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

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