›original version of this article, by Roger-Mark De Souza, appeared on the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).
In late May, I presented research on population and climate dynamics in hotspots at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London, in a session organized by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. As we prepare for the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June, I reflect on the roles of population dynamics and climate-compatible development for ensuring a future where we can increase the resilience of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
- Improving our well-being and the future we can have is within our reach: We can take action to improve well-being through specific actions that can produce short term results. This is a key message encapsulated in the concept of climate-compatible development, reflected in many presentations and discussions that I heard at Planet Under Pressure. Even though others were not calling it “climate-compatible development,” the essence and the meaning behind the research was the same – small concrete discrete steps are possible, and taking action on population dynamics is one of them.
- Population is on the agenda: Population issues – growth, density, distribution, aging, gender – were a constant at Planet Under Pressure – and in more ways than just looking at population as a driver. It is clear that there is interest, and a need, to address population as a key component of climate-compatible development.
- But those concerns and issues must be location specific, and must be contextualized for the policy and programmatic environment: Population issues must be framed in the appropriate context – and must move beyond academic exploration. I attended one session where a paper presented an academic supposition of whether we should invest in consumption versus fertility reduction to produce short-term returns for climate, but the analysis was completely devoid of any political, policy, or programmatic truth-testing. We must factor in those considerations when making recommendations, if ultimately we are really looking to make the difference that we can.
Photo Credit: “Urbanization in Asia,” courtesy of United Nations Photo.
›Energizing people around family planning can be difficult, “because donors, like everyone else, like something that’s new,” said Karen Newman, coordinator for the UK-based Population and Sustainability Network. “There’s nothing new about family planning. The technology is safe, effective, it’s acceptable, and it works. We just need a lot more of it out there to be accessible to a lot more people.”
Newman spoke to ECSP at the 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference about her hopes for the upcoming Rio+20 sustainable development conference, which marks the 20-year anniversary of the UN Earth Summit.
“What we want is increased investment in voluntary family planning services that respect and protect rights,” Newman said, “and I think that Rio represents a fabulous opportunity for us to re-identify family planning as a core development priority.”
Newman also hopes the Rio conference will lead to “an integrated look at sustainable development, so that… it isn’t just about the green economy and institutional framework, it’s looking at sustainable development in the round.”
Government development programs and policymakers need to adapt their bureaucratic processes to the kinds of integrated programming being carried out on the ground, she said. In Madagascar, for example, conservation group Blue Ventures leads an integrated PHE program that cuts across marine conservation, family planning, and healthcare sectors. “Now I defy you to find an EU budget line that would be broad enough to embrace marine conservation and family planning in the same project line,” said Newman.
“The first thing we need is that level of integrated thinking – not just in Rio, but also in the way that we conceptualize the work that needs to be done and we facilitate the availability of funding streams that can fund that kind of integrated program.”
Lastly, Newman hopes that the summit in and of itself is successful because of its implications for future development work. As the world gears up to create the next big framework for global development to follow the Millennium Development Goals, Rio is uniquely positioned to set a baseline for what matters and for what the development community is capable of accomplishing.
“What I want to see is a really sophisticated look at sustainable development, coming up with sustainable development goals in a world that makes sense of seven billion, where there are still millions of women without access to the family planning services that we take for granted,” said Newman, “and taking that concept to the job of developing the post-MDG framework that will frame development for the next 20 years.”
›“The one child family norm in China has fixed the global imagination around population to be around doing something which constricts people’s and women’s choices, rather than expands women’s possibilities to take control of their lives,” said Karen Newman, the coordinator for the UK-based Population and Sustainability Network. But contemporary population programs are about educating people on and providing access to voluntary reproductive, sexual, and maternal health services.
Newman spoke to ECSP, during the Planet Under Pressure conference this year, about family planning efforts and the connection between population dynamics and the environment.
“You have what I would describe as a sort of kaleidoscope of complexity” between climate change and population dynamics – not just growth, said Newman, but urbanization and migration.
