A new study, “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions
,” finds that slowing population growth by 2050 would meet 16-29 percent of the reductions in carbon emissions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change — roughly equivalent to 1-1.5 “stabilization wedges
.” Published in PNAS
this week, the article reports the results of a comprehensive assessment, led by Brian O’Neill
of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), of the impact of demographic changes, including urbanization and aging, on global carbon emissions.
The authors conclude that policies designed to meet the substantial unmet need for family planning and reproductive health services, particularly in the United States and developing countries, would lead to emission reductions that amount to about one-half of a wedge. These results suggest that “family planning policies would have a substantial environmental cobenefit,” they write.
O’Neill will discuss the study’s results and recommendations on Friday morning at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Missoula, MT. The panel, “Population, Climate, and Consumption,” which I helped organize, will be moderated by Ken Weiss of the Los Angeles Times. Weiss wrote on the Times’ Greenspace blog that “the study offers a novel way to quantify how changes in human population influence the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
To tease out the complex connections between climate, population, and consumption, O’Neill and his coauthors looked beyond population size to delve into household location and composition. They found that urbanization and aging trends will have differential–and potentially offsetting–impacts on carbon emissions.
Aging, particularly in industrialized countries, will reduce carbon emissions by up to 20 percent in the long term. On the other hand, urbanization, particularly in developing countries could increase emissions by 25 percent.
The Taboo Against Mixing Condoms and Climate
Most coverage to date, including the widely distributed press release from the National Science Foundation, overlooked the study’s recommendations to increase access to family planning and meet unmet need for contraception as a climate mitigation strategy.
Unfortunately, that’s the case in many venues: “You don’t see policymakers talking about in the climate negotiations,” climate scientist Richard Somerville told Weiss. Family planning has long been off the table–Mother Jones recently called it “The Last Taboo” – especially at the big climate conferences. At Copenhagen, it was only discussed at side events; NYT’s Andrew Revkin called it the “missing ‘P’ word.“
One of this year’s panelists, Laurie Mazur, who last year published, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, will likely explore the environmental cobenefits of improving women’s reproductive health. In addition to mitigation, some developing countries have identified family planning as a strategy in their national climate adaptation plans.
Growth Story: Population at SEJ
Friday’s panel is the only one to consider population’s role in environmental issues at this year’s SEJ conference, the premier event for U.S. environmental journalists. Given the issue’s historic marginalization within environmental community, that’s not necessarily surprising.
But there appears to be a growing interest among reporters: last year’s SEJ panel on population moderated by Tim Wheeler of The Baltimore Sun drew a standing-room-only crowd, following a popular 2008 SEJ panel on the topic moderated by Steve Curwood of Living on Earth.
More surprisingly, Friday’s panel is one of less than a handful at this year’s conference to address international environmental issues. I hope next year’s conference in Miami will draw on that city’s vibrant immigrant community and short flights to Latin America and the Caribbean to bring in more international flavor.
Sources: DotEarth, Greenspace, National Science Foundation, Population Action International, UNFPA.