Fraternal twins: population and climate change?

Rush hour on Fifth Avenue

Dr. Mick Blowfield of Oxford University says the biggest climate change challenge is population

Forget renewable energy, forget low carbon mobility, forget geoengineering. The biggest climate change challenge is population. 3.9 billion people in 1970. 7.1 billion today.  Nine billion by 2030. That means, to get total emissions back to 2000 levels – the goal politicians and companies espouse – we will need to be 37% more energy efficient in 2030 than we are today.

That is the figure that should inform any climate change play. It should inform every innovation we make, every investment we make, every incentive, and every carbon tax. If nobody was born or died from this moment on, new technology and more efficient behaviour would need to deliver 14% savings. In a world with two billion more people, the game gets far harder. Incremental improvements in technology are no longer sufficient. We enter the realm of historically unprecedented levels of investment and innovation that challenge human nature as much as the laws of physics.

It is not just that we need to be energy efficient. We need to do it where the fastest economic and population growth is going to happen – in the world’s poorer countries. Nobody dare challenge the right to have children, and so nearly eight of the nine billion people inhabiting the earth by 2030 will be in what today are considered poor nations. They will work hard to achieve a better life, and if we don’t recognize population is at the heart of climate change, higher per capita emissions will be the result.

It is no wonder that we prefer to keep population and climate change as far apart as possible. Rich countries desperate for economic growth don’t want developing countries to remain poor, and poor countries demand the right to grow. Morally, we want to save lives, not prevent them. US citizens expressed outrage at what they called the genocide of China’s one child policy; many would rather see fertilization treatment covered by health care insurance than abortion. What’s more, as ageing dominates social planning in rich countries from Japan to the UK, so a pool of younger labour grows more attractive.

However, treating population and climate change as if they were different families rather than fraternal twins is a calamitous deceit. All of the investment in innovation will count for nothing if the upshot is that drops in emissions intensity are less than the rate of population growth. The innovations we need to stabilize climate change are quite different to the ones we need to adapt to it, and if we don’t take the implications of population growth seriously, we should focus on the latter and abandon the former.

Shifting from mitigation to wholesale adaptation would be seen as another climate change failure, and could sap people’s will for action yet further. If we stick with mitigation however, our innovation energies should be directed almost exclusively at poor nations so that their economic growth is at the cutting edge of low carbon technology. Every effort should be made to decouple their prosperity from emissions growth. That is a high risk strategy, but if population is a no go area, it is the only one we have left ourselves.

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Dr Mick Blowfield is a Senior Research Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford. He has worked as an academic and consultant in the field of corporate social and environmental responsibility with a particular focus on the socio-political context of corporate responsibility, and the role of business in society. His current focus is business as an agent of change in the context of climate change.

Comments
I agree with Dr Blowfield's standing that population growth is ignored as a factor in bringing climate change. it is a sensitive issue for most of poor or developing countries. In my opinion if any it is very important that factors that lead to population growth in poor countries be studied for developing a comprehensive policy.

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