Populating the Global ClimateTalks

Dec 8th, 2011 | By | Category: Economics and GDP, Energy and Carbon Emissions

By Suzanne York, HowMany.org, Dec. 8, 2011

 As global talks on climate change proceed at  the UN conference in Durban, South Africa,  it’s a pretty sure bet that population growth  won’t figure in any serious discussion.  Always the elephant in the room, we ignore  it at great cost to our communities and  environment.

Our numbers are still growing and our demands on the planet are increasing every year, yet we only have one Earth. The UN projects world population could hit 10 billion by 2050. Our world is experiencing ecological overshoot, and according to the Global Footprint Network, consuming commodities and natural resources at a rate of 1.5 times the earth’s capacity to supply them sustainably. Consumption in the developed world has to be addressed, and in developing countries too that are beginning to follow the same unsustainable consumption and lifestyle patterns.

2010 showed the biggest increase in carbon dioxide emissions ever recorded. We are enduring a harsher and more unpredictable climate, water scarcity, fisheries collapse, and undergoing a massive extinction of species while we battle over what actions are politically palatable. The developed world is responsible for the world’s high levels of GHG emissions. The developing world is where the majority of population growth will occur and have had historically far lower rates of GHG emissions. Despite the inequity, policymakers in both spheres have to work together to find for sustainable solutions for all.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and now chairwoman of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, has said that “The failure to address population growth in poor countries has become a global problem, one with long-term implications for the economic, environmental and political health of the entire world.”

There is no need for any draconian or coercive policies on population. For starters, there is a huge unmet need for family planning. Today there are 215 million women in developing countries who wish to avoid getting pregnant but lack access or the means of buying effective contraceptives. Strategically spending funds on education, access to family planning, and promoting reproductive health programs can go a long way and aid in overcoming socio-cultural barriers.

Scientific studies have shown that over the long-term, investing in reproductive health can lower carbon emissions and help families escape poverty and improve food security. Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation biologist, has stated that slower population growth could reduce fossil fuel emissions by an extra 1.1 billion tons of carbon per year by 2050.

Empowering women and girls will also make a big difference, in particular sending girls to school, reducing poverty by improving economic opportunities and gender inequality, and recognizing greater land rights for women. And given the right tools, families can decide on the number, timing and spacing of their children, and improve rates of maternal and infant mortality and HIV/AIDS.

According to Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, “People can’t talk about the environment without talking about population,” he said. “Many of the environmental issues you talk about, whether it’s climate change or something else with the environment, people are in the center of it.”

What is needed in Durban is the courage to deal with the really tough issues of our time. It won’t be easy for politicians and policymakers to talk about limits to growth, but we must face the reality of scarce natural resources and living beyond our means. And that also means putting population on the agenda.

It comes down to education, empowerment, rights, and choice. Educate and promote reproductive health and rights, and empower families to make the best choices for themselves – choices which will at the same time lead to globally lower carbon emissions and reduced consumption. Those will be positive steps to improve the well-being of people and the planet. If we choose to ignore the effects of population growth and drag our feet on doing what is necessary to cope with the impacts of climate change, then we will leave behind a sad legacy for future generations.

Suzanne York is a writer with the Institute for Population Studies/HowMany.org

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