For example, China recently overtook the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon, and although China has 1.3 billion people compared to the United States’ 310 million, population can hardly be credited as the most important driver for the country’s emissions. “How fair is it [to credit population growth] without in the same nanosecond saying, ‘but most of the carbon that was emitted in China was to manufacture the goods that will of course be consumed in the West?” said Newman.
“It makes it more difficult to say in a sound bite that ‘OK, population and sustainable development, it’s the same conversation,’ which I believe it to be.”
The Population and Sustainability Network, working through the Population and Climate Change Alliance, collaborates with international organizations from North America, Europe, Ethiopia, and Madagascar to support on-the-ground groups working on integrated population, health, and environment programming. These programs address environmental issues, like marine conservation and deforestation, while also providing reproductive health services, including different methods of contraception, diagnosis and treatment of sexually-transmitted diseases, antenatal and postnatal care, and emergency obstetric care.
“As a result of people wanting to place a distance between those coercive family planning programs in the ‘60s and the way that we do reproductive health now…because it’s such a large package, there is a sense that…this reproductive health thing is too much, we can’t really get ahold of this,” said Newman.
“What I think we need to do is keep people focused on the fact that these are women’s rights,” she said. “But we at the same time have to say ‘this is relevant if you care about sustainable development and the world’s non-renewable resources.’”
Sources: United Nations Population Division.
›“The goal, ultimately, is just to manage our world better,” to have an “integrated system for the environment that is driven by what local communities want and need,” said Professor Georgina Mace, director of the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London. Mace spoke to ECSP on the sidelines of the 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference.
The environmental challenges of humanity are “really twofold,” she said. First, “human societies have grown up at what we now call the local scale…traditionally using the area in which they live.” Communities have always exerted pressures on their local environment but population growth “means those pressures on local landscapes are much greater than they use to be,” said Mace. “We can’t do everything all in the same place,” without the needs of different groups sometimes conflicting.
Second, “there are connections between societies that are sometimes good but quite often they’re damaging.” For example, the increasingly globalized nature of how we utilize natural resources means that “overuse by one community may affect local people in ways that they have no way of responding to.”
Taking apart the first of these challenges, Mace explained that “the population growth issue is really a population growth and demographic change [issue].” In places with mature age structures, such as North America, Europe, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, “the concern is about the number of old people dependent on a reducing number of producers in their society,” while in many poorer regions of the globe the concern is about the “many young people who still have to go through their reproductive years.”
This latter case “looks a horrible problem from the environment point of view,” said Mace, because the areas growing fastest are areas that are “already overused in many ways.” If countries “don’t worry too much about international migration [and] we’re able to accommodate that,” this “demographic divide” could actually be helpful, as countries with growing populations could provide a young, energetic workforce to those that are aging.
Mace made policy recommendations on different scales, from the local to the planetary. At the local level she encouraged making sure that climate interventions “are actually in concert with what’s going on in the environment.” “Let’s take advantage of ecological resilience, biological adaptation – all the things that nature has provided us with that give us mechanisms for coping,” she said.
On a broader scale, she recommended intervening to counteract the “damaging drivers of environmental change,” by using geoengineering and better land use planning, “which is essentially gardening the planet.”
“Both of those offer solutions that are actually incredibly efficient. They also have costs, risks, and obstacles to do with governance, to do with different people being winners and losers, and to do with the fact that we tend to organize our world around nation states and these solutions mostly transcend international boundaries.”
“That’s a major obstacle,” Mace said, but in the end we need “to have a fully integrated planning system that is not top down but has an overall strategy that seeks to optimize all the things that people want and allows a way for local communities to connect.”
“I think that’s the big challenge for us – how to get there.”
›The ECSP delegation to the 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference in London kept a keen eye on discussions of population and demographic dynamics during plenary and breakout sessions. And while the European frame of these topics resembles a much more open discussion of population pressures, presentations repeatedly looked at a broad suite of development challenges, avoiding the urge to elevate one challenge over another.
