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 Climate Change

Population
Published on: Nov. 23, 2022, 1:51 p.m.
Demystifying population woes
  • Africa as a whole has 16.7 per cent of the world’s population but historically emits only 3 per cent of global carbon pollution

By Business India Editorial

The global population has crossed 8 billion, and it is growing. The United Nations designated 15 November 2022 as the Day of 8 billion.

The world is also getting hotter. The Earth has warmed almost 0.9 degrees Celsius since we hit the 4 billion-person mark in 1974. Climate change and population crowding might seem like two issues that are strongly linked — and they are, but not quite as much as people might think, experts say.

While more people consuming energy — mostly from the burning of fossil fuels — is warming the planet, the key issue isn’t the number of people. It is how a small fraction of those people are causing far more than their share of carbon emissions, say several climate and population experts.

“We do have a population problem and we do have a population issue,” says Vanessa Perez-Cicera, director of the Global Economics Center at the World Resources Institute. “But I think most importantly, we have an overconsumption issue.”

Do more populous regions emit more carbon dioxide? Although climate change can often be linked to population growth, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one is caused by the other. And, regions that have more people do not necessarily emit more carbon. The question is not about population but rather about consumption patterns

Take Kenya, which is currently suffering a devastating drought. It has 55 million people, about 95 times more than the population of Wyoming in the United States. But Wyoming emits 3.7 times the amount of carbon dioxide as Kenya.

Africa as a whole has 16.7 per cent of the world’s population but historically emits only 3 per cent of global carbon pollution. The United States, however, has 4.5 per cent of the planet’s people but since 1959 has put out 21.5 per cent of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, according to data from the Global Carbon Project.

Looking at emissions from countries between1959 and 2020 the United States, not China, is the biggest carbon polluter. “The question is not about population but rather about consumption patterns," said climate scientist Bill Hare of Climate Analytics.

“So it’s best to look at the major northern emitters to begin with.”

Climate Interactive, a group of scientists who run intricate computer simulations that can be tweaked to see what factors matter the most in fighting climate change, looked at the difference population makes.

It found that number of people made a small contribution as opposed to other factors, like economics.

Comparing two UN population projections scenarios of 8.8 billion people and 10.4 billion people, Climate Interactive’s Drew Jones found only a 0.2 degrees Celsius difference. But the difference between no price or tax on carbon, compared to $100 a tonne, was 0.7 degrees Celsius.

Hare says there is more than a tinge of racism in the myth that overpopulation is the major issue behind climate change. “One of the biggest arguments that I hear, almost exclusively from men in high-income countries, is that, ‘Oh, it’s just a population problem,'” The Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Katharine Hayhoe said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The world’s population is growing mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia “and they’re contributing the least to man-made climate change,” said Colette Rose, project coordinator at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Eight nations, five in Africa and three in Asia, are going to have at least half of the population growth between now and 2050, according to Rose. They are Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and the Philippines.

Instead of population growth, perhaps a more salient issue is the imbalance of wealth between the Global North and South. This has been a key issue at this year’s COP27 United Nations climate change conference in Egypt.

Developing countries have been calling for specific funding — known as loss and damage — to cope with the disasters that developed countries’ high emissions are wreaking.


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