The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report acknowledges the contribution of population growth to unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions but fails to endorse policies that can contribute to limiting such emissions by lowering birth rates.
Roger Martin, chair of Population Matters, commented: “We are disappointed that the IPCC has failed to grasp the opportunity of making the obvious link between mitigating climate change and policies to reduce population growth. Population growth is a variable, not a ‘given’; and future population size, in rich countries as in poor, will hugely affect future energy demand. Helping individuals to limit their family size helps them and helps the planet, too.”
The latest report from the IPCC states that warming of the climate is unequivocal and that many changes observed since the 1950s are unprecedented in recent times, some even over millennia. They add that emissions have been accelerating and that we will crash through the global CO2 safety limit by 2030.
The report warns that sharp greenhouse gas emissions cuts worldwide need to begin now, with a 40 per cent to 70 per cent reduction by midcentury, to avert the worst effects of climate change. Among the reports’ key findings are that: humanity’s influence on a warming climate is “clear”; greenhouse gas emissions rates have accelerated since 1970, with the steepest increase coming in the past decade, and; global warming is already harming agriculture, the environment, and human health.
The IPCC report does acknowledge that “globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion.” And yet, addressing population growth is not included in the proposed mitigation strategy. Population growth is presumably seen as not something amenable to, or suitable for, policy intervention.
The global population has doubled since the 1960s and continues to grow by about 80 million people every year. Even if most of this growth is in low consumption regions, all of these extra people need food, water, energy and shelter. Together, population growth and rising consumption are likely to increase demand for food by 70 per cent by 2050. This may be impossible to achieve, even without the impact of climate change.
Population and climate change
According to the latest UN population projections, world population, currently 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by midcentury and continue rising, but if the total fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) were to fall by just half a child per woman, world population would rise to 8.3 billion. Around 40 per cent of pregnancies remain
unplanned while many policymakers strive to keep populations and economies growing.
A 2010 study of energy use and demographics concluded that slowing global population growth “could provide 16 – 29 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” Most possible strategies for addressing climate change have significant costs or other implementation issues. In particular, the IPCC report notes that large scale removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is untested, may damage forests and ecosystems and face public resistance.
By contrast, policies to lower the birth rate are proven, inexpensive and generally welcomed. Fully funding family planning services, improving women’s access to education and employment, better sex education and promoting smaller families would not only reduce fertility rates but also strengthen human rights, alleviate poverty and reduce pressure on limited resources. These policies are equally applicable to high consuming western nations and the fast growing populations of many developing countries.
Additionally, reducing population growth relieves the pressure pushing communities to live in areas more vulnerable to climate change impacts, such as coastal areas or areas prone to drought. More stable communities are also more resilient, being less affected by food insecurity and water scarcity.
Simply put, if we are serious about avoiding the worst effects of climate change, there should be no unwanted pregnancies and subreplacement fertility rates must be something to aim for rather than fear. Without tackling population growth, we are placing unrealistic expectations on unproven and expensive technologies with uncertain side effects in our efforts to address climate change.
Brian O’Neill is an Associate Professor (Research) in the Global Environment Program at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island USA. He is currently on partial leave of absence at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, where he is the Leader of the Population and Climate Change (PCC) Program and a Leader of the Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an interdisciplinary research activity on climate change involving collaboration across seven IIASA research programs. In 2004, he received a European Young Investigator (EURYI) award from the European Science Foundation, which provides principal funding for the PCC Program.
O’Neill, Brian C., Michael Dalton, Regina Fuchs, Leiwen Jianga, Shonali Pachauric, and Katarina Zigovad – Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, October 2010
O’Neill, Brian C. et al – Demographic Change and Carbon Dioxide Emissions
The Lancet, July 2012