that very small differences in family size will have a huge impact on the global population.

Key points

  • The principal “medium variant” projection is that the Earth’s population will be 9.8bn in 2050 and 11.2bn in 2100.
  • There is a 95 per cent probability that the global population will be between 8.4 and 8.7 billion in 2030, between 9.4 and 10.2 billion in 2050 and between 9.6 and 13.2 billion in 2100.
  • The chance of population growth ending before 2100 is only 23 per cent.
  • The 47 least developed countries will see their populations more than triple between 2017 and 2100, reaching more than 3bn people.
  • The medium-variant projection assumes that the global fertility level will decline from 2.5 births per woman in 2017 to 2.2 by 2050, and then to 2.0 by 2100. (A fertility level of 2.1 is considered to be the “replacement rate”, at which numbers of births and deaths will balance out over time.)
  • Africa remains the region with the highest fertility levels, although total fertility has fallen from 5.1 births per woman in 2000-2005 to 4.7 in 2015. Over half of global population growth up to 2050 will occur in Africa.
  • In the last ten years, fertility levels in Asia fell from 2.4 to 2.2.
  • The population sizes projected in the principal projection will not be met without action. In the words of the report, “it will be essential to support continued improvements in access to reproductive health care services, including family planning, especially in the least developed countries, with a focus on enabling women and couples to achieve their desired family size.”
2017 UN population projection: world
Source: United Nations Population Division

We will provide more detailed analysis of the report soon. The UN’s summary of the projections can be read here and further detail, graphs and interactive graphics are available here.

Our view

In a statement to the media, Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

These figures contain no surprises – but serve to emphasise again both the challenges we face and that it is possible to surmount them. The 95% certainty range is between 9.4 and 10.2bn people in 2050 and fully 3.6bn in 2100. Beyond even that, the projections reveal that if there is on average just half-a-child more per woman than in the medium projection, our population in 2100 could be 16.5bn; with half-a-child less, it could be 7.3bn – smaller than our population today. 

Differences on that scale are vast and there is almost no conceivable scenario in which the planet can sustain the numbers at the upper end of those ranges. As the report makes clear, we are only going to see us hitting the lowest figures with concerted action, starting now. In particular, we’re seeing global population growth being driven in the very countries which can least handle the burden of more people and in tandem, the authors of the projections admit to particular uncertainty about how far and how quickly fertility rates will decline in those places. 

More, better, faster

The environmental and economic consequences of population growth are profound and alarming but the key message of these figures is that action to address it will make an enormous difference to our futures. The progress that’s been made already in bringing down fertility rates is a welcome sign that more women are becoming empowered, fewer people live in poverty and more people are getting the heath care, family planning and education they deserve. It is vital that the global community does more, better and faster on all of these fronts.  

We are already in a crisis and our current trajectory of rising numbers and rising affluence is unsustainable. The planet is groaning under the strain of seven-and-a-half billion of us and we are using the renewable resources of more than one-and-a-half Earths to supply our needs. The fewer of us there are to put more strain on the Earth, the easier it is to tackle the multiple challenges we face: getting climate change under control, lifting people out of poverty, protecting biodiversity and ensuring that the resources we have are used fairly and sustainably.

Find out more about why population matters and see the key facts regarding population, sustainability and the solutions to population growth.

Floods, droughts and a billion people in danger in Nile basin

Nile basinA crisis is quickly developing across one of the world’s great river basins, as a result of population pressures coupled with global warming. As water levels become more variable and less predictable, the risk of flooding and droughts will increase dramatically.

According to UN estimates, the population across the Nile river basin is projected to double by 2050, approaching one billion. The region is already under immense pressure from water scarcity.

Scarcity of fresh water resources is already a major concern for people in many parts of the world, with population growth magnifying the issue. This is especially true for countries across the Nile river basin, where many inhabitants live at the sustenance level and depend directly on the river ecosystems.

Nile basin

A newly-published study by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) projects that the river’s water levels will become increasingly unpredictable, resulting in either devastating floods or plaguing drought depending on the year. Growing variability in water levels is already taking place in the region. Between 2015 and 2016, many countries in the Nile basin experienced intense drought followed by widespread flooding.

