Population, education and climate change are close relations

There are ways to make a difference on the population front that do not depend on coercive governments straying into people’s bedrooms

Schoolchildren in Tanzania, Africa: access to education is critical. Photograph: Thinkstock

Schoolchildren in Tanzania, Africa: access to education is critical. Photograph: Thinkstock


Remember the population explosion? When the population was growing at its fastest rate in human history in the decades after the second World War, the sense that overpopulation was stunting economic development and stoking political instability took hold from New Delhi to the UN headquarters in New York, sending policymakers on an urgent quest to stop it.

In the 1970s the Indian government forcibly sterilised millions of women. Families in Bangladesh, Indonesia and elsewhere were forced to have fewer children. In 1974, the UN organised its first World Population Conference to debate population control. China rolled out its one-child policy in 1980.

Then, almost as suddenly as it had begun, the demographic “crisis” was over. As fertility rates in most of the world dropped to around the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman – with the one major exception of sub-Saharan Africa – population specialists and politicians turned to other issues.

By 1994, when the UN held its last population conference, in Cairo, demographic targets had pretty much been abandoned, replaced by an agenda centred on empowering women, reducing infant mortality and increasing access to reproductive health.

“Some people still regret that; some applaud it,” said Joel E Cohen, who heads the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University in New York. “I’m not sure we need demographic goals but we need forward thinking.”

Climate change

Well, concerns about population seem to be creeping back. As the threat of climate change has evolved from a fuzzy faraway concept to one of the central existential threats to humanity, scholars such as Cohen have noted that reducing the burning of fossil fuels might be easier if there were fewer of us consuming them.

“Population wouldn’t be the whole story but it could make a big difference,” Cohen said.

An article published in 2010 by researchers from the US, Germany and Austria concluded that if the world’s population reached only 7.5 billion people by midcentury, rather than 9 billion-plus, in 2050 we would be spewing 5-9 billion fewer tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

This alone would deliver 16-29 per cent of the emission reductions needed over the next four decades to prevent the global temperature rising more than 2 degrees above that of the late 19th century, the threshold scientists predict could lead to severe disruptions to the climate.

Slower population growth could bring other benefits. The World Resources Institute has been looking into how the world will feed itself in 2050 without busting the carbon budget. On current demographic and economic projections, food production would have to increase 70 per cent by 2050.

“Population growth is responsible for about one-half of increased food consumption,” said Tim Searchinger of the World Resources institute. “The other half comes from higher incomes and richer diets.”

Much of the expected population growth is set in stone, but sub-Saharan Africa, expected to add 1.2 billion people by 2050 on top of its current 900 million, is an exception.

If fertility in sub-Saharan Africa slowed more rapidly than projected – declining to 2.1 children per woman in 2050 from 5.4 today – feeding the most undernourished region in the world would be a lot easier. And sparing African forests and woodlands from even greater deforestation would substantially reduce the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere.

For all the benefits of slower population growth, population policies remain a highly touchy subject. In the 1970s and 1980s, rich nations’ support for population control in poor countries smacked of just another form of colonialism.

Coercive population control – such as India’s forced sterilisations, which were abandoned after they led to the collapse of Indira Gandhi’s government in 1977, or China’s one-child policy, which remains in place – is now widely considered a blatant violation of human rights.

Even China’s one-child policy is undergoing re-examination in Beijing because of the skewing of the country’s sex ratio – countless pregnancies have been aborted and millions of girls have been killed or left to die by parents who had hoped for a boy – and the tearing of the traditional safety net from so many older Chinese being forced to rely on only one child for support.

Economists at the International Monetary Fund have even welcomed Africa’s fast-rising population as an opportunity to increase its pace of economic growth.

Carbon dioxide

Population growth is only one factor – and not necessarily the most important one – contributing to global climate change.

Over the course of the 20th century, emissions of carbon dioxide grew 180 per cent faster than the population in poor countries and 60 per cent faster than the population in rich ones.

Shifting the world economy into more sustainable energy sources and away from fossil fuels is still the most promising strategy.

“There is a strong case to be made that the world faces sustainability issues whether it has 9 billion people, 7 billion people or 4 billion people,” said John Wilmoth, director of the population division of the UN.

“Nobody can deny that population growth is a major driving factor, but in terms of the policy response, what are you going to do?”

Yet there are ways to make a difference on the population front that do not depend on coercive governments straying into people’s bedrooms.

Access to education is critical. Across human history, fertility rates have fallen when it has made economic sense for families to have fewer children. Education, especially of girls, has played a powerful role in expediting the decline.

Across much of the developing world, more educated women have fewer children, and their offspring are more likely to survive. The spread of public education was accompanied by plummeting fertility rates in such disparate places as Brazil and Iran.

The other obvious tool is access to reproductive health. In the developing world, 222 million women have an unmet need for modern contraception, according to one study. Providing them with it, at a relatively small cost of $4 billion (€3 billion) a year, could prevent 54 million unintended pregnancies.

These are hardly new ideas. The UN population conference in Cairo 20 years ago suggested pretty much this approach.

But we are not there yet. Out of every 1,000 children born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, 99 die before the age of five. In Nigeria, it is 123. A third of the girls in Mali are not enrolled in elementary school. Neither are 60 per cent of Liberian girls.

By contrast, 95 per cent of Guatemalan girls are enrolled in elementary school, as are 97 per cent of Cambodian girls. In Bangladesh and Bolivia, among the poorest countries outside Africa, about 40 of every 1,000 children die before they are five.

During the General Assembly session next month, the UN plans to hold a meeting to mark the anniversary of the Cairo conference. And it is organising another to discuss new commitments to mitigate climate change. Perhaps delegates will notice the connection.

– (New York Times service)