THE POPULATION FACTOR: How does it relate to climate change?


The human contribution to climate change is driven primarily by high per capita consumption in the North. The poorest 1 billion people living on a dollar or two a day contribute only 3 per cent of the world’s total carbon footprint, yet the loss of healthy life-years resulting from global warming could be as much as 500 times greater in Africa than in Europe (McMichael et al., 2008). It is also true that 99 per cent of the projected 1-4 billion increase in global population that will occur between now and 2050 will take place in the least developed countries with the smallest carbon footprints.  At first sight, the inequity that the nations of the North have caused over 90 per cent of global warming but suffer fewest of its adverse effects, combined with the asymmetry in population growth between the South and the North, seems to create an impossibly difficult background for policy discussions between countries and national groupings. The countries of the North could not ask the 2 billion people of the South living on one or two dollars a day to either slow economic growth or have fewer children in order to slow global warming.

But if we frame the discussion at the level of individual needs rather than national interests, then a totally different picture emerges. Surveys demonstrate that there is a large unmet need for family planning in both developed and developing regions, and analysis shows that meeting the unmet need for family planning and preventing unintended pregnancies – whether women are rich or poor – is one of the most cost- effective ways of slowing global warming. It has the potential to benefit hundreds of millions of individuals, to help the whole planet slow greenhouse gas accumulation and facilitate countries in adapting to climate change. As the failure of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen demonstrated, people do not want to consume less: they do, however, want fewer children. At the individual level, the link between climate change and family planning is a win-win strategy. But, for reasons just set out, it is also the climate strategy most likely to be misunderstood, corrupted deliberately or rejected out of hand, by those with strong feelings about human sexuality and the autonomy of women, as well as those promoting access to family planning.

Published by the Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability, at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Malcolm Potts
Leah Marsh
Publication date: 
February 3, 2010
Publication type: 
Journal Article