This debate is taking an unfortunate turn. In my view, it's not a matter of prioritizing a
number of different issues; it's pursuing all of those issues at once.
In a few years, the world's population will grow to 7 billion people. Around 2025, population
will likely reach 8 billion people. Nearly all of this growth will take place in developing
regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. What happens after 2025 depends a great
deal on what happens to fertility levels. If current fertility levels remain constant, world
population will reach nearly 12 billion people by 2050 and more than 40 billion people by the end
of the twenty-first century. Even if all countries instantly reached and remained at a replacement
fertility level of two children per woman, world population would continue to grow to more than 8
billion people by 2050.
Similarly, emissions rates seem certain to continue growing--with the potential to accelerate,
as developing countries industrialize their economies. Understandably, the populations of these
countries want to raise their living standards. And current trends unmistakably detail how even
small living-standard improvements in developing countries will increase global greenhouse gas
The impending challenges of population growth and climate change are well known to policy
makers, development experts, and concerned citizens. Moreover, the solutions to these mounting
challenges aren't a secret. The international community has already identified and adopted scores
of recommendations at the numerous U.N. conferences and summits held on the topic during the past
two decades. For example, the following recommendation comes from the
Conference on Population and Development in Cairo:
"Recognizing that the ultimate goal is the improvement of the quality of life of present and
future generations, the objective is to facilitate the demographic transition as soon as possible
in countries where there is an imbalance between demographic rates and social, economic, and
environmental goals, while fully respecting human rights. This process will contribute to the
stabilization of the world population, and, together with changes in unsustainable patterns of
production and consumption, to sustainable development and economic growth."
Unfortunately, governments in both developed and developing regions lack the political will to
implement agreed upon recommendations and commitments. For instance, preventing unwanted
pregnancies is neither difficult nor costly. Achieving this goal would benefit individual families,
society as a whole, and development efforts. Likewise, we can reduce carbon emissions by improving
the efficiency of motor vehicles and expanding mass transit. Stagnation on these steps is due to
cultural resistance as well as the absence of strong and enlightened political leadership to
counter powerful social and economic interests.
The steps needed to address the consequences of rapid population growth and increasing carbon
emissions will differ among regions because of varying demographic, economic, and social
conditions. Namely, most industrialized countries will need to do more with respect to carbon
emissions, while most developing countries will need to do more with respect to fertility
In brief, let's stop debating either-or scenarios: Either we focus our efforts on population
or greenhouse gas emissions. The same holds true when deciding how to address the other
vital issues facing humanity--poverty, education, housing, aging, health, food, water. The right
approach is focusing on all of the above.