Population Matters

Population and Climate Change: the Debate Heats Up

October 22nd, 2010

A new scientific study (“Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions”) published in NPAS this past week, indicates that “slowing population growth could provide 16–29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” 

It’s too early to know what kind of impact the study will have on global warming, but it will surely heat up the debate about population.

It’s important to emphasize at the outset that, beyond the climate change debate, there are plenty of compelling reasons to support the expansion of voluntary family planning services in the developing world.  For starters, women everywhere should be able to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.  That’s a basic human right.  And then there are all the other benefits of family planning: reductions in maternal and infant mortality, gender equity, the family’s economic wellbeing, educational attainment, food security, and less stress on area resources and the local environment.

What the study does–and this is the important part–is illustrate that there is a strong nexus between population growth and efforts to mitigate climate change.  That connection is particularly strong in countries like the U.S., where the average carbon footprint is so large and the rate of unintended pregnancies is still quite high. But it also applies to population growth in developing countries where carbon footprints are much smaller, but fertility rates are much higher.  

Here’s what the research team, led by Brian C. O’Neill, concluded on population growth:

Our results…show that reduced population growth could make a significant contribution to global emissions reductions. Several analyses have estimated how much emissions would have to be reduced by 2050 to meet long-term policy goals such as avoiding warming of more than 2 °C or preventing a doubling of CO2 concentrations through implementation of a portfolio of mitigation measures characterized as “stabilization wedges.” Our estimate that following a lower population path could reduce emissions 1.4–2.5 GtC/y by 2050 is equivalent to 16–29% of the emission reductions necessary to achieve these goals or approximately 1–1.5 wedges of emissions reductions (SI Text has details of this calculation). By the end of the century, the effect of slower population growth would be even more significant, reducing total emissions from fossil fuel use by 37–41% across the two scenarios.

Importantly, this study does not say that women in the developing world should have fewer children because of global concerns about carbon emissions. That would be presumptuous in the extreme. It does suggest, however, that empowering women in the developing world and expanding voluntary family planning services (i.e. giving women the ability to prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies) would help mitigate climate change, in addition to all the other beneficial effects of family planning. 

It also indicates, as the study makes clear, that we need to do a better job of reducing unintended pregnancies here in the U.S.  Studies conducted within the last decade suggest that nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped financially-strapped state governments from cutting the provision of family planning services to low-income women. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie recently axed the state’s contribution to family planning, vetoing a bill that would have restored $7.5 million in funding.

Helping women prevent unwanted pregnancies is far from the only thing that we need to do to address climate change. We urgently need to reduce per capita carbon emissions in the U.S. and other developed nations.  Unless we can negotiate and implement a new climate change treaty, we will not be able to avoid some of the worst effects of climate change.  Slower population growth alone will not save us.

But whether we win or lose the battle against climate change, the case for expanding family planning will remain strong.  In addition to mitigating climate change, family planning will help developing countries adapt to climate change.  All too tragically, some of the world’s least developed countries will be the hardest hit by climate change.  Intensified drought and flooding, along with rising seas and temperatures, will pose severe problems for much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia.  Food production could be curtailed and tens of millions of people could be displaced.  That’s why many developing countries have included family planning in their national climate adaptation strategies.

The good news is that international family planning assistance is a low-cost intervention.  Increased expenditures of $4-5 billion a year would go a long way toward ensuring that women in developing countries have the services and information they need to prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies.  That’s a miniscule investment compared to the trillions of dollars that we will invest in energy conservation and renewable energy.

O’Neill’s report is not the end of the debate over population and climate change. But it’s an important contribution.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Another World Food Day, another Crisis

October 15th, 2010

Tomorrow, October 16, is World Food Day and for the fourth year in a row, the headlines are filled with discussion of yet another food crisis.  

Three years ago on World Food Day rising grain prices and shrinking grain reserves were setting off alarm bells.  It was just the beginning of what would become known as the 2007-8 food crisis.

Two years ago, after food riots had erupted in more than 30 countries, rice prices had tripled, and corn and wheat prices had doubled, world leaders were hopeful that food prices would continue to decline from their peaks and that the worst of the 2007-8 food crisis was past.

Last year on World Food Day, in the wake of the Great Recession, the FAO was reporting that the number of chronically hungry of people in the world had surged and that it would likely break the 1 billion mark for the first time in history after a decade-long rise in the number of hungry.  Another food crisis had arrived.

This year on World Food Day, the number of hungry people in the world has dropped back to an estimated 925 million, but a series of droughts, fires in Russia, and floods in Asia have led again to sharp increases in grain commodity prices and growing concerns about another food crisis.  Last Friday, the Financial Times, reported that, “Fears of a global food crisis swept the world’s commodity markets as prices for staples such as corn, rice and wheat spiraled after the US government warned of “dramatically” lower supplies.”  The food riots that broke out recently in Mozambique and killed 14 people may be a harbinger of more trouble to come.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is currently fighting two major humanitarian crises at once.  In the African Sahel, an estimated ten million people are suffering from a severe food shortage due to drought and high food prices.  In flood-stricken Pakistan, WFP has been funneling food supplies to over 7 million flood victims.  But beyond the headline disasters, lurks a chronic food crisis, one that promises to be here for many World Food Days to come.

The FAO reported last week placed 22 countries are on a “protracted” food crisis list.  Several factors account for this chronic hunger including severe poverty and weak or corrupt governments, but virtually all of the countries on the list also have high population growth rates.  Niger, which has one of the fastest population growth rates, has been experiencing a major food crisis every three years.  Malnutrition, according to the WFP, threatens the health and wellbeing of an entire generation of young people in Niger.  But Niger is just one of many countries caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.

