Copenhagen and population growth: the topic politicians won’t discuss

| 15th September 2009
Should we be trying to reduce birth rates as well as emissions per capita?

Should we be trying to reduce birth rates as well as emissions per capita?

According to the UN, population growth is a driving force behind emission increases yet it will not be on the agenda at any of the upcoming climate talks

World population has doubled to more than 6 billion in the past 50 years. It’s expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

The population of the USA is projected to rise from 300 million to more than 400 million by 2050.

But most of the population growth will be in poorer countries, such as Africa and the Indian subcontinent, whose CO2 emissions per capita are relatively small – 20 or more times less than the USA.

Given the gulf in carbon emissions per capita it is hardly surprising that few politicians or environmental groups want to raise the issue.

Rich world’s greed

Friends of the Earth says the critical issue is reducing the massive over-consumption of the rich world.

‘G8 countries make up 13 per cent of the world’s population yet they account for 45 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions,’ said international climate campaigner Tom Picken.

‘Tackling the global inequality in resource use is the fastest and most practical way to bring down global emissions’.

Greenpeace says any attempt to raise population growth at Copenhagen or other preliminary negotiations would be counter-productive.

‘The discussion between industrialised and less industrialised countries are so sensitive and fraught with distrust that introducing an issue like population growth would cause anger,’ said Greenpeace International spokeswoman Stephanie Tunmore.

Unsustainable growth

But while environmental lobbyists remain reluctant to tackle it, reports continue to cite population growth as a grave ecological issue.

WWF’s Living Planet report, published last year, said continued growth in population and per person footprint was unsustainable.

'With the world already in ecological overshoot continued growth in population and per person footprint is clearly not a sustainable path,’ said the report.

It said population growth was not only an environmental issue but also affected development.

‘Rapidly growing populations create barriers to achieving development goals in many low-income nations,’ write the authors of the 2008 Living Planet report.

‘As populations rise, less biocapacity (capacity to produce natural resources) is available to meet the needs of each individual, increasing a nation's dependence on biocapacity from elsewhere.

‘Rapid population growth can be slowed and its negative impacts on human well-being alleviated by empowering women with greater education and economic opportunities and improving access to voluntary family planning counseling and services for women who want to delay, space or limit births.’

Will births rise or fall?

Many of the emission projections being made are also based on continued declines in world population growth.

However, if future fertility rates level off or continue to climb then emissions growth could be well above the top of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scenario range.

Despite the fact that most countries, less-industrialised included, have policies aimed at reducing their population growth, the UN estimated in 2004 that more than 137 million women wanted but were unable to access fertility treatment.

A further 64 million women were using less effective contraceptive technologies.


The Optimum Population Trust, of which Jonathon Porritt and David Attenborough are patrons, says family planning is cheaper than many other methods of reducing carbon emissions.

A report they commissioned from London School of Economics (LSE) estimated a $7 cost of abating a tonne of CO2 using family planning compared with $24 (£15) for wind power, $51 (£31) for solar and $57-83 (£35-51) for coal plants with carbon capture and storage.
In his book on tackling CO2 emissions, Kyoto 2, Oliver Tickell estimates that figure could be even lower for countries like the USA.

He states that each avoided unwanted birth in the USA reduces emissions by 1,500 tCO2 (based on the per capita annual emissions of 20 tCO2 and a life expectancy of 75 years). This equates, assuming a healthcare cost of $150, to an abatement cost of only $0.10/tCO2.

Tickell says $500 million should be allocated to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to achieve its goal of universal access to reproductive health services by 2015. Under the Bush administration, the USA refused to fund any of the UNFPA’s work.

The taboo

OPT chairman Roger Martin said it was time for the taboo on discussing the issue to end.

‘Each additional person, especially each rich person in the OECD countries, reduces everyone’s share of the planet’s dwindling resources even faster. Non-coercive population policies are urgently needed in all countries,’ he said.
The UN’s top climate official, UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer remains reluctant to bring the issue into talks at Copenhagen.

‘A lot of people say population pressure is a major driving force behind the increase in emissions, and that's absolutely true but to then say “OK, that means that we need to have a population policy that reduces emissions,” takes you onto shaky ground morally,’ he has said.

He told a conference audience earlier this year that, ‘for many people in Africa, a child is a pension.’

But Lester Brown of the respected Earth Policy Institute says the issue is a moral one for tackling global poverty.

‘Nearly all of the 80 million people being added to world population each year are born in countries where natural support systems are already deteriorating in the face of excessive population pressure, in the countries least able to support them. In these countries, the risk of state failure is growing,’ says Brown in A Civilizational Tipping Point.

The UK government’s new chief scientific advisor John Beddington said earlier this year that population growth would contribute to a ‘perfect storm’ by 2030 as demand for food and resources increased.

‘If we don't address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,’ he told the Guardian.

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