Population: Off the radar, not off the map
“The main driving forces of future greenhouse gas trajectories will continue to be demographic change, social and economic development, and the rate and direction of technological change,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios. Two of these drivers – development and technology – have been the focus of a great deal of discussion among the international community as they continue to work toward a new international climate change agreement in Bonn this week. The third, demographic change, has been conspicuously absent.
Country delegations and NGOs have put forth numerous proposals to increase living standards in the developing world without following the fossil fuel-intensive example set by the industrialized world. Other proposals outline how transfers of technology and greater support for development activities among vulnerable communities will better enable them to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.
However, demographic change has not come up in the context of these discussions. This is strange, because demographic change is likely to shape our world in significant ways over the next several decades.
In its latest round of projections, the UN Population Division indicates that the world’s population will grow from today’s 6.7 billion to somewhere between 8.0 and 10.5 billion by 2050.
During informal conversations with country delegates and colleagues at other civil society organizations, I have found near universal agreement that population growth will affect greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2050. And for those who are thinking critically about how vulnerable communities will adapt to increasing water scarcity or diminishing agricultural production, they know that rapid population growth will further threaten human survival. Researchers at Population Action International have highlighted the importance of population trends for climate change mitigation and adaptation in a new working paper and fact sheet.
The UN presents a wide range for population in 2050 because population growth is sensitive to the conditions of the world around us. For example, more education for girls and economic opportunities for women lead to lower birth rates. Expanding access to reproductive health care and family planning services can have an even more direct and immediate impact.
Currently, more than 200 million women around the world say they would like to avoid a pregnancy, but don’t have access to modern contraception-something those of us in the US take for granted. Reversing downward trends in funding for reproductive health and family planning programs could help to remedy that, and would be a good start in shooting for the lower end of the UN’s population projections.
The world already agreed on a goal of universal access to these services at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, where the US and 178 other nations signed onto this consensus. Universal access to reproductive health is also one of the Millennium Development Goals (see Target 5b). This goal from the health sector should be integrated into the world’s response to climate change and its human impacts. While talking about reproductive health might be new and a little uncomfortable for climate diplomats, they should get over it – it is a universally accepted goal that has great potential to strengthen climate change solutions.
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