Issues Magazine

State of World Population 2009: A Summary

By Gaye McDermott

The latest United Nations Population Fund Report addresses questions about women, population and climate change.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is a development agency that promotes the right of every individual to a life of health and equal opportunity and works towards reducing poverty. UNFPA champions safe pregnancies and births, human rights and gender equality.

Each year the UNFPA publishes a “State of World Population” report. The theme of the latest UNFPA report, State of World Population 2009, is “Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate”. This report addresses a number of questions and suggests some answers.

How do population dynamics affect greenhouse gases and climate change? Will urbanisation and an ageing population help or hinder efforts to adapt to a warming world? What is the best way to protect humanity from extreme weather and rising seas? Could better access to reproductive health care and improved relations between men and women make a critical difference in addressing the challenge of climate change?

This report is a reminder that climate change is more than an issue of energy efficiency, carbon emissions trading, pollution reduction and emissions targets. These issues are very important, but climate change is also about how people influence and are affected by temperature changes in the Earth’s atmosphere. UNFPA’s Executive Director, Thoraya Obaid, writes in the foreword to the report: “But also important are fundamental questions about how climate change will affect women, men, boys and girls differently around the world, and indeed within nations, and how individual behaviour can undermine or contribute to the global effort to cool our warming world”.

A growing body of evidence suggests that recent climate change is primarily the result of human activity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has supported the scientific conclusion that human-caused increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are very likely the cause of most of the temperature increases experienced since the middle of the 20th century. The panel consists of more than 2000 scientists and other experts, and is sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation.

The influence of human activity on climate change is complex. It is about what we consume, the kinds of energy used to produce what is consumed, whether we live in an urban or rural environment, in a rich or poor country, how old we are, and even the extent to which women and men enjoy equal rights and opportunities. It is also about our growing population, which is nearing seven billion.

The influence of climate change on people is also complex, causing migration, destroying livelihoods, disrupting economies, undermining development and exacerbating inequities between the sexes.

Climate change is about people. People cause it, are affected by it, need to adapt to it and harness the power to stop it.

The connection between population growth and concerns regarding climate change has received little attention. Some commentators have argued that slowing population growth is necessary to reduce further rises in carbon emissions. Others have objected that this would lead to dehumanising “population control” programs in developing countries. Population growth and what, if anything, should be done about it, are difficult, divisive and controversial topics.

Delegates at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) agreed that population is not about numbers but about people. The conference’s 20-year Programme of Action, adopted by 179 countries, argues that if needs for family planning and reproductive health care are met, along with other basic health and education services, then population stabilisation will happen naturally, not by coercion or control.

The vast majority of the world’s population growth today occurs in developing countries, whose contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is historically far less than those of the developed countries. While developed countries contributed the majority of the increment in carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began, the International Energy Agency projects that developing countries will account for the majority of the growth in total volume of carbon dioxide emissions related to fossil fuels from 2008 to 2030 (International Energy Outlook, 2008). However, per capita emissions remain generally higher in developed countries than in developing countries, according to the Carbon Dioxide International Analysis Center (“National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751–2006”, 2009).

Population growth is one of the factors influencing total emissions in both industrialised and developing countries, although its role is far from the only demographic linkage to climate change. Household consumption is another variable. A 2009 study by Leiwen Jiang and Karen Hardee (“How Do Recent Population Trends Matter to Climate Change?”) showed that per capita energy consumption of smaller households is significantly higher than that of larger households. Even so, calculations of the contribution of population growth to emissions growth globally produce a consistent finding that most of past population growth has been responsible for between 40% and 60% of emissions growth.

Population dynamics are likely to influence greenhouse gas emissions in the long run. In the immediate future, population dynamics will affect countries’ capacities to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Other population variables, apart from population growth, are settlement patterns, changing age structures and increasing urbanisation.

Every birth results not only in the emissions attributable to that person over their lifetime but also the emissions of each of their descendants. Hence, the emissions savings from intended or planned births multiply over time. But, in general, economic change seems to be the more immediate influence on greenhouse gas emissions than population change. So what should be done?

