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Climate action must include population action

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18 April 2019

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Attenborough-backed charity says climate action must include population action

With intense public attention on climate change, addressed by Sir David Attenborough in tonight’s documentary on the subject and stimulated by the ongoing peaceful protests of Extinction Rebellion, campaigning charity Population Matters says it is crucial to recognise population as a key factor driving catastrophic climate change. Sir David, along with other leading conservationists and scientists is a patron of Population Matters.

A growing number of scientific analyses have identified the impact of population and the necessity to addressing it in tackling climate change.

•    Last year’s key IPCC report, Global warming of 1.5 °C identified high population growth as one of four “key impediments” to reaching a 1.5° limit on global warming (1).

•    Project Drawdown, an international collaborative project, involving 70 research fellows from 22 countries and six continents. It ranked the top 80 practical, available mechanisms for cutting carbon emissions, by tonnage of CO2 saved.  Educating girls was ranked no 6 (59.6 gigatonnes CO2-equivalent reduction) and family planning at no 7 (also 59.6 GT). Combined, they save more carbon than onshore and offshore wind combined, and more than any other action (2).

•    A paper published in Environmental Research Letters in 2017 identified that for individuals in the developed world, having one fewer child is the most effective long term action they can take in reducing their carbon emissions – by a factor of 20 over the next most useful action (living car-free) (3).

•    A 2012 Lancet paper identified that reductions in population growth could reduce global emissions by 40% or more in the long term (4).

•    20,000 scientists have now endorsed a Second Warning to Humanity published in Bioscience in 2017 which describes population growth as a “primary driver” of environmental problems, including climate change, and calls for immediate action to achieve a sustainable population (5).

•    The IPCC’s 5th report on climate change in 2014 noted that “Globally, economic and population growth continued to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion” (6).

 Director of Population Matters Robin Maynard says:

“Our patron Sir David Attenborough and the many, particularly young, people supporting Extinction Rebellion are right to raise the alarm of climate change presenting an existential threat to human society and wellbeing. There are multiple drivers of climate change and we must deploy all the tools we have to curb them, including ending fossil fuel use, shifting to more sustainable food and farming and addressing the current disproportionate impact of high-consuming, developed countries. But none of those will be enough on their own or even collectively, unless we address the upstream driver of them all: growing numbers of additional consumers and carbon emitters.

“The good news is that addressing population brings many other benefits: more women’s empowerment, more modern, safe family planning, more education, more people moving out of poverty. Choosing to limit the size of our families is right, essential and timely – especially in those countries currently driving climate change emissions so recklessly.”

Despite some common assumptions and recent claims, the UN projects that population is likely to keep growing until at least the end of the century, with only a one-in-four chance of plateauing before then (7). Meanwhile a number of countries (mainly those with relatively high per capita or total CO2 emissions) have recently introduced policies to promote higher birth rates, including Norway, South Korea and China (8).


Alistair Currie, Head of Campaigns and Communications E: alistair.currie@populationmatters.org T: +44 (0)208 123 9170

Notes for editors

(1)    IPCC (2018) Global warming of 1.5 °C http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf The report modelled five different scenarios of global change and development, the so-called “Shared Socio-economic Pathways”, or SSPs. These contained contained variables such as inequality, resource-intensive lifestyles, high and low population growth, among others.  The report states “These results show that 1.5°C-consistent pathways can be identified under a broad range of assumptions, but that lack of global cooperation (SSP3), high inequality (SSP4) and/or high population growth (SSP3) that limit the ability to control land use emissions, and rapidly growing resource-intensive consumption (SSP5) are key impediments [to hitting the 1.5 degree target.”

(2)    Project Drawdown (2017) https://www.drawdown.org/solutions-summary-by-rank

(3)    The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions, Wynes and Nicholas (2017). Environmental Research Letters. The research calculated the average savings per individual in the developed world for different actions long term: having one fewer child (58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e). Child savings based on the allocation of carbon emissions for subsequent generations diminishing proportionately.   http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541

(4)    Demographic change and carbon dioxide emissions, O’Neill et al (2012), The Lancet https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60958-1/fulltext

(5)    World scientists warning to humanity: a second notice, W.Ripple et al (2017). The warning states: “We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats” It calls for “further reducing fertility rates by ensuring that women and men have access to education and voluntary family-planning services, especially where such resources are still lacking” and for “estimating a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations and leaders to support that vital goal.” The paper was originally signed by 15,000 scientists and now stands at more than 20,00 signatures. BioScience, https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229

(6)    International Panel on Climate Change (2014) Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: “Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth and are now higher than ever … Globally, economic and population growth continued to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.” https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/

(7)    United Nations, World Population Prospects 2017 https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/Files/WPP2017_KeyFindings.pdf ) The United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2017 report’s 95% certainty range shows a range between 9.4bn and 10.2bn in 2050 and between 9.6 and 13.2bn in 2100. Its medium and high projections show no plateauing of human population growth by the end of this century. Additional projections within the report show that with changes of just half-a-child on average more or less per family than its central projection, population in 2050 could be as low as 8.8bn and as high as 10.8bn and in 2100, as low as 7.3bn and as high as 16.5bn

(8)    Norway, Norway today, 5 October 2017 http://norwaytoday.info/news/norwegians-must-children/; South Korea, Citylab 23 August 2018 https://www.citylab.com/life/2018/08/south-korea-needs-more-babies/565169/ ; China The Guardian 11 September 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/11/china-scraps-three-family-planning-offices-amid-push-to-boost-birthrate


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