Population and Climate Change: Complex Connections

John Seager

Reducing carbon emissions is actually three separate but related challenges: reducing global emissions, slowing population growth through voluntary efforts, and meeting the needs of half the world that now suffers from "carbon starvation."

As pressure to address climate change increases, long-simmering debates
on the connections between population and environment have been
Historically, concerns have been expressed about the impact of “population” policies on human rights.  Rewire welcomes open debate on these
issues and encourages both comments on this and other articles as well
as submissions from other authors.

Recent interest in the role of family
planning in climate change mitigation is long overdue. Efforts to combat global
climate change must include universal access to voluntary family planning to
reduce population growth. Brian O’Neill, the scientist who has done the most
serious research on this topic, projects that 1-2 billion tons of carbon
emissions could be averted each year if women worldwide were able to fully
exercise their reproductive wishes.

President Obama is taking a bold first step in Copenhagen by putting forward an
ambitious emissions target for the United States. Yet global population growth
threatens to undercut – even cancel – all proposed progress. World population
may grow by 18% or more from 2005 to 2020, according to UN projections.

Reducing carbon emissions is actually three separate but related challenges.
First, we must reduce global emissions. Second, we must slow population growth
by supporting programs such as voluntary family planning and reproductive
health. Third, we must recognize that about half the world now suffers from
"carbon starvation" and needs to increase emissions.

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Most emissions reductions must occur in wealthier countries since that’s where
they are highest. At the same time, in order to give billions of poor people a
reasonable quality of life, emissions in some parts of the world must increase
significantly. Rapid population growth makes this balancing act even more

Given available technology, the often-tiny carbon footprints of billions of
people are both a cause and an effect of impoverishment. The one billion people
who struggle to survive on less than $1/day use very little in the way of
fossil fuels (They do, however, contribute to climate change through
deforestation, which is responsible for 20% of global carbon emissions.
Deforestation is a direct result of local population growth and the increased
cropland needed to feed more people). And the additional 1.6 billion living on
less than $2/day hardly use more. In order to have decent lives, they must
increase their emission levels substantially, despite advances in green

Much of sub-Saharan Africa is mired in the most desperate, grinding poverty
imaginable. Governments there are already unable to meet the most basic needs
of their citizens. And it is these people – who contribute least to climate
change – who will suffer most from the problems that climate change brings.
Women especially will face new challenges to their health, livelihoods, and
even their lives, for they are the ones who must walk to fetch the water and
who must tend to their families’ crops.

Africa’s per-capita emissions must increase. But, if Africa’s population grows
by the 39% that is projected by 2020, it will be nearly impossible to create a
healthy quality of life for people in that part of the world.

Population growth will undermine all efforts to achieve lower carbon emissions
unless investments in clean energy are matched by equally comprehensive
investments in universal access to contraception, along with other health and
development programs.

Unfortunately, for too long, population has been ignored as
part of the climate change equation. Some consider the topic to be toxic.
That’s tragic, but at the same time, it’s easy to understand, because too often
the population connection to climate change is oversimplified, and overhyped.

In recent weeks, there have been a number of examples of
this. Most disturbingly, a widely circulated opinion piece in a Canadian
newspaper resurrected the nasty notion of population control by urging
mandatory limits on child-bearing. That such a chilling thought made it to
publication in a mainstream publication is deplorable.

In addition, an August 2009 report issued by the
UK-based Optimum Population Trust (OPT) incorrectly claimed that meeting the
worldwide unmet need for family planning is a more cost effective way to reduce
current carbon emissions than other "green" technologies. They followed
this up with a plan to allow citizens of wealthy industrial nations to “offset”
their emissions with donations to make birth control available to women in poor

By assuming erroneously the main cause of unplanned births in every
nation on earth is lack of access to contraception, the OPT rendered its entire
study meaningless. Most high carbon emitters live in developed nations where
contraceptives are generally available. Reducing carbon emissions through
universal access to contraception is essential. But the quick carbon fix
championed by OPT is a fairy tale.

It’s true that many women in developing nations cannot obtain or afford
modern methods of birth control. Meeting their unmet needs is critically
important for a variety of reasons. But doing so won’t significantly reduce
current fossil fuel emissions. The annual per capita fossil fuel emissions in
many such countries are less than a single week of such emissions in the US and
many other developed nations.

The simple fact of the matter is this: climate change is
largely caused by the high emissions from wealthy industrialized nations. These
are places where population is growing slowly if at all. To claim that we can
solve climate change solely by addressing population growth in countries where
emissions are low is silly. And to suggest that people in the high emitting
countries can contribute birth control to poor people instead of cutting back
on their own consumption is offensive.

This is one of those times – and one of those issues – where we need to keep
our eye on multiple goals. Reducing emissions is an energy issue. But it is
also in equal measure a human rights challenge, one that must include
unprecedented investments in a full spectrum of reproductive health services
for women and couples. Worldwide, 200 million women have an unmet need for
family planning. And demand for contraception is projected to increase by 40%
in just 15 years.

As we develop hybrid cars and the like, what about the other
half of the world? Will they be left to sweat and starve while we glide forward
into a century of renewable energy? Their carbon footprint needs to grow. That
can only work if we are willing to meet the population growth challenge.

The White House has already made great strides in reversing the pernicious
policies of the Bush Administration, which turned a blind eye to the needs of
billions. But additional bold action is needed.

No doubt President Obama is keenly aware of the multiple dimensions of the
climate challenge. Yes, it’s about energy. But, more than that, it is about
meeting the basic human needs of soon-to-be seven billion people. Universal
access to family planning must be a centerpiece of the climate change agenda in
Copenhagen and beyond.

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