Out of the hundreds of panels during the week, we counted four that explicitly addressed population (one was hidden in the “Climate Compatible Development” program).
We polled a few participants on their take-aways from the conference, including Bishnu Upretti of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (above). Upretti’s focus is on South Asia, where water and food insecurity, poverty, population, and political tensions – all of which fit under the conference’s broad “global change” heading – are major issues. He came away with an overall positive impression, particularly in the conference’s potential as input for the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
But some were not so optimistic about the overall global picture. “It’s all been a bit of a failure really,” said Chris Rapley of University College London on environmental change (below). “Humanity has proved itself incapable either of believing it, or even…getting a grip on the impact that it’s having on the planet.”
Though upbeat about progress in the natural sciences, Rapley argued that without better defining and communicating the consequences, threats, and risks at play, other political and economic concerns will continue to trump the climate and environment concerns.
“We can talk…in very general terms, but to both people and politicians and business people – all three parts of society that have to work together…really coherently to solve this problem – that sort of rather vague ‘gosh it looks a bit gloomy down there but we can’t tell you precisely what’s going to happen’ doesn’t cut the ice,” he lamented.
A Bridge Too Far?
At a conference like this, where topics are wildly diverse and overwhelming, distilling an easy narrative is difficult. Planet Under Pressure was a dizzying collection of natural scientists, inventors, students, journalists, professors, social scientists, and more. Collecting a group like this can shed light on dynamic and innovative work, not to mention foster collaboration on a tangible scale. However, finding grand solutions to the sheer number of challenges, or pressures, placed on the planet isn’t easy.
Yes, the planet is under pressure and this means the international community needs to talk about sustainability, climate change, and overall development in order to ensure a healthy planet for future generations, but nuanced discussion of difficult topics like population dynamics and human health are still a periphery part of the conversation.
The Planet Under Pressure Declaration – the collaborative statement intended to reflect the key messages emerging from the conference – leaves a lot to be desired in this regard. Sarah Fisher, a research and communications officer at the Population and Sustainability Network, suggested text for the declaration that included mention of population dynamics, including growth, urbanization, aging, and migration, in its framing of sustainable development, as well as explicit reference to the importance of human health and wellbeing.
But the final draft of the declaration was largely devoid of these issues, instead focusing more narrowly on environmental degradation and straightforward natural resource management.
For those looking to bridge the gap between the social and natural sciences, then, the focus shifts to the upcoming Rio+20 summit. The specter of the Earth Summit was tangible throughout the conference. From panels to informal discussions, the message was clear: there’s a lot more to be done.
For full population-related coverage from the conference, see our “Planet 2012 tag”. You can also join the conversation on Twitter (#Planet2012). Pictures from the event are available on our Facebook and Flickr pages – enjoy a few below.Photo and Video Credit: Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.
›ECSP was at London’s 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference following all of the most pertinent population, health, and security events.
At a panel on “climate compatible development” at this year’s Planet Under Pressure global change conference, Population Action International’s Roger-Mark De Souza was the lone voice to speak about demographics. He presented a detailed analysis of population trends, based on collaboration with the Kenya-based African Institute for Development Policy.
“The link between population dynamics and sustainable development is strong and inseparable – as is the link between population dynamics, reproductive health, and gender equality,” said De Souza. These linkages were emphasized by the UN at the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, as well as during the original Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.
“Climate compatible development” is a novel development paradigm being developed by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network and defined as “development that minimizes the harm caused by climate impacts, while maximizing the many human development opportunities presented by a low emissions more resilient future.”
lower emissions, better resilience, and development – simultaneously.
Although developed nations are historically the major contributors of greenhouse gases due to comparatively high levels of consumption, developing countries are the most vulnerable to consequences of climate change. Emerging evidence shows that rapid population growth in developing countries exacerbates this vulnerability and undermines resilience to the effects of climate change, said De Souza. Socioeconomic improvement will also increase the levels of consumption and emissions from developing countries.