The global hunger problem is not going away soon.  To keep up with population growth, developing countries will have to double food production by 2050.  And they will have to do so despite rising temperatures, increasing floods, intensified drought, slowly rising seas, topsoil erosion, falling water tables, loss of arable land to roads and urbanization, and higher and higher prices for fertilizer and fuel.   That’s no small task.

The FAO is circulating an online petition on global hunger calling on people to get angry at the fact that around a billion people suffer from hunger.  Everyone should get angry and sign that petition.  Far too little is being done to tackle the problem of global hunger.

We need to start with dramatically boosting the level of food development aid, which has fallen off sharply in the past two decades.  But it doesn’t end there.  Unless more is done to help women in developing countries prevent unwanted or unintended pregnancies, population growth rates in chronically hungry developing countries will continue to outpace food production.

A decade ago, World Food Day was a time to celebrate the progress we were making in reducing global hunger.  No longer.  Today, World Food Day is a time to get angry, ring alarm bells, and take action. Otherwise, we will back here again next year wondering what to do about the next food crisis.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

A “Vicious Cycle”

October 8th, 2010

It’s a “self-perpetuating vicious cycle.”  That’s how the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) this week described the situation in countries gripped by chronic and widespread hunger.  

In their 2010 report on the “State of Food Insecurity in the World,” the FAO and the World Food Programme examined the situations in 22 countries suffering from a “protracted crisis.”  These are nations that have reported a food crisis for eight or more years, received more than 10 percent of foreign assistance as humanitarian relief, and are on the FAO’s list of “Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries.”

The report attributed the high prevalence of hunger in these countries to “a combination of natural disasters, conflict, and weak institutions.”  The report, however, virtually ignores the role that population growth plays in the perpetuation of poverty and hunger, and the corresponding need for an expansion of family planning and reproductive health services in these nations.

According to the latest population projections published by the Population Reference Bureau, the total population of these 22 countries will double over the next forty years, rising from 448 million today to 997 million by 2050.  Twelve out of the 22 countries on the “protracted crisis” list have a total fertility rate of 5.0 or higher.  In four of the countries, women on average have six children or more.  And typical of most countries with high fertility rates, these countries also have appallingly high rates of maternal and infant deaths.  In Sierra Leone, a woman has a 1 in 8 chance of dying from childbirth or pregnancy related-causes.  Six of the countries on the list have an infant mortality rate (deaths per 1,000 births) of 100 or more.

The FAO’s report offers a number of very constructive steps aimed at achieving sustained improvements in food security, but unless more is done to meet the family planning and reproductive health needs of women in these countries, prospects for breaking the “vicious cycle” are not good.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Not Written in Stone: Projections and Pledges

October 5th, 2010

Many bright and otherwise well-informed people believe that population growth is a fait accompli.  They accept without much thought or reservation the U.N. projection indicating that world population will grow to 9.1 billion by 2050.  Few understand that the U.N.’s projection is just a medium variant, and that U.N. demographers also issued  ‘low’ and ‘high’ variants showing population growing somewhere between 8 billion and 11 billion by mid-century.

August Comte, the French sociologist, once famously declared that “demography is destiny,” but he never said it was predestined.  Fertility and mortality rates can easily defy projections. That’s why projections are not written in stone; they are frequently updated to take into account new data. Demographic projections, as demographers are found of saying, are not predictions. 

God and academia forbid that a demographer should ever make a prediction, but demographers can be so bold as to discuss the potential impact of fertility shifts.  Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population, wrote a piece (The Battle of the Billionaires:  China vs. India”) for the Globalist yesterday that offers some interesting insights into the demographic future of the world’s two most populous countries.  He notes that according to the U.N.’s medium variant projection:

India’s rapidly growing population is projected to reach 1.61 billion by mid-century, an increase of 400 million people over the next four decades.

In contrast, China’s population is expected to peak around the year 2032 at 1.46 billion — an increase of 110 million — and then begin to decline slowly.

But then he observes that:

Of course, other demographic outcomes are possible. One less likely, but nonetheless instructive, scenario assumes that the current fertility rates of China and India remain constant over the next four decades.

In such a case, by mid-century India’s population soars to 2 billion and China’s population is declining by 6 million annually, having peaked at 1.45 billion in 2030. In addition, India becomes more populous than China even earlier, in a little more than a decade.

 Another intriguing scenario assumes that China changes its one-child policy to a two-child policy, with its fertility soon rising to somewhat above replacement, i.e., 2.35 children per woman, and India’s fertility declines gradually to this same fertility level as China.

 In this instance, the populations of both China and India would be substantially larger by mid-century, 1.62 and 1.87 billion, respectively — together gaining an additional billion people.

Chamie doesn’t discuss how differing fertility assumptions might affect population growth projections for other countries, but the same principle applies.  The U.N.’s medium variant assumes that birth rates in developing countries with high fertility will continue to decline.  If they do not fall fast enough, population growth could easily surpass the official projections, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia.  Much depends on the level of support for international family planning and the commitments of the developing nations themselves. 

The pledges made at the MDG summit last month offer some ground for renewed optimism.  Australia, the U.K., the U.S., and the Gates Foundation unveiled a new public/private partnership aimed, among other things, at expanding family planning services to another 100 million women by 2015.  If fulfilled, these pledges could go a long way toward realizing the goal of universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. They might also lower official population projections. 

 But pledges, like projections, are not written in stone.  

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President