Ethiopia, for instance, experienced one of the most serious climatic shocks in recorded history, with 10 million people facing successive crop failures, widespread livestock deaths, as well as severe water shortages and health risks. Around the same time, flooding in Sudan left thousands of houses destroyed, several villages submerged, and 100 people killed.

Climate change vulnerability

People living in low-lying coastal areas and river basins in developing countries are already recognised to be at great risk from the effects of climate change, including through a predicted rise in sea levels. Growing populations in these areas increase the number of people at risk.

At present, climate change is driven mainly by high carbon emissions from developed world countries.

For more information on challenges related to water and scarcity across the globe, visit our page here.

Is India now bigger than China?

According to a Chinese academic, China’s official population figures are inaccurate – with the result that at an estimated 1.31bn  people, India has overtaken it as the world’s most populous country. While Yi Fuxian’s own figures have been questioned by other experts, the issue has highlighted the significance of these two countries to future population change and environmental impact.

The Washington Post reports that the  Chinese academic, currently working at a US university, says that China’s birth rate is lower tan official statistics claim, at 377.6 million new births in the last 25 years, rather than 465 million, as the government reports. As a result, its current population will be under 1.3 billion, rather than he 1.37bn currently estimated.

Although Chinese official statistics are notoriously unreliable,  other experts have challenged Yi’s claims, acknowledging that current figures may not be entirely accurate but saying that he has overstated his case.

Two giants

China flagWhatever the precise ranking, India and China are currently the world’s most populous countries by a large margin. India’s fertility rate (TFR*) has dropped by two-thirds since 1960 and at 2.4, is just below the global average and just above the “replacement rate” at which numbers of births and deaths eventually become equal. With a TFR of 1.6, China’s fertility is among the world’s lowest, although it appears to be climbing following abandonment of the coercive “one child policy” in 2015.

Low fertility rates (ie numbers of children per family) do not necessarily mean low population growth, however. Countries with large numbers of young people have proportionately more families, driving overall number of births up. India’s population is expected to grow by 350 million by 2050.

Environmental challenges

In addition to increasing populations, China and India are both becoming more affluent. As a result, their CO2 emissions per person are increasing, alongside the increasing number of people.

Both countries are signatories to the Paris climate agreement and are taking significant steps to reduce their overall CO2 emissions. Their large populations mean, however, that they join the USA in the top three contributors to global warming in the world.

China's per capita carbon emissions
China’s per capita carbon emissions
Graph: India's per capita CO2 emissions
India’s per capita CO2 emissions 1960-2013

*Total fertility rate is the standard measure of fertility used by demographers, statisticians and policymakers. It is the average number of children a woman of childbearing age would be expected to have if current fertility rates did not change during her childbearing years. It provides an indication of average family size. Birth rate – officially the total number of live births per 1,000 of a population in a year – is affected by the number of young adults in a population. The more of them there are in proportion to the overall population, the more women will be having children and the number of births increases.

Report: Population key to controlling climate change

Drawdown book cover
Cover of the Drawdown book

Analysis undertaken for a comprehensive new plan to reverse global warming, Drawdown, has identified family planning and educating girls as among the top 10 workable solutions available today. Together, they would reduce CO2 emissions by 120 gigatons by 2050 — more than onshore and offshore wind power combined.

“Drawdown” is the point in time when greenhouse gas concentrations peak in the atmosphere and begin to go down on a year-to-year basis. The Drawdown project is an international effort, involving 70 research fellows from 22 countries and six continents. The nonprofit organisation is a coalition of scholars, scientists and advocates from across the globe that is modeling, and communicating about a collective array of substantive solutions to global warming, with the goal of reaching drawdown.

The report makes a simple case:

“Carbon footprints are a common topic. Addressing population—how many feet are leaving their tracks—remains controversial despite widespread agreement that greater numbers place more strain on the planet.

“Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about governments forcing the birth rate down (or up, through natalist policies). Nor is it about those in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. When family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality, and well-being are the result; the benefits to the planet are side effects.”

About education for women and girls, it says:

“Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth.”

The project has evaluated and ranked 80 solutions, including plant-based diets, solar farms and electric vehicles.  Among the criteria used in evaluation were whether the solution is currently available and its economic viability.

Commonwealth of Nations flag
Flag of the Commonwealth of Nations

Drawdown has been appointed by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Patricia Scotland, to collaborate with the Commonwealth on future research. Secretary Scotland has committed the Commonwealth to integrating Drawdown into the economic and ecologic portfolios of the fifty-two countries that comprise the Commonwealth.

Scotland’s population growth to hit cities and country

The number of households in Scotland will grow by 14 per cent over the next 25 years, while the population will grow by seven percent, according to a report released this month by Scotland’s National Records office (NRS).

Growth will be strongest in the cities, with Aberdeen seeing its population grow by a fifth. However, the number of households in the Cairngorms National Park will grow by six per cent.

In Glasgow & Clyde Valley, households should rise by 12 per cent but population growth of just three per cent is expected. Greater growth is expected in Edinburgh and South-East Scotland, where households will increase by 22 per cent and the population by 14 per cent.

Scottish regional population projections 2017The disproportionate growth in households is due to smaller households and 24 percent of Scottish households will contain people living alone by 2039.

Impacts

Urban areas are threatened with increased pressure on public services and especially housing, in light of the rapid growth in households. The Cairngorms are home to a number of wildlife species which could be threatened by increased development, including red squirrels and cuckoos.

Scottish population policy

Scotland has a lower fertility rate than the rest of the UK. The NRS estimates that in the next 10 years, natural increase (more births than deaths) will be responsible for 10 per cent of the population growth in Scotland, with the remaining 90 per cent due to net inward migration (57 per cent from overseas, 32 per cent from the remainder of the UK).

The Scottish Government seeks a growing population in Scotland. In a submission to a Scottish Government inquiry in 2016, Population Matters wrote

“The assumption that the only way to deal with the demographic change and maintaining a healthy economy in Scotland is by encouraging population growth must be challenged. An increasing population may temporarily increase GDP, but in the long term it means that resources are consumed at an even more unsustainable rate.”

US ends funding for United Nations Population Fund

On Monday, the US declared it was cutting its funds to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – an agency that promotes family planning in more than 150 countries – threatening the health and rights of millions of girls and women around the world, particularly those most vulnerable.

In its memo, the U.S. stated that the UNFPA supports coerced abortions and involuntary sterilisation in China and cited the Kemp-Kasten amendment. The amendment, which was first enacted in 1985 and used by several Republican presidents, prohibits foreign aid from going to an organisation that is involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation.

The UNFPA says these claims are erroneous and that while the UNFPA has a program in China, “all of its work promotes the rights of individuals and couples to make their own decisions, free of coercion or discrimination”.

“UNFPA does not fund or perform abortions or forced sterilisations anywhere in the world. Instead, the agency offers voluntary family planning to prevent unintended pregnancies which, in turn, empowers girls and women to pursue an education, earn an income, and live more prosperous lives” said U.N. Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin.

Some of the UNFPA programmes run in the world’s “most fragile” countries, including Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

In 2016, with support from the United States, its fourth largest donor, UNFPA says that was able to:

  • Save the lives of 2,340 women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth;
  • Prevent 947,000 unintended pregnancies;
  • Ensure 1,251 fistula surgeries;
  • Prevent 295,000 unsafe abortions;
  • Help 3 million couples prevent unwanted pregnancy.

“The U.S. is one of the largest contributors to the UNFPA, and eliminating U.S. funds threatens the health and rights of millions of girls and women around the world, particularly those in crisis situations,” said U.N. Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin.

Population Matters 

Empowering people to determine the size of their families and giving them the means to do so helps to break the cycle of deprivation and powerlessness.

Population Matters is supporting a range of international efforts to defend family planning following the Trump administration’s ban on overseas aid for organisations providing abortion or information about it. Please join the campaign.