Seven Billion People and Their Carbon Emissions: What's the Correlation?

By Saliem Fakir · 3 Nov 2011

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: climate Action Group
Picture: climate Action Group

Environmental debates never escape the proverbial slip of the tongue about the planet having too many people.

This debate may have some relevance, but high carbon emissions and population size tend to be lumped together in simplistic ways, which do not clearly demonstrate the true relationship between population size and carbon emissions.

This past Monday, October 31, a new historical moment was reached: the world population became home to seven billion people. By 2025 it is expected the population will reach eight billion and by 2043 or so about nine billion people.

On average, if the population growth rate is around 4% the population will double in 18 years. If, population growth is, 1% it will double in 70 years.

Coincidentally, our own population census was completed on the same day the world reached seven billion people.

The predictions are that the population numbers will be close to 55-60 million people for South Africa. Nonetheless, contrary to popular perception, our population growth rate has actually come down.

In the 1960s, South Africa’s population growth rate was 2.5%. It then registered a drastic decline to 1.1% for 2009 figures.

Remarkably, depending on one’s sources, there are divergent estimations of South Africa’s population growth rate. For instance, the CIA factsheet puts it at 0.28%, the UN estimates it at 0.55% and World Bank figures put the growth rate at 1.07%; slightly higher than the rest.

South Africa’s growth rate is close to the average global population growth rate of 1.17% annually and is likely to come down even further.

The census will ultimately provide an up-to-date verification of what is going on in South Africa. But there are lots of reasons for why our growth has come down so radically in the last decade or so.

This can be explained by several factors: greater income growth (not necessarily across the board), better education, the impact of HIV/AIDS in South Africa and high levels of urbanization, which are usually accompanied by smaller family sizes.

But what exactly is the correlation between population, income and higher carbon emissions?

We must distinguish between two kinds of income: 1) the relationship between national income and spend and 2) the relationship between personal income and spend.

The reason is simple. Countries may have low levels of personal income; yet display high levels of national income. It is expected that countries with high national incomes have higher levels of modernization and industrialization because that’s what countries do when they start experiencing increases in wealth. 

Take the US and China for instance - the US is the largest economy and China the second largest. China’s absolute carbon emissions are close to the US’ or already exceeding it. Nonetheless, they will exceed the US in the next decade or so because China still has gaps in infrastructure development and a much larger population.

However, to put things in perspective, the US’ per capita emissions are at least five times that of China - alluding to personal consumption as the main contributing factor to these high emissions.

Close to 40% of these emissions in the US are associated with residential spend and personal transportation.

Or putting it another way: while China’s energy consumption is closer to that of the US’ in overall terms, America’s individual energy consumption per person is still seven times that of a person in China.

This is an attribute of consumptive values and habits. Take for instance the fact that in 1978 the average US household had one television.  In 2009 that increased to 2.5 per household with 45% of households also having at least one large flat screen TV.

So, even if appliances become more efficient, household energy consumption will increase with the number of appliances used per household. All energy gains would be lost because of the increased volume of appliance use.

Most of China’s emissions are a result of spending by the public sector and private enterprise. Household savings are high and spend is much lower than that of the US.

However, if households in China spend as much as a US family on a per capita basis on personal consumption and transport, global emissions would increase by 50%.

While the US GDP per capita is around $46,000, South Africa around $7,500 and China around $4,300, this tells us little about correlations until we dig deeper.

A key factor is the level of fossil fuel dependency, as this correlates better with per capita income, high consumption patterns and high carbon emissions.

High per capita should correlate with high emissions if we take the combined effect of national income spend and personal income spending trends within a given economy with a high fossil dependency.

As an illustration, Switzerland’s per capita income versus that of the US (or all three countries mentioned above respectively) is close to $65,000, but its carbon footprint is only twice that of China’s and four times lower than that of the US.

The Swiss situation may be explained by the fact that a significant source of their energy, close to 90%, is from hydro and nuclear power and private consumption has already reached saturation point, such that even with increased income there is a lower demand for more goods.

While the Swiss example illustrates well how important the relationship is between per capita income, economic growth and fossil fuel dependency, it also points to the fact that the propensity for higher consumption with higher income does not necessarily translate to higher levels of emissions.

A lot also depends on whether the goods are produced domestically or imported. If imported, the problem of income to carbon emissions may translate into a lower footprint for the importing country because it has merely exported its carbon problem to a producer country. It has not domesticated its share of carbon emissions arising from its spend elsewhere. This is the case with Switzerland as it is landlocked and imports a large share of its raw material requirements from elsewhere.

Higher spend without significant substitution, reduction in consumption of fossil fuels or efficiency improvements will show a strong correlation between income per capita and carbon emissions per capita.

Comparing South Africa’s per capita emissions with poorer African countries also illustrates the relationship between income, economic growth and emissions. Take for instance Nigeria and Ethiopia, which have double our population size. Their emissions are less than 1 tonne per capita compared to South Africa’s 7.5 per tonne.

In fact, South Africa’s per capita emissions are double that of China. But here, South Africa’s, national income and its choice of infrastructure development and technology pathways will have had a greater impact than individual income.

South Africa’s high emissions are not only explained by high national income and individual consumption patterns (particularly of a rich minority compared to a majority poor population) but also our country’s reliance on coal and oil.

About 90% of our electricity and close to 40% of transport fuels come from coal. We are also dependent on crude oil to cover the rest of the transport fuel share. We also have very energy intensive industries such as smelters and deep mining operations with an economy that uses energy very inefficiently overall.

As the examples illustrate, the correlation between national income and infrastructure choices, personal consumption habits and high dependency on fossil fuels translates into higher emissions per capita, rather than absolute population numbers on their own.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


3 Nov

Disputed info

According to Troy Parfitt, the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World, China is one of the most serious polluters of the world:

According to him:-

Respond to this comment