COMMENTARY: Stabilising population is a climate 'must'

Posted: 11 December 2007

Author: Fred Meyerson

Human population continues to grow by more than 75 million people annually. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, global population and annual carbon dioxide emissions have both increased by about 70 per cent. As a result, per capita emission rates remain steady at about 1.2 metric tons (mt) of carbon per person per year.

Unfortunately, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has had little measurable effect on per capita emissions, even in the countries that have agreed to national targets. Emissions in Western Europe reached 2 mt per person back in 1970 and have fluctuated just above that level ever since. The same plateau phenomenon, which appears to be related to stages in development, happened in the early 1970s in 'centrally planned Europe,' which includes Russia and the former Soviet republics.

Fred Meyerson
Fred Meyerson
Fred Meyerson. Photo © University of Rhode Island
Per capita carbon emissions in the United States also leveled off around 1970 at a much higher rate - above 5.5 mt per person - and have barely budged since, through recessions, economic booms, and swings in energy markets. From 1970 to 2004, US population and emissions both rose by 43 per cent.

More than any another factor, population growth drives rising carbon emissions, and the US Census Bureau and United Nations both project that global population, currently 6.6 billion, will surpass 9 billion before 2050.

Per capita emissions

It is, of course, possible that per capita emissions could decrease in the future, but a number of factors make this difficult. First, emission patterns are "sticky" due to slow turnover in our energy-intensive infrastructure, including power plants, housing, and vehicle fleets. Established consumption behavior is hard to change, by either individuals or nations.

Second, while global per capita emissions have been relatively flat for decades, there is now more risk that they will rise, not fall, in the near future. Coal (which releases the most carbon per unit of energy when burned) is more abundant and less constrained than petroleum and gas. As oil becomes scarce and expensive, and population growth and development drive up energy demand, coal use has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in China, but also in the United States and India.

Finally, many developing countries that are experiencing explosive economic growth have not yet reached per capita emissions plateaus and also have rapidly rising populations. All these factors more than wipe out the minor savings associated with my family (and others) switching to compact fluorescent bulbs and efficient front-loading washers.

The implication is that one of the best strategies for reducing future greenhouse gas emissions is population stabilization, as quickly as can be achieved by non-coercive means.

Peak numbers

But is stabilization likely or possible? The United Nations projects that global population will eventually peak well above 9 billion, based on the assumption that fertility rates in every country on the planet will converge at 1.85 children per woman (below the 2.1 replacement fertility level), and that most countries will achieve this target, or close to it, by 2050. This critical assumption, adopted relatively recently by demographers, is based only on a mathematical formula, and perhaps some wishful thinking. It is quite possible that global population could surge well beyond even current projections.

Unfortunately, given our current trajectory, the disruptions, hardship, and conflict caused by climate change and variability may well increase death rates (and decrease life expectancy) before declining fertility stabilizes population.

So, I believe the best course of action for both human well-being and climate policy is to quickly devote as many resources as possible to reducing unwanted pregnancy, so that we reach stabilization. Almost half of all pregnancies in the United States, and one-third globally, are unintended. We can do better than that, and several countries already have.

This will require rehabilitation of the population policy and family planning fields, which have been attacked, shunned, and splintered in recent decades.

Tragic stalemate

Conservatives are often against sex education, contraception, and abortion, and they like growth--both in population and the economy. Liberals usually support individual human rights above all else and fear the "coercion" label, and therefore avoid discussion of population policy and stabilization. The combination is a tragic stalemate that leads to more population growth. We need to get over it.

And certainly population policy should be front and centre at the UN. Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting, now taking place in Bali.

Frederick A. B. Meyerson is an ecologist and Associate Professor at the University of Rhode Island. This article first appeared on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (See: here.) It kicks off a debate to be held online over the next three months on how population growth relates to our spiraling energy needs and whether addressing it can help provide a solution to the climate problem. To give your own feedback e-mail to: or see the website here