Climate Change and the Population 'Bomb': A Debate Not to Shy Away From

By Saliem Fakir · 20 Nov 2009

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The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released its "State of the World Population 2009" report on the 18th of November. It chose to take up a politically delicate topic, the relationship between climate change, population stabilisation and the importance of gender.

The fundamental question it seeks to address is: how much of a threat is the growth in population to the world and how much of this increase will lead to a spike in green house gas (GHG) emissions?

As the report demonstrates, answers are not straightforward.

For a long time, climate change negotiations have kept the population debate out of the negotiation process. Given that population numbers are larger in developing countries and that finger pointing by the developed world usually unleashes a storm of protest.

The UNFPA report notes that climate change is often seen as a purely scientific and technological issue, but the human dimensions are central to both the problem and the solution. Hence, the debate about population must be less about numbers and more about human agency as well as the choices human agents make.

The UNFPA estimates that by 2050 the world's population will hover between 7.9 billion to 10.4 billion depending on which variant scenario materialises and how fertility rates will evolve between now and then.

The greatest surge in population numbers occurred between 1950 and 2005. During this period, the rich world grew by 400 million and the developing world, by about 3.5 billion people (a 200% increase). This surge is a consequence of developments in technology, improved health and food security.

One key finding is that as people's household economies and individual mortality rates improve, this tends to encourage households to reduce births.

As a result, growth rates since the 1950s have slowed down. The world's population growth rate is around two percent at present. However, the absolute number of people being added annually to the world's population has remained around 70 to 75 million since 1965.

Only as late as the mid-1990s did researchers start studying the relationship between population and emissions properly. Key questions that researchers reflected on are the relationship between household size and emissions, the effects of an ageing population, the shift of populations from rural to urban areas and gender dynamics.

The answers are interesting but not conclusive.

Recent rounds of negotiations have seen the debate come back. This time the premises and discourse is much more nuanced and not accusatory -- where the rich world accused developing countries of having too many people and exacerbating the cause of environmental problems.

As a matter of fact, the UNFPA report notes that the evidence is more damning for developed economies.

Nobody can argue with statistics. Seven percent of the world's population contributes to slightly more than 50% of the world's GHG emissions, while the poorest 50% are responsible for a meagre seven percent of the world's emissions.  

Well, this equation is not difficult to understand. If you are earning less than $2 a day, you can hardly be said to have a major carbon footprint. What can you really purchase with such a pithy share of the world's income?

Per capita income is perhaps the more important figure to watch out for when trying to understand the dynamics between population and carbon dioxide emissions. The more income you have, the more likely you are to consume. The more you consume, the more likely you are to contribute to the increase in GHG emissions.

When people look at population numbers, they tend to glance far into China and India. But, the truth is that their carbon emissions are four times lower than that of Europe and the US.

It is to be granted though that both India and China's emissions are growing faster than that of developed economies at present.

However, there is a caveat to all of this.

China, too, is a beneficiary of the developed economies consumption surge. The demand for cheap goods has forced many OECD countries' multinationals to shift production of their goods to China. Wal-Mart, for instance, the largest supermarket chain in the world, procures more than 50% of its goods from China, mainly for the US market.

Moreover, China has a higher savings rate and lower per capita consumption rate than many developed economies, if not all. The Chinese tend to save more than consume and their government struggles to stimulate consumptive led growth, as a result. This no doubt leads to a lower per capita carbon footprint for every Chinese citizen. 

Even though energy per capita intensity is dropping in developed economies, in the last 30 years, carbon dioxide emission rates have not fallen.

Here, growth in population rates and the consumption habits of citizens explains the anomaly between less energy intensity coupled with steady growth in emissions.

So, even if you can produce more goods with less energy, you still need more energy because you have more demand for goods.

If you want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, you have to reduce both energy consumption and the consumption of goods.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise then to find that between 1990 and 2004, the US’ rise in emissions paralleled the rise in its population in that time by 18%. 

But that is not the end of the story.

What about embedded carbon that arises from the importation of goods from countries that rely on fossil fuels for the production of goods?

As production relocated, so did the carbon burden shift to countries like China and India -- and was then re-imported as embedded carbon back to countries where services and goods from both India and China are in high demand.

The nuance in the debate is not to look at absolute numbers in terms of population, but population in relation to consumption rates.

In relative terms and given the fact that we need to reduce carbon emissions rapidly, an extra population of 1-2 billion will contribute to an increase in emissions. While in absolute terms, the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions combined with an increase in income and the rate of consumption magnifies the carbon footprint.

The economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, suggested that global average per capita emissions would have to be around two tons by 2050 with a reference population of about nine billion in order for global temperatures to stay within the two-degree mark.

The UNFPA report recognises that while in the long-term, stabilisation of population and the mitigation of emissions will be important, in the immediate and not so long-term, adaptation to the impacts of climate change is where development assistance needs to be directed.

As it is already "too late to prevent some amount of climate change" we will have to become more adaptable and resilient to climate change and variability.

In the last four decades, the frequency of floods, fires and droughts have been too numerous to be ignored.

Some of the consequences have not been pretty. There has been forced migration of populations -- for instance, from flood-ravaged areas to places of safety. Such displacements bring with them social conflict, food insecurity, homelessness and other challenges.

Climate resilience is the new buzzword in development circles. The one singular critique one has to mount against the UNFPA's report is that it perpetuates the discourse that mitigation is for the developed economies and adaptation is for the poorer countries.

One hardly hears about adaptation challenges for the developed economies. It is as if developed countries are fully adapted and resilient to unexpected weather patterns and shifts.

There is some truth that developed economies, because of the resources they can muster, will be in a better position to adapt.

However, if Hurricane Katrina is anything to go by, it is, firstly, quite evident that developed economies can be as severely ravaged by adverse weather patterns as developing countries. And secondly, the US could learn a lot more from small island states like Cuba about how best to deal with devastating hurricanes and natural disasters of similar scale.

Cuba proved itself far more agile and adept at mobilising its populace against the dangers of devastating weather than the US even with its sophisticated economy, wealth and technology.

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how 'un-adaptable' the US' humanitarian and disaster management response systems were to such a large-scale and devastating event.

Being more nuanced and providing a fresh perspective, the UNFPA report provides a useful riposte to the old diatribe on population.

Population is, perhaps, a topic we cannot ignore for too long. But, if we are to debate it, we must do so with intelligence and not just emotion.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Rory Short
22 Nov


The reality is that we are physical beings and as such we each need a particular minimum of space, air, water, food and, depending on geographic location, non-food energy inputs for bodily survival. If we wish to do more than just survive bodily then we definitely need more than the absolute minimum of space and our lives would no doubt be further enhanced if we had more than the absolute minimum quantity of food and non-food energy needed for survival. The other reality is that we live on a limited planet and it has definite physical limits in terms of supplying all of the above human needs.

I think that if we could do all the necessary calculations we could come up with a maximum number of people that the earth could accommodate without human life being irrevocably degraded. Whether we can do such a calculation yet I do not know. Perhaps such a calculation has already become a dire necessity for input to debates on population numbers. But be that as it may it simply does not make sense to take our numbers up to or near to these limits as humankind will then have no survival lee way and will be continuously living on the edge of disaster.

There is also potentially much more to individual human life than bare survival and to be able to realise that potential we do not want to be living on a survival knife edge. The fact is there are already more people alive than the earth can comfortably accommodate thus for starters we need to collectively resolve that no living person can more than reproduce themselves and once they have done that they should be sterilised. This would apply in singles situations whether male or female. In a couples situation this would mean a maximum of two children per family then both parents would have to sterilised.

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