Population growth and climate change: no clear link
An interesting sidelight to the Family Planning Summit in London last week was that it was held amidst a double-dip recession. This was symbolic because a recession of course means a slump in demand and consumption. And that neatly links up to a view that I heard from some key delegates – that the rate of population growth in developing countries must be ’stabilised’ because it is adding to carbon emissions and climate change.
A leading civil society figure from India told me she believed family planning in poor countries was something that the governments of the rich West needed to support in order protect their own comfortable and carbon-intensive lifestyles. That was why, she said (although some others around her didn’t look quite so sure), Western governments were supporting the effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to raise $4 billion to promote family planning on a global scale.
The other view came from a European civil servant and it backed up what the Indian was saying. Over lunch, I asked the government official what the point of the whole Family Planning Summit was. ‘It’s good old fashioned population control, isn’t it,’ I asked, hoping to draw him in. He disagreed vehemently, saying ‘Not at all, it’s about giving women the right to access contraception.’
‘Agreed’, I said, ‘but are you really saying that that’s an end in itself? Because if it is, then that’s very laudable. But I somehow doubt it, given the pressures on aid budgets and the need to show the effectiveness of aid by providing numbers.’ In these times of economic difficulty taxpayers, quite rightly, will want to see numbers and, at the end of the day, it’s hard quantify women’s rights. Whereas you can show quite easily how the number of newborn babies in XYZ country has fallen.
(Having said that, I have to note that Melinda Gates is very clear that this project can be monitored. “We can measure the effectiveness,” she told me).
To come back to the civil servant, at some point he specifically mentioned Africa’s rapid population growth rate as a problem in the context of future carbon emissions. Whether this is the dominant view among government departments in the West is hard to tell. But it’s hard to ignore when it comes from a senior official.
The basic argument is that poor countries in general tend to have high fertility levels (number of children per family) and high rates of population growth. This impedes government efforts to lower poverty levels as more babies are born to poor families than to well-off ones (the more educated and wealthy you are the fewer babies you are likely to want or have). The view, based on future calculations rather than the current state, is that since climate change is the product of human activity, the more people you have in the future the worse it will be for climate change.
But this is a contentious view, not because it is wrong per se but because of two reasons:
1. The fact is that climate change is overwhelmingly the creation of rich nations. So far, poor countries – even large economies like India and China – have contributed very little to climate change. This must be the starting point in any debate over population growth and climate change.
2. Family planning remains a contentious issue because of its history of coercion in countries like India, China, Peru and the US. Climate change too is controversial in the West: there is little acknowledgement or willingness to cut consumption and make lifestyle changes.
Apparently, there is very little research out there on the links between population growth and climate change. And what little there is has been the subject of heated academic debate (over models for projecting population growth, for instance). Still, what we know for certain — so far — is that climate change is largely driven by consumption in rich countries, rather than babies being born in poor ones. Of course this may change in the future, but the debate must focus on both cutting consumption in rich countries and promoting a rights-based approach to family planning in poor countries.
The nature of the link between population and CO2 emission growth is hard to establish. For instance, data shows that even developing countries with low population growth rates can have a high CO2 emission rate. A much-cited study of countries between 1980 and 2005 gives the example of China. In these 25 years although its population grew by only 1.1%, China’s CO2 emission grew by 5.6%, says the 2009 study by David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Yet, an Oxford University report, ‘Population dynamics and climate change: what are the links?’, mentions population as the most neglected aspect of climate change factors, pointing out that by 2050 the world population is projected to reach 9.1 billion through an increase close to the combined population of India and China today (just over 2 billion).
Satterthwaite also gives data on individual countries’ share of the world’s population growth and CO2 emissions between 1980 and 2005. China accounted for 15.3% the world’s population growth and 45.7% of the world’s CO2 emission growth. The figures for the US are 3.4% and 12.9%, for India they are 21.7% 10.1%. So going by these figures (as far as the past is concerned), population growth per se is hard to blame. India had a greater population growth than China but its CO2 emission growth was lower.