Population Matters

Population and Climate Change: Looking Beyond Cancun

December 15th, 2010

Climate activists are still debating the significance of the Cancun agreement, but everyone agrees that we still have a long way to go if we are to avert and/or cope with the worse effects of climate change. If all goes well, world leaders will meet again next November in Durban, South Africa, and hammer out a binding and long-awaited international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

In the meantime, however, there is no time to lose; the planet continues to warm and the world edges ever closer to ecological disaster. We can’t wait around for world leaders to summon their collective courage.  We need to get busy on boosting energy conservation, expanding renewable energy production, and addressing the many challenges that will inevitably arise as the world heats up.

In doing so, we also need to take a fresh look at the connections between population, climate change, and the status of women. The WorldWatch Institute has just released a special report (Population, Climate Change, and Women’s Lives), written by Robert Engelman, which does just that.  It pulls together the latest scientific evidence, including the recent report by Brian O’Neill and his colleagues, to show how addressing population could help the world meet the challenge posed by climate change.  

O’Neill’s report, which appeared earlier this fall in PNAS, calculated that slowing population growth could provide 16-29 % of the emissions reductions needed to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change.  The WorldWatch report emphasizes that slowing population growth would also boost the resilience of the developed countries as they struggle to cope with the inevitable effects of climate change. 

Citing the benefits of both climate change mitigation and adaptation, Engelman proposes a three-pronged strategy:

  • Eliminating institutional, social, and cultural barriers to women’s full legal, civic, and political equality with men;
  • Improving schooling for all children and youth, and especially increasing educational attainment among girls and women; and
  • Assuring that all women and their partners have access to, and full freedom to use, reproductive health and family planning services so that the highest proportion possible of births results from parents’ intentions to raise a child to adulthood.

There are, of course,  plenty of other compelling reasons for taking these steps; mitigating and adapting to climate change is just another reason for doing so.  But that shouldn’t stop us from discussing the relationship between population and climate change, no matter how politically sensitive it may be. As Engelman notes in his report, “Despite its key contribution to climate change, population plays little role in current discussions….”  It’s time to change that. Expanding voluntary family planning and elevating the status of women are not substitutes for reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions.  Far from it.  But in the absence of a binding global agreement on climate change, they assume critical importance.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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