Population and Climate Change: Complex Connections


As pressure to address climate change increases, long-simmering debates
on the connections between population and environment have been
renewed.
Historically, concerns have been expressed about the impact of “population” policies on human rights.  RH Reality Check welcomes open debate on these
issues and encourages both comments on this and other articles as well
as submissions from other authors.
 

Recent interest in the role of family
planning in climate change mitigation is long overdue. Efforts to combat global
climate change must include universal access to voluntary family planning to
reduce population growth. Brian O’Neill, the scientist who has done the most
serious research on this topic, projects that 1-2 billion tons of carbon
emissions could be averted each year if women worldwide were able to fully
exercise their reproductive wishes.

President Obama is taking a bold first step in Copenhagen by putting forward an
ambitious emissions target for the United States. Yet global population growth
threatens to undercut – even cancel – all proposed progress. World population
may grow by 18% or more from 2005 to 2020, according to UN projections.

Reducing carbon emissions is actually three separate but related challenges.
First, we must reduce global emissions. Second, we must slow population growth
by supporting programs such as voluntary family planning and reproductive
health. Third, we must recognize that about half the world now suffers from
"carbon starvation" and needs to increase emissions.

Most emissions reductions must occur in wealthier countries since that’s where
they are highest. At the same time, in order to give billions of poor people a
reasonable quality of life, emissions in some parts of the world must increase
significantly. Rapid population growth makes this balancing act even more
difficult.

Given available technology, the often-tiny carbon footprints of billions of
people are both a cause and an effect of impoverishment. The one billion people
who struggle to survive on less than $1/day use very little in the way of
fossil fuels (They do, however, contribute to climate change through
deforestation, which is responsible for 20% of global carbon emissions.
Deforestation is a direct result of local population growth and the increased
cropland needed to feed more people). And the additional 1.6 billion living on
less than $2/day hardly use more. In order to have decent lives, they must
increase their emission levels substantially, despite advances in green
technology.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa is mired in the most desperate, grinding poverty
imaginable. Governments there are already unable to meet the most basic needs
of their citizens. And it is these people – who contribute least to climate
change – who will suffer most from the problems that climate change brings.
Women especially will face new challenges to their health, livelihoods, and
even their lives, for they are the ones who must walk to fetch the water and
who must tend to their families’ crops.

Africa’s per-capita emissions must increase. But, if Africa’s population grows
by the 39% that is projected by 2020, it will be nearly impossible to create a
healthy quality of life for people in that part of the world.

Population growth will undermine all efforts to achieve lower carbon emissions
unless investments in clean energy are matched by equally comprehensive
investments in universal access to contraception, along with other health and
development programs.

Unfortunately, for too long, population has been ignored as
part of the climate change equation. Some consider the topic to be toxic.
That’s tragic, but at the same time, it’s easy to understand, because too often
the population connection to climate change is oversimplified, and overhyped.

In recent weeks, there have been a number of examples of
this. Most disturbingly, a widely circulated opinion piece in a Canadian
newspaper resurrected the nasty notion of population control by urging
mandatory limits on child-bearing. That such a chilling thought made it to
publication in a mainstream publication is deplorable.

In addition, an August 2009 report issued by the
UK-based Optimum Population Trust (OPT) incorrectly claimed that meeting the
worldwide unmet need for family planning is a more cost effective way to reduce
current carbon emissions than other "green" technologies. They followed
this up with a plan to allow citizens of wealthy industrial nations to “offset”
their emissions with donations to make birth control available to women in poor
countries.

By assuming erroneously the main cause of unplanned births in every
nation on earth is lack of access to contraception, the OPT rendered its entire
study meaningless. Most high carbon emitters live in developed nations where
contraceptives are generally available. Reducing carbon emissions through
universal access to contraception is essential. But the quick carbon fix
championed by OPT is a fairy tale.

It’s true that many women in developing nations cannot obtain or afford
modern methods of birth control. Meeting their unmet needs is critically
important for a variety of reasons. But doing so won’t significantly reduce
current fossil fuel emissions. The annual per capita fossil fuel emissions in
many such countries are less than a single week of such emissions in the US and
many other developed nations.

The simple fact of the matter is this: climate change is
largely caused by the high emissions from wealthy industrialized nations. These
are places where population is growing slowly if at all. To claim that we can
solve climate change solely by addressing population growth in countries where
emissions are low is silly. And to suggest that people in the high emitting
countries can contribute birth control to poor people instead of cutting back
on their own consumption is offensive.

This is one of those times – and one of those issues – where we need to keep
our eye on multiple goals. Reducing emissions is an energy issue. But it is
also in equal measure a human rights challenge, one that must include
unprecedented investments in a full spectrum of reproductive health services
for women and couples. Worldwide, 200 million women have an unmet need for
family planning. And demand for contraception is projected to increase by 40%
in just 15 years.

