Global warming policy: Is population left out in the cold?
By John Bongaarts, Brian C. O’Neill
Would slowing human population growth lessen future impacts of anthropogenic climate change? With an additional 4 billion people expected on the planet by 2100, the answer seems an obvious “yes.” Indeed, substantial scientific literature backs up this intuition. Many nongovernmental organizations undertake climate- and population-related activities, and national adaptation plans for most of the least-developed countries recognize population growth as an important component of vulnerability to climate impacts. But despite this evidence, much of the climate community, notably the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the primary source of scientific information for the international climate change policy process, is largely silent about the potential for population policy to reduce risks from global warming. Though the latest IPCC report includes an assessment of technical aspects of ways in which population and climate change influence each other, the assessment does not extend to population policy as part of a wide range of potential adaptation and mitigation responses. We suggest that four misperceptions by many in the climate change community play a substantial role in neglect of this topic, and propose remedies for the IPCC as it prepares for the sixth cycle of its multiyear assessment process.
Population-related policies—such as offering voluntary family planning services as well as improved education for women and girls—can have many of the desirable characteristics of climate response options: benefits to both mitigation and adaptation, co-benefits with human well-being and other environmental issues, synergies with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and cost effectiveness. These policies can also enable women to achieve their desired family size, and lead to lower fertility and slower population growth. The resulting demographic changes can not only lessen the emissions that drive climate change but also improve the ability of populations to adapt to its consequences.
Photo courtesy of UK Department for International Development.