“Meeting women and their partners’ needs for family planning can yield the ‘triple win’ strategy envisaged in the climate development framework,” De Souza said. “Meeting unmet family planning needs would help build resilience and strengthen household and community resilience to climate change; slow the growth of greenhouse gases; and enhance development outcomes by improving and expanding health, schooling, and economic opportunities.”
Decision makers engaged in climate change policy planning and implementation at local, national, and international levels should have access to evidence on population trends and their implications on efforts to adapt to climate change as well as the overall development process, De Souza said.
26 global population and climate change hotspots – countries that are experiencing rapid population growth, low resilience to climate change, and high projected declines in agricultural production.
“PAI’s work is a clear demonstration of how better decision making can be informed by the right analysis, in the right format, at the right time,” said Natasha Grist, head of research at the Climate Knowledge and Development Network.
“Most of the hotspot countries have high levels of fertility partly because of the inability of women and their partners to access and use contraception,” said De Souza. He continued:
Investing in voluntary health programs that meet family planning needs could, therefore, slow population growth and reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts. This is especially important because women, especially those who live in poverty, are likely to be most affected by the negative effects of climate change and also bear the disproportionate burden of having unplanned children due to lack of contraception.In conclusion, said De Souza, “global institutions and frameworks that support and promote climate compatible development can enhance the impact of their work by recognizing and incorporating population dynamics and reproductive health in their adaptation and development strategies.”
For full population-related coverage from the conference, see our “Planet 2012 tag.” Pictures from the event are available on our Facebook and Flickr pages, and you can join the conversation on Twitter (#Planet2012).
Sources: Climate and Development Knowledge Network, IPCC, Population Action International.
Photo Credit: Sean Peoples/Wilson Center; Maps: Population Action International.
›ECSP is at London’s 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference following all of the most pertinent population, health, and security events.
“Demography is a science of assumptions,” said Sarah Harper, a demographer at the University Oxford, during a panel at the Planet Under Pressure conference. Thirty years ago, she said, demographers believed the world would reach 24 billion by 2050, now the latest UN median projections predict 10 billion. That means a lot of progress has been made for families and development as a whole, but there are some obstacles yet.
Harper stressed that the development community should focus on parts of the world with stubbornly high fertility rates, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. If total fertility rates came down there by 2050, below the expected four children per woman, the region could be home to as many as a billion fewer people than current projections. The earlier we acknowledge this growth, the easier it will be to offer interventions like family planning and reproductive health to hedge it, she said.
Additionally, demographers need worry about important changes in modern population and environment dynamics.
As Harper notes in an interview with ECSP (video below):
There has been so much hype around population growth that I think we’ve ignored the other characteristics of population…that it’s changing in its density – we’re all becoming more urban; it’s changing in its distribution – we’re becoming more mobile; and it’s also changing in its composition – the world is getting older.Sir John Sulston of the Royal Society agreed: population is a more-nuanced subject than many can digest. “Population has been much too ignored because it’s difficult,” he said.
I think it’s very clear that these changes are going to interact with the environment and be affected by environmental change but are also going to impact upon future environmental change.
Sulston urged us to look not just at the diversity of the world, but also the inequity. Today, there is “inequity in countries, between countries, and between generations.”
There is no silver bullet – the international community need to look at three components in concert if we want to make a difference, he said: first, bring down infant mortality; second, invest in family planning; and third, emphasize education for women.
When the ECSP delegation isn’t attending plenary and breakout sessions here at the conference, we’re manning our Wilson Center information booth. And over the last few days, we’ve had the pleasure of introducing our work to a number of new faces, including curious faculty, energetic students, and hopeful doctoral candidates. If you’re attending please feel free to stop by.
Expect more updates from East London, including more short video interviews, in the next three days as ECSP highlights the unique perspectives coming out of the Planet Under Pressure conference.
Pictures from the event are available on our Facebook and Flickr pages, and you can join the conversation on Twitter (#Planet2012) or watch the livestream here.
