Protecting Earth’s atmosphere requires more than limiting population growth

By Joseph Chamie, December 17, 2007

Clearly, population growth is an important aspect of environmental stress, as every man, woman, and child requires food, water, clothing, shelter, and energy. However, it isn’t necessarily the root cause of climate change.

In many places, population is growing slowly (much of Europe, for instance) and the population of some countries is actually declining (Japan and Russia come to mind); yet those populations continue to negatively impact Earth’s climate. Industrialized countries are responsible for approximately four-fifths of the world’s carbon dioxide buildup despite representing less than one-fifth of its population. On a per capita basis, the disparity is even more striking: For example, the average American contributes roughly five times the amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as the average Mexican citizen, and nearly twenty times as much as the average Indian citizen. Raising the living standards of populations in developing countries–certainly a desirable goal–is also likely to worsen climate change.

Furthermore, halting population growth would help, but not resolve the climate problem alone. Even if all countries instantly reached and remained at replacement fertility levels of two children per woman, world population would continue to grow to more than 8 billion by 2050. Avoiding unwanted pregnancies is laudable and would improve the lives of many couples and families, but its impact on future population growth is small. Crying wolf about the population bomb too often retards progress in finding sustainable climate solutions.

Yes, it’s important to reduce population growth, but safeguarding Earth’s atmosphere requires much more. New technologies need to be developed–along with pursuing significant reductions and reversals in damaging patterns of production and consumption. Both will no doubt prove costly and difficult. But the alternative is a disastrous tragedy for the world’s population.