Copenhagen: Is US Population and Consumption the Missing Piece?

Vicky Markham

Americans represent 5 percent of the global population, consume 25 percent of the world’s energy, and generate 5 times the world’s average per-capita of CO2 emissions.

As pressure to address climate change increases, long-simmering debates on the connections between population and environment have been renewed.  Because population policies historically often have undermined women’s rights, these issues remain both sensitive and contentious.  Rewire welcomes open debate on these issues and encourages both comments on this and other articles as well as submissions from other authors.

As the world’s nations meet in Copenhagen, global pressure is mounting
for leaders to come to agreement on how to address climate change. This is an
opportunity for the United States and the other 170 nations attending the
climate forum to secure an agreement to set targets for reducing carbon dioxide
(CO2) emissions and provide the financing and technology needed by the developing
nations to carry it out.

There’s additional
pressure in Copenhagen on the US as the world’s biggest energy consumer to take
a corresponding lead role in curbing the CO2 “greenhouse gas” emissions that
cause climate change. This is important because with just 5 percent of the global
population, Americans consume 25 percent of the world’s energy, and generate 5 times
the world’s average per-capita of CO2 emissions. Americans are high-energy and
resource consumers in a country with a large, rapidly growing population base.
As a result, the US has a much bigger “per-person” link to global climate
change than any other nation. And looking forward, with 8,000 people added
daily and 3 million people added each year in the US, there’s real potential to
reach 1 billion high-energy-consuming Americans by 2100.

The US population’s
disproportionate role in causing climate change has not gone unnoticed by
nations now meeting in Copenhagen. Many leaders have said the US must do more
to curb its emissions if it expects other countries to do likewise.

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Copenhagen: Population’s Role

In light of this,
Copenhagen not only provides an opportunity for the US to step up to the plate
and lead by example, significantly reducing its energy use and CO2 emissions –
but also to take critical steps relating to population in the context of the climate talks because it is
associated with both the "causes" and "effects" of climate

The world’s population
is on track to reach 7 billion people in two years, just twelve years after
reaching 6 billion. In the meantime, global climate change, as a result of
human activities, is having unprecedented effects on the planet’s sea level
rise, weather patterns, species habitat and freshwater resources.

The US uniquely
demonstrates how these two issues – population and climate change – are
inextricably linked. America’s role within the global context is especially
significant: it is the third largest country in the world in terms of
population, and contributes disproportionately to the planet’s climate change because
it is responsible for a quarter of the world’s energy use. The US uses more
energy than any other country, is the biggest CO2 emitter of all the
industrialized nations, and second only to China in overall global emissions.
It is also the largest and fastest growing developed nation worldwide.

This unique
combination – of America’s high population numbers and rapid growth and high per-capita energy consumption
and CO2 emissions – makes the US pivotal in the global climate change debate.

Meeting the energy
demands of this large and rapidly growing population that consumes elevated
levels of energy and resources – while at the same time reducing the greenhouse
gas emissions contributing to climate change – is part of the challenge before
us now.

But how do US
"population" factors (such as growth, density, movement, age/income,
or per-capita resource use) relate to climate change? There are several key
linkages, relating both to the "causes" and "effects" of
climate change:

·      Population is associated with the causes of climate change mainly through
high per-capita energy use and the associated greenhouse gas emissions. This is
from large numbers of people burning fossil fuels for vehicle use, high energy
consuming households and appliances, and widespread "sprawl" land
development to accommodate the growth (resulting in increased vehicle use and
fossil fuel burning, and deforestation which decreases the amount of trees used
as carbon "sinks").

·      Population is linked to climate change’s effects when there is high population
density and rapid population growth in the areas most vulnerable to climate
change-related sea level rise, severe weather patterns, drought conditions
including reduced snow-pack, seasonal changes, and habitat alteration that
increases people’s exposure to vector-borne diseases. Also, US demographic
trends such as the high and fast increasing numbers of people living along the
US coasts or in the arid West all exacerbate climate change’s effects.

When you look at these
issues from a developing country’s perspective, it is most often in terms of
"effects" rather than "causes". Large aggregates of people
there (many of them poor, with little means to alter their situation and
respond to climate change’s impacts) live in the coastal or arid areas most
susceptible to climate change-induced sea level rise, increased incidence of
severe weather, and droughts. In addition, especially vulnerable populations
living in small island states, and those who depend most heavily on the natural
climate to survive (such as Native populations in Alaska and the Arctic) will
disproportionately feel climate change’s impacts.

Addressing Population and Climate Change in Copenhagen

At the climate talks
population will most likely surface in the nations’ efforts to "mitigate
and adapt" to climate change, especially where large numbers of people
live in coastal and arid sites most prone to climate change impacts.

In the context of the
Copenhagen climate negotiations, the US can take several steps associated with

–First, US leaders
should include population/demographic specialists among the experts at the
climate change table, to inform the US stance and overall negotiations with the
best, balanced scientific data on how population factors are linked to climate
changes’ causes and effects, and how they can be part of addressing the

 –Second, the US should take a
leadership role and show their support for voluntary universal access to good
quality reproductive healthcare that, when combined with reducing high
per-capita energy and resource use, are viable means to balance pressure on the
earth’s natural systems. In this case, however, it is extremely important to recognize
that we are not speaking of "blaming" high population numbers for
climate change – the science demonstrates that it is a combination of very high unsustainable per-capita energy use and rapid population growth as a
multiplier of the high energy use, that is the issue here;

–Third, for the world’s
nations at Copenhagen to acknowledge the links between population factors and
climate change, and the central role population plays in various ways relating
to its "causes" and "effects" worldwide, and as part of
effectively addressing the climate change. 

New Interactive Map on Population and Climate Change

The Center for
Environment and Population (CEP), with Clean Air-Cool Planet, has just produced
a new Interactive Map on "Population
and Climate Change
. The new map, a companion to the “U.S. Population, Energy & Climate Change”
report from the Center for Environment and Population (CEP), shows US national,
regional and state-by-state ranking on energy consumption, CO2 emissions,
per-capita vehicle miles traveled, population numbers and growth rates, and
housing units (more houses = more appliances = more energy use).

The map is a product
of the Center for Environment and Population (CEP) and Clean Air-Cool Planet (CACP) For
a copy of the map and companion report on CEP’s website click here,
on CACP’s website click here.

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