Population and Its Effect on Climate

By Porter, Eduardo | International New York Times, August 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Population and Its Effect on Climate


Porter, Eduardo, International New York Times


Concern about climate change has reignited interest in finding ways to reduce the pace of population growth.

Remember the population explosion?

When population was growing at its fastest rate in human history in the decades after World War II, the sense that overpopulation was stunting economic development and stoking political instability took hold from New Delhi to the United Nations' headquarters in New York, sending policy makers on an urgent quest to stop it.

In the 1970s, the Indian government forcibly sterilized millions of women. Families in Bangladesh, Indonesia and elsewhere were forced to have fewer children. In 1974, the United Nations organized its first World Population Conference to debate population control. China began its one-child policy in 1980.

Then, almost as suddenly as it had begun, the demographic "crisis" was over. As fertility rates in most of the world dropped to around the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman -- with the one major exception of sub-Saharan Africa -- population specialists and politicians turned to other issues.

By 1994, when the United Nations held its last population conference, in Cairo, demographic targets had pretty much been abandoned, replaced by an agenda centered on empowering women, reducing infant mortality and increasing access to reproductive health.

"Some people still regret that; some applaud it," said Joel E. Cohen, who heads the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University in New York. "I'm not sure we need demographic goals, but we need forward thinking."

Well, concerns about population seem to be creeping back. As the threat of climate change has evolved from a fuzzy faraway concept to one of the central existential threats to humanity, scholars like Professor Cohen have noted that reducing the burning of fossil fuels might be easier if there were fewer of us consuming them.

"Population wouldn't be the whole story but it could make a big difference," Mr. Cohen said.

An article published in 2010 by researchers from Austria, Germany and the United States concluded that if the world's population reached only 7.5 billion people by midcentury, rather than more than nine billion, in 2050 we would be spewing five billion to nine billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

This alone would deliver 16 percent to 29 percent of the emission reductions needed over the next four decades to keep the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above that of the late 19th century, the threshold scientists predict could lead to severe disruptions to the climate.

Slower population growth could bring other benefits. The World Resources Institute has been looking into how the world will feed itself in 2050 without busting the carbon budget.

On current demographic and economic projections, food production would have to increase 70 percent by 2050. "Population growth is responsible for about one-half of increased food consumption," said Timothy D. Searchinger of the World Resources Institute. "The other half comes from higher incomes and richer diets."

Much of the expected population growth is set in stone, but sub- Saharan Africa, expected to add 1. …

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