35 Responses to Consumption dwarfs population as main global warming threat
A number of commenters suggested I write about population and global warming (see here). Leading environmental journalist Fred Pearce beat me to the punch with an excellent piece at Yale’s e360 that I almost entirely agree with.
Pierce’s key point is that the rapacious consumption of hydrocarbons and other non-renewable resources practiced by the planet’s wealthiest 10% far outweighs the effects of population growth in developing nations:
It’s over-consumption, not population growth, that is the fundamental problem: By almost any measure, a small portion of the world’s people — those in the affluent, developed world — use up most of the Earth’s resources and produce most of its greenhouse gas emissions.
The world’s richest half-billion people “” that’s about 7 percent of the global population “” are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile the poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions.
This is not to say that population isn’t important, but mainly that the the population ship has sailed, as it were:
Even if we could today achieve zero population growth, that would barely touch the climate problem “” where we need to cut emissions by 50 to 80 percent by mid-century. Given existing income inequalities, it is inescapable that overconsumption by the rich few is the key problem, rather than overpopulation of the poor many.
To avoid catastrophic global warming impacts, the rich countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% to 90% by mid-century. The developing countries (not including China) mostly must slow emissions growth, peak by mid-century, then decline — while ending the vast majority of deforestation by 2020. China must peak its emissions by 2020 and then reduce after that, first slowly, then quickly by mid-century.
And that brings me to another key point that Pierce makes:
… the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.
This is getting close to the “replacement fertility level” which, after allowing for a natural excess of boys born and women who don’t reach adulthood, is about 2.3. The UN expects global fertility to fall to 1.85 children per woman by mid-century. While a demographic “bulge” of women of child-bearing age keeps the world’s population rising for now, continuing declines in fertility will cause the world’s population to stabilize by mid-century and then probably to begin falling.
Indeed, the only major “developing” country that could pretty much single-handedly finish off the climate — the one whose per capita CO2 emissions have been rising at the most unsustainably fast pace in the past decade by far, which therefore makes it the country whose population growth might have been the biggest source of concern — already has an aggressive population strategy. The controversial “one child policy” has already helped bring China’s fertility down to 1.7 to 1.8.
For all these reasons, this blog is not going to focus on population. I have more than enough to write about on the policies and strategies that must be enacted if we are to have a chance at preserving a livable climate — even assuming I knew of and believed in viable population-related strategies, which I don’t.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.