As we develop hybrid cars and the like, what about the other
half of the world? Will they be left to sweat and starve while we glide forward
into a century of renewable energy? Their carbon footprint needs to grow. That
can only work if we are willing to meet the population growth challenge.

The White House has already made great strides in reversing the pernicious
policies of the Bush Administration, which turned a blind eye to the needs of
billions. But additional bold action is needed.

No doubt President Obama is keenly aware of the multiple dimensions of the
climate challenge. Yes, it’s about energy. But, more than that, it is about
meeting the basic human needs of soon-to-be seven billion people. Universal
access to family planning must be a centerpiece of the climate change agenda in
Copenhagen and beyond.

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  • dysacre

    John is rather tilting at a windmill in his criticism of the Optimum Population Trust. I think he’s tried to read far too much into OPT’s action when he says, to quote his article, that OPT is “assuming erroneously the main cause of unplanned births in every nation on earth is lack of access to contraception”. It isn’t making that assumption at all. Introducing the offset scheme is just one practical step that happened to be available at this time. It does not imply a belief that overpopulation is mainly a third world issue, or that lack of money is the main problem in every country. But it is in some, and it is at least part of the the problem in just about every country. OPT is taking this action as a small practical action that fits within its aims. It is not being done as a statement of its position, still less a statement of its main position. The desire of a good number of citizens of developed countries to try and offset their personal carbon emissions presented an opportunity to raise money for additional family planning services in third world countries. That’s really all there is to it. If it appears to send the wrong message to some people, all I can say is you can’t do everything at once, and you can’t treat every action as the whole message.

  • lffinch

    As the post mentions, per-capita carbon emissions are much higher in developed countries like the US than in developing countries. However, the opportunity to help women avoid unplanned pregnancies is not unique to the developing world. Approximately one-half of pregnancies in the US are unplanned (http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/UnintendedPregnancy/index.htm). This is not surprising given the recent finding that, among unmarried young adults in the United States who are currently in a sexual relationship and are not trying to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy, 19% use no contraception at all and 24% use contraception inconsistently. Only about 50% are well protected against unplanned pregnancy (http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/fogzone/PDF/FogZone.pdf).

  • paul-bradford

    Population growth will undermine all efforts to achieve lower carbon emissions unless investments in clean energy are matched by equally comprehensive investments in universal access to contraception, along with other health and development programs.

     

    John,

     

    There’s more to the equation than that.  You state, "we must slow population growth by supporting programs such as voluntary family planning and reproductive health".  Family planning, on a voluntary scale, may prove to be insufficient.

     

    Please look at this table the Guttmacher Institute produced:

     

    Percent of persons polled worldwide who believe four or more children to be the ideal number of children per family, by geographical area:

     

    Western Europe: 10%

    Canada & US: 18%

    Far East: 30%

    Latin America: 39%

    Africa: 79% 

     

    There is, no doubt, an unmet need for contraception and that need is greater in the developing countries; but the population is growing fastest in areas where people want large families.

     

    Is there a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve the government telling women whether or not they can have children?  There certainly is!  The solution is education.  The better educated girls and women are, the more likely they are to set goals for themselves beyond motherhood.  Consequently, better educated women want fewer children.

     

    Supplying contraception to women who want big families is futile.  Before you can address the means to contraception there has to be the motivation for contraception. 

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • crowepps

    the population is growing fastest in areas where people want large families

    The population is also growing fastest in areas where the extra births have the smallest effect on the carbon footprint – where people live on $1 a day, practice subsistence agriculture (which needs lots of children for labor) and where medical care is spotty and the child mortality rate is unnecessarily high.

     

    The most effective way of getting people in weathy countries to have fewer children (each of whom individually will have a greater effect on the carbon footprint) is to stop allowing business to exteriorize the costs of releasing carbon. If the costs of shelter, food and manufactured goods included the costs of the damage they are known to create environmentally so that high-carbon activities (like plane travel, large houses, SUVs, strawberries in January, etc.) were a luxury, it would also have the effect secondarily of making large families expensive, and people in the so-called advanced countries where most of the carbon is emitted would voluntarily limit their reproduction.

    Supplying contraception to women who want big families is futile.

    Worldwide, 200 million women have an unmet need for family planning. And demand for contraception is projected to increase by 40% in just 15 years.

    Supplying contraception to women who want four children but who instead are, without contraception, having eight or nine is NOT futile, but instead an obvious and sensible step in the process of allowing people to voluntarily limit their own family size. WITHHOLDING contraception when the motivation already exists and the unmet need hasn’t been met is insane.