Photo Credit: Sean Peoples/Woodrow Wilson Center,
›London’s 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference, on all things global change – including climate, population, global risks, and food security – kicked off with a bang on March 26 and ECSP was there to cover it. We’ll be here throughout the week following all of the most pertinent population, health, and security events – we invite you to visit our booth if you happen to be in London, join the conversation on Twitter (#Planet2012), and/or watch the livestream.
During the opening plenaries, UK Scientific Advisor and all-around environmental all-star Sir John Beddington was the first to introduce population into the discussion.
Speaking on “The Planet in 2050” panel, Beddington immediately noted that really 2050 is too far out and instead we should focus on the next two decades. Within these 20 years the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change will be determined by the extent and manner of urbanization and demographic changes, particularly in Africa.
“How are we going to generate an infrastructure to feed 500 million Africans in the next 13 years?” Beddington asked.
Beddington’s talk could be considered a rejoinder to his famous “perfect storm” analogy, outlined in The Guardian in 2009:
Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50 percent more food. At the same time, we will need 50 percent more energy, and 30 percent more freshwater.In a later session, “Securing Global Biodiversity,” Simon Stuart, chair of the species survival commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), expanded on this “perfect storm” analogy.
There are dramatic problems out there, particularly with water and food, but energy also, and they are all intimately connected. You can’t think about dealing with one without considering the others. We must deal with all of these together.
He agreed that the global challenge of our day hinged on how human needs add pressures to the natural environment. Rising demand for energy, food, and freshwater not only influences climate change but also exerts unprecedented pressure on soil quality and biodiversity.
But although we’re impeded by major challenges, including “unsustainable economic models,” a lack of public support, and a massive need for investment in conservation, we have made some strides, Stuart said. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s strategic plan for biodiversity, established in 2010, sets 20 targets for biodiversity conservation by 2020. Stuart believes this is the beginning of acknowledging the urgency of addressing the threat to biodiversity.
Tim Coulson, professor of population biology at Imperial College London, compared the efficiency of either reducing fertility rates or per capita consumption to determine the best way to reduce humanity’s impact on the planet.
Coulson ran two simple simulations using India and the United States as case studies. In one model, he changed fertility rates by one percent per year for 50 years. In the other, he decreased per capita consumption by one percent per year for 50 years. What he found in both cases was that decreasing per capita consumption achieved the most rapid change in human impact on the environment. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that a longer-term course of action of declining fertility rates was needed to keep impact stable.
Readers beware, however – this type of experiment is an incredibly simplified exercise in the intersection of people and the environment. A more varied set of scenarios would produce more useful results. As Beddington mentioned, populations in sub-Saharan Africa have both the highest growth rates and the most direct impact on the environment due to their higher reliance on natural resources for livelihoods.
And, perhaps most importantly, as one commentator noted, these scenarios do not take into account cost factors. For instance, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through more energy efficient buildings and transport, the United States would need to invest $1.1 trillion through 2030. Alternatively, the cost to provide for the 215 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy but are not using an effective means of contraception is estimated at $3.6 billion. Using the “wedge” climate model, meeting unmet family planning needs would be equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions saved by converting entirely to electric vehicles – at a fraction (about five percent) of the cost.
Stay tuned for more updates from ECSP at the Planet Under Pressure Conference. We’ll also be posting pictures from the conference to our Facebook and Flickr pages.
Video Credit: “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure Conference.
Join the Conversation
- The Sahel, Beyond the Headlines: Population, Environment, and Security Dynamics Tuesday, May 12, 2015
- Promoting Years of Sustainability: Responding to Mega Trends Wednesday, April 22, 2015
- Nudging Our Way towards Energy Efficiency: Psychology, Behavior and the Environment Thursday, March 26, 2015
- The Costs of Climate Adaptation, Explained in 4 Infographics | World Resources Institute
- Map of the Day: A new future for the World Bank - Humanosphere
- Focus on Migration: The positive legacy of refugee camps - SciDev.Net
- How disaster relief can increase corruption - The Washington Post
- Opinion: To Solve Hunger, Start with Soil | Inter Press Service