While it is easy to measure population growth, climate change has proved to be a more difficult concept. Globally, Asia and Africa are the regions that have been experiencing relatively fast population growth and they are the regions with the highest population of people living in poverty. The global population stands at 7.2 billion people by 2015, with annual growth rate of 1.18 between 2010 and 2015. The most developed countries have 1251 million people with growth rate of 0.9 over the same period. However, poorer regions hold most of the world’s population, with less developed and least developed regions having 6098 million and 954 million people respectively. The annual growth rate of population between 2010 and 2015 is 1.36 and 2.38 in less developed and least developed regions respectively. While United States of America has annual population growth rate of 0.8 between 2010 and 2015, Kenya has 0.5 over the same period. (UNFPA, 2015)
Climate change is a large-scale, long-term shift in the planet's weather patterns or average temperatures. The average temperature of the planet's surface - has risen by 0.89 °C from 1901 to 2012. (United Kingdom’s Met Office, 2015). Climate change is caused by emission of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, as a result of burning or use of fossil fuels. Developed countries are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emitted while developing countries; particularly in Africa produce the least amount of carbon dioxide. The last United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) meeting in Paris, France in December 2015 agreed on the need to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius but developed countries have been a hindrance to any legally binding agreement. (UNFCC, 2015). Climate change causes many disasters that cause deaths and diverse effects to humans including floods, droughts, tsunami, earth quakes others.
‘The tautology that greenhouse gas emissions depend on population and emission per person is too simple a way of thinking about greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions depend on income, technology, demographic factors like household size, city size, population density in built up areas, institutional and economic factors like availability of public transport at reasonable cost and convenience, and a host of behavioral factors like people’s propensity to walk, bike, car pool or drive solo to work. ‘ (Cohen, June 2010).
Population and Disasters
‘In the first eight months of 2015, the world has seen more than 120 climate related disasters. Fourteen of the 15 hottest years since record keeping began over 130 years ago have been since 2000’. (World Bank Climate Change Overview, October 2015)
Analyzing one year alone cannot give a correct impression whether the likelihood of environmental disaster is linked to high population growth. However, data from several years shows a link between the two with overall rise in world population resulting in more disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts and floods.
According to the 2015 state of the world population report, the likelihood of being displaced by a disaster today is 60 per cent higher than it was four decades ago. Over the last 20 years, there have been an average of 340 disasters per year, affecting 200 million people annually, taking an average of 67,500 lives a year. In absolute numbers, the United States and China recorded the most natural disasters between 1994 and 2014, due mainly to their size, varied landmasses and high population densities. Among the continents, Asia bore the brunt of disasters, with 3.3 billion people affected in China and India alone. (UNFPA, 2015). This is in line with proponents of the New Malthusian view on population growth and resources since the increase of global population over last 20 years has resulted in more damage to the environment.
However, proponents of social view argue that population growth is merely a symptom and in fact increase in income and access to social services will make people more resilient to changes in the environment. According to the same report, the average number of people affected due to disasters over the last 20 years has actually fallen from one in 23 between 1994 and 2003, to about one in 39 between 2004 and 2014. (UNFPA, 2015). The poverty level reduced from 1958 million people living below $1.90 a day in 1990 to 902 million people in 2012 (World bank data). As the world poverty levels went down, the number of people affected due to disasters reduced , which could be due to better infrastructure and access to better social amenities.
Income and climate change
Even though population growth and climate change are related, they affect people differently according to their income levels. The poor, who are mostly in the global south, suffer more when disasters occur.
An editorial in Guardian in 2008 argued that, ‘The UK has around 60 million people; but the average British citizen creates nearly 10 times more carbon dioxide emissions than the average Indian, and 166 times more than the typical Ethiopian. So the best way to deal with climate change is not for Ethiopia to curb its (runaway) population growth, but for the British and others in the west to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.’
The Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters’ data also shows how income levels impact disaster death tolls. On average, more than three times as many people died per disaster in low-income countries (332 deaths) than in high-income ones (105 deaths). The drought situation in California in United States since 2015 has caused any potential deaths of children but the drought situation in Somalia has caused is feared to cause deaths of 50,000 children. (BBC News, 2016).
Most of the rich countries have experienced slow or even negative population growth over the last decade but remain the highest polluters of the environment. ‘Capitalism is the underlying cause of the extraordinarily high rate of resource use, mismanagement of both renewable and nonrenewable resources, and pollution of the earth. Any proposed “solution”—from birth control in poor countries to technological fixes to buying green to so-called “green capitalism” and so on—that ignores this reality cannot make significant headway in dealing with these critical problems facing the earth and its people’. (Magdoff, 2013).
The rich countries produce more waste and green house gases such as carbon dioxide due to high consumption levels. Most of the world’s energy supply is from fossil fuels, which are harmful to the environment. A 2012 International Energy Agency report indicates high income countries consume half of the global energy but only have 15% of the world’s population but low income countries except China consume 13.4% of global energy but have 40% of the world’s population.
I argue that low-income countries can avoid the dirty energies and leap frog into cleaner energies even in spite of the rising energy needs as a result of increasing populations; just like the telecommunication sector.
However, other experts, such as Professor Hans Rosling in his talk “Don't Panic - The Truth About Population”, think low income countries should be left to explore their energy resources with the hope of spurring faster economic growth, but the focus should be on high income countries to invest in cleaner energies and also contribute financial resources, to the poor countries to enable them develop adaptive capacity. This is in line with the perspective fronted by the Global Commons Institute – contraction and convergence framework.
Rich countries need to do more to cut their emissions. For instance, Germany, which is experiencing negative population growth, has been in the forefront of putting its lignite-fired coal power plants offline. (Ronsberg, 2015)
It is clear that most of the countries with low population growth have been the biggest contributors to climate change that has contributed to environment related disasters. However, these countries still hold the power in achieving any meaningful international agreements but have been reluctant. The impact of ecological damage has been felt more in poor countries that have high population growth rates. I believe that poor countries should be united in in demanding more financial resources from the high polluting rich countries, and invest the resources in new clean energies for their own future.
UNFPA (2015) State of the World report. [Online] Available at http://www.unfpa.org/swop
UK Met Office [Online] Available at http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate-guide/climate-change
Guardian (2008) ‘An old misconception’, 25 July [Online]. Available at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/25/population.climatechange (Accessed 15 May 2013
World Bank (2014) - Turn Down the Heat : Confronting the New Climate Normal. Available at https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/20595
Population and Climate Change – Joel E. Cohen , June 2010 . Available at http://www.jstor.org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/stable/41000096?sid=primo&seq=8#page_scan_tab_contents
World Bank –Poverty and Equity data [Online]. Available at http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty/home/
BBC News, 2016 [Online]. Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35522643
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), December, 2015. Available at https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf
Fred Magdoff -Global Resource Depletion, Vol. 64, Issue 08, January 2013. Available at http://monthlyreview.org/2013/01/01/global-resource-depletion
Andrea Rönsberg-The end of lignite coal for power in Germany – October 2015, [Online]. Available at http://www.dw.com/en/the-end-of-lignite-coal-for-power-in-germany/a-18806081