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Is the climate crisis a population problem or a poverty problem?

People don’t cause climate change, lifestyles do.
July 21, 2022

Let the best of Anthropocene come to you.

On November 8, according to the United Nations, Earth’s population will pass 8 billion for the first time—on its way to 10 billion half a century from now. It seems obvious that every one of those individuals will need water, food, shelter, clothing, and transportation, and that fulfilling each of those needs comes with a carbon footprint.

But once you crunch the numbers, the carbon impact of more people is anything but clear. Researchers have come to realize that the population of our planet is far less important than how we live upon it. Fertility rates and carbon emissions are not spread evenly across the globe—any discussion around population growth comes tangled in centuries of colonialism, prejudice, and inequality.

To hit emissions targets, should we counterintuitively loosen our fixation on counting carbon (and people) and instead prioritize development and climate justice?  

• • •

More People, More Carbon


1.  Population and carbon emissions have grown together. Historically, fossil fuel use and other greenhouse gas emissions have closely tracked population growth. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit dedicated to removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, envisages shrinking the global population by improving education and access to family planning resources—something, it turns out, that is not guaranteed even in highly developed countries like the US. 

2.  The world can’t support 8 billion Americans. The planet has been getting richer, with global GDP more than doubling since 1970 according to the UN. But the culture of disposability epitomized by high-income countries means their levels of per capita material consumption are more than 13 times those of low-income countries.

3.  Every ton of carbon is a nail in our climate coffin, no matter where it’s emitted. In the West, many donors believe that the path to development should be paved exclusively with renewables. At COP26 last year, dozens of mostly rich countries promised not to fund most international fossil fuel projects, citing the Paris Agreement, the reduced costs of clean energy alternatives and the development benefits they bring. The World Bank is considering a total ban on financing coal and gas by the end of 2024.


• • •

Less Poverty, Less Carbon


1.  Two hockey sticks, separate issues. The population hockey stick curve isn’t anything like the climate hockey stick. According to demographers, the population growth seen over the past 50 years is naturally leveling off, and will peak in 2086, rather than earlier estimates of 2100. That’s largely because as people get more resources and education, they have fewer children to hedge against disaster. As the development guru Hans Rosling once said: “The balance of population in the past was controlled by death: it was ugly and unacceptable. The new balance is controlled by love.”

2.  Focus on the real offenders. Even as many EU countries require renewable and sustainable energy for development, the bloc itself is highly reliant on fossil fuels and even recently declared that its natural gas projects could be considered “climate friendly.” W. Gyude Moore of the Center for Global Development makes a persuasive case in Foreign Policy that the burden of decarbonization should fall on those who consume the most—and can more readily afford the transition.

3.  Ban coal, not kids. Attempting to control population is as ineffective as it is repugnant to many, argues Emmanuel Pont, an environmental author. He calculates that enforcing a draconian one-child limit in France would result only in about the same reduction in emissions as shuttering all the country’s coal-fired power stations. Pont also dismantles widely-shared figures about the carbon footprint of having a child. 

From: Population and Climate Change by Emmanuel Pont

4.  Development first saves lives. “Poor countries are not the problem,” writes Arthur Baker of the University of Chicago’s Development Innovation Lab at The world’s poorest countries currently account for 0.5 percent of global carbon emissions and have the most to gain from cheap energy in terms of public health, food security, and electrification. If their economies grew by 5 percent annually, using a mix of fossil fuels and renewables, it could transform their societies and would result in their share of emissions rising to just 1 percent by 2035—a drop in the climate ocean.


• • •

What to Keep An Eye On


1.  Climate scientists. Although the IPCC report has traditionally shied away from linking climate change directly with population growth, it has recently been facing pressure to consider fertility, reproductive freedoms, and demography in future reports. If it does, this could feed into national and international policies.

2.  Will funding really dry up for international fossil fuel projects? The World Bank recently appeared to be taking a more nuanced view to development, stating that “the right question is which climate policies can accelerate development and poverty reduction, and how can we help countries minimize and manage unavoidable trade-offs.”

3.  Decoupling emissions from growth. Dozens of countries have managed to break the historic link between carbon emissions and economic growth. Most of these to date have been richer countries—another argument, perhaps, for prioritizing development.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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