Consumerism and climate change

Study shows that countries with high population growth rates play a lesser role in the emission of carbon dioxide. Photo/Reuters

Population growth may not be the major driver of climate change, after all, a new study published in the journal Environment and Urbanisation reveals. The report contradicts growing calls for a slow-down in population growth rate as part of the fight against climate change, which is blamed for global warming.

It shows that the real problem is not the number of people but the growth of consumption.

Dr David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development analysed changes in population and greenhouse gas emissions for all the world’s countries and found that between 1980 and 2005, sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5 per cent of the world’s population growth and just 2.4 per cent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

The United States on the other hand had 3.4 per cent of the world’s population growth and 12.6 per cent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Dr Satterthwaite says most of the nations with the highest population growth rates had low growth rates in carbon dioxide emissions and vice versa.

China, the world’s most populated nation, had 15.3 per cent of the world’s population growth and 44.5 per cent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Population growth rates in China have come down very rapidly – but greenhouse gas emissions have increased markedly.

Low-income nations had 52.1 per cent of the world’s population growth and 12.8 per cent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report, while high-income nations had 7 per cent of the world’s population growth and 29 per cent rise in carbon dioxide emissions.

Dr Satterthwaite points out that contraception and sexual/reproductive health services are key contributors to development, health and human rights in poorer nations and communities. But he adds that these are not a solution to climate change — which is caused predominantly by a minority of the world’s population that has the highest levels of consumption.

“A child born into a very poor African household who during their life never escapes from poverty contributes very little to climate change, especially if they die young, as many do,” says Satterthwaite.

“A child born into a wealthy household in North America or Europe and enjoys a full life and a high-consumption lifestyle contributes far more – thousands or even tens of thousands of times more.”

Of course, not all the world’s greatest consumers are in high income countries, notes Dr Satterthwaite.

“The many millionaires from Mexico, China or South Africa may have just as large and damaging a carbon footprint as millionaires from Europe or North America. But, globally, most of the world’s high-consumers are in Europe and North America.”

This study contradicts a report by the Optimum Population Trust early last month that said the climate change talks, which will culminate at Copenhagen in December must ensure that all countries adopt non-coercive policies to limit and stabilise population growth.

Successful population policies, which answered the unmet need for family planning, could mean nearly three billion fewer people in 2050, a difference equivalent to 44 per cent of current world population (6.8 billion), OPT said.

“All environmental problems, and notably those arising from climate change, would be easier to solve with a smaller future population.”

Mr Roger Martin, chair of OPT, said: “At the very least it should spur negotiators to start taking population growth seriously as a major driver of climate change. There’s not much point in labouring mightily to cut our carbon emissions if hard-won improvements are then routinely drowned out by rising numbers of people.”