Missives From Marrakech: Enter the EnvironmentOctober 2, 2009 By Gib Clarke
“Contraception is the cheapest way to combat climate change,” read the headline of The Telegraph in mid-September, announcing the release of “Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost,”a study from the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) and the London School of Economics (LSE). Similar stories appeared in newspapers around the world.
Though there has been near-universal agreement that the OPT-LSE paper oversimplifies the link between demography and climate change, the buzz among the family planning and environment communities has continued during the IUSSP conference in Marrakech. Perhaps this is because demographers are not used to appearing in the press except when discussing census results. More likely it is the timing of the report, with the Copenhagen conference on climate change coming in December.The buzz hit a peak on Thursday at the IUSSP, with a plenary presentation examining the links. Wolfgang Lutz jumped right in, noting that it’s not as simple as the OPT-LSE study makes it. Population growth is important, but size is not the only thing that matters; other aspects such as age distribution, household structures, and levels of urbanization come into play as well.
In addition, between population size and climate change lie a number of intermediary factors, such as consumption levels, technology improvements, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Lutz argued that demography has a unique contribution to make to the climate discussion, for no other discipline understands the composition of different populations in different places both now and in the future. Therefore, demographers should explain how different groups will contribute to climate change, and how they will suffer the consequences, so that adaptive capacities can be strengthened and social programs can fill the gaps.
Leiwen Jiang described research conducted by some of the giants in climate and demography: National Center for Atmospheric Research, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and Population Action International. Their work uses a “PET” model – Population, Environment, and Technology – which looks at how the PET elements impact four critical predictors of GHG emissions: consumption, energy use, labor, and savings. A forthcoming paper by this group will delineate the complete findings, including the potential for GHG “savings” brought by decreases in fertility and thus reduced population growth, as well as the added GHG due to future urbanization.
Susana Adamo took a step back to show the audience the view from 30,000 feet – literally, with maps demonstrating that population density is highest in areas most vulnerable to impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rises, droughts, floods, and other severe weather events.
Unfortunately, one of the stars of this research, Brian O’Neill, was unable to attend, due to health reasons. His research, to be published soon, is highly anticipated, and should add additional quantitative fuel to the fire.
Not Just Climate
Environmental links with population and demographic factors have also factored in other parts of this “demography” conference. A host of sessions, many organized by the Population-Environment Research Network, have explored linkages between population growth, migration, and urbanization on the demographic side; and deforestation, natural resource management, and environmental degradation on the environmental side. Questions concerning these and other environmental factors have surfaced at panels exclusively dedicated to other topics such as family planning. Some sessions examined how population and environment concerns can be jointly addressed.
It is encouraging to see demographers and reproductive health specialists taking climate and environmental factors so seriously. The response from the environmental community has been mixed, with some interest in population issues, but also some opposition from the climate community to including discussions of family planning in an already controversial topic. At a similarly large gathering of environmentalists and conservationists, the 2008 IUCN conference in Barcelona, only two sessions addressed health or population. So we have a long way to go progress to unite these communities of researchers and practitioners, and come together in a truly fruitful engagement.
Photo courtesy World Bank Photo Collection.