No human being is “carbon neutral”, so everyone is part of the problem and it follows that everyone should be part of the solution. The world’s governments and peoples will need to work together on every aspect of the factors that increase greenhouse gas emissions. One of these factors is population growth.

If the United Nations Population Division’s low population growth scenario of about 8 billion people by the year 2050 materialises, it might result in 1–2 billion fewer tonnes of carbon emissions than if the medium-growth scenario – a little more than 9 billion people by 2050 – materialises according to climate scientist Brian O’Neill of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (In Mazur, L. A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge). The low variant projection assumes lower fertility rates that might result from increased access to reproductive health services, including family planning, and other actions to increase opportunities and freedoms for women and girls.

The UNFPA and the International Institute for Environment and Development, in collaboration with the Population Division of the United Nations and UN-HABITAT, brought together 40 demographers, scientists and experts in population, gender and development in London in June 2009 to share the latest thinking and research on mitigating climate change through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and on adapting to the effects of current and future climate change. They found that improved access to sexual and reproductive health, including voluntary family planning, is essential for individual welfare and accelerates the stabilisation of population (see

A working paper by David Wheeler and Dan Hammer showed the results of a study that found that, dollar for dollar, investments in voluntary family planning and girls’ education would, in the long run, reduce emissions at least as much as the same investments in nuclear or wind energy (“The Economics of Population Policy for Carbon Emissions Reduction”, 2009).

Policies that aim to address any aspect of climate change must take gender differences into account. Special attention may be necessary to compensate for inequalities that are faced by women. Because of greater poverty, less power over their own lives, less recognition of their economic productivity and their disproportionate burden in reproduction and child-raising, women face additional challenges as the climate changes. The recent experiences of natural disasters (some related to climate change, others not) show that women are more likely than men to lose their lives and otherwise fare worse in extreme events. The influence of gender in resilience to climate change impacts is an important consideration in developing interventions for adaptation.

There is good reason to believe that achievement of the ICPD’s goal of universal access to reproductive health, combined with improved education of girls and attainment of gender equality, would help to achieve health and development objectives while contributing to declines in fertility. This would in turn help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The links between population and climate change are complex. Nevertheless, the links are becoming clear enough to arrive at the key recommendations of this report for mitigating climate change and aiding adaptation to it: elicit a new level of engagement by governments in the areas of population and development, provide access to reproductive health and actively support gender equality.

The report concludes with five steps for action by governments and climate negotiators that might help bring humanity back from the brink:

  1. Bring a better understanding of population dynamics, gender and reproductive health to climate change and environmental discussions at all levels.
  2. Fully fund family planning services and contraceptive supplies within the framework of reproductive health and rights, and assure that low income is no barrier to access.
  3. Prioritise research and data collection to improve the understanding of gender and population dynamics in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  4. Improve the sex-disaggregation of data related to migration flows that are influenced by environmental factors and prepare now for increases in population movements resulting from climate change.
  5. Integrate gender considerations into global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Without halting the rise in global emissions of greenhouse gases and then reducing them, adaptation to climate change will become an endless and perhaps impossible challenge. The push to build resilience to climate change cannot distract from the need to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible, starting now.

Strategies to ameliorate climate change are much more likely to be successful if deployed in the context of sustainable economic and social development, respect for human rights and cultural diversity, the empowerment of women and universal access to reproductive health.

Can slower population growth mitigate climate change? Population growth is not the most important determinant of resilience to climate change impacts. However, the relationship between population growth and climate change has been established and slower population growth would lead to lower emissions, although not in the short term, making the climate change problem easier to solve. Slower growth would probably also have the effect of making societies more adaptable to the impacts of climate change.

Such population policies are desirable and worthwhile in their own right. The role that population growth plays must be viewed in the context of other drivers, such as economic growth, urbanisation and technological change. Population growth is an important driver of emissions but not the only one.