Climate Curious: How much does population growth contribute to climate change?

A crowd of people cross the street in New York.
A crowd of people cross the street in midtown Manhattan in October 2011 in New York City. Around the world, countries marked the global population reaching 7 billion in 2011.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images 2011

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What is the relationship between our human population and climate change? If we can financially afford to produce more children, should we?
— Laurie Killfoy, Woodbury

Population growth — and whether and how we should address it — is a sticky subject.

But there’s no question that each additional person on the planet consumes additional resources and adds to the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.

The world’s population doubled in the past 50 years and is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations. That’s the same year the U.N.’s climate change panel has said we must reduce emissions to zero to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

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“If we don’t address population growth, our efforts to reduce that pressure on the climate and habitat and water resources will always be an uphill battle,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that addresses the link between population and climate change in its work.

It’s a link others have shied away from because of efforts throughout history to prevent people, sometimes by force, from having children, Feldstein said.

Population control is frequently associated with eugenics — the practice of forcibly reducing the birth rate of certain groups of people through sterilization or other methods — which played prominently in Nazi Germany’s racial and social policies. More recently — in the 1970s and ‘80s — some countries, including China, instituted policies to control population growth.

In contrast to the forced policies of the past, efforts to address population growth through an environmental lens today focus on giving people information and resources that could lead to having fewer children, she said.

“Population advocacy today is really about advancing human rights, universal access to reproductive health care and education for women and girls,” she said. “Every single person on the planet should have the knowledge and ability to choose for themselves if and when they want to have children and how many.”

One way the Center for Biological Diversity is raising awareness is by handing out condoms with pictures of endangered species. Over the past 10 years, the center has distributed about 1 million of these.

“[The packages] say things like, ‘Before it gets any hotter, think of the sea otter,’” Feldstein said. “Between the artwork and the slogans, it really piques people's attention and then from there it's much easier to open up the conversation."

The Center for Biological Diversity isn’t the only advocacy group talking about population growth and how to address it. Project Drawdown, which has ranked various solutions to the climate crisis, lists educating girls and offering voluntary family planning to women among its top 10 solutions. Research shows both can lead to lower birth rates, lessening overall pressure on the planet’s resources.

But Project Drawdown makes clear that it’s a combination of efforts — renewable energy, agriculture practices, electric cars and more — deployed simultaneously that will bring down emissions. Even if population growth were to slow or decline, it wouldn’t solve the problem on its own.

Feldstein said that, while there’s still a stigma attached to the population question, “there are a lot of people who are hungry to have this conversation,” she said. Some young people in particular, she said, are thinking hard about whether to have children, given the worsening effects of climate change.

But there are major disparities in per capita emissions across the globe, with Saudi Arabia, Australia and the U.S. leading the way. (China is the single largest emitter, but ranked 12th in per capita emissions in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency.) Large systems like electricity and transportation are factors, and lifestyle choices also help determine the size of an individual’s carbon footprint.

“If you make the choice not to have children, that’s not a get-out-of-jail free card to have a massive house and have multiple SUVs and eat steak seven times a week,” Feldstein added.

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