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Talking population at the UN climate conference

From 5-10 November, Population Matters attended the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, known as COP26, in the chilly, wet climes of Glasgow. Postponed from last year due to COVID-19, the crucial conference brought together over 190 countries to accelerate action towards the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, including limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Senior Campaigner Andrew Howard reports on how PM made its presence felt during the conference, and how it ensured that empowering population solutions to the climate crisis were promoted.

COP 26 petition and banner
COP 26 petition and banner

Preparing the ground

In the months before the summit, PM wrote to key policymakers and officials, including COP President Alok Sharma MP, to press the case for population solutions to be included in deliberations at the event. We provided the strong evidence assembled in our climate change briefing that implementing empowering population solutions such as meeting the unmet need for contraception and women’s empowerment could help the world meet its climate targets sooner (for more on this, read my colleague Olivia’s recent blog). We also called on the government to reverse its cut in funding to the United Nations Population Fund, noting that not only did this have a devastating effect on the lives of millions of women, it also prevented climate change benefits from arising.

We added to the pressure by submitting a petition calling for population action.  We took our nearly 4,000 signatures from Population Matters supporters to the Cabinet Office in London where Mr Sharma is based, along with a banner emphasising the positive solutions.


On our first full day at COP26, Saturday 6th November, PM took part in the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march from Kelvingrove Park to Glasgow Green via central Glasgow, organised by the COP26 Coalition. Despite the wind and rain, over 100,000 people turned out, showing solidarity with hundreds of thousands on similar marches in other parts of the UK and around the world – all calling on governments to ensure climate justice for those on the frontlines of the climate crisis – the poorest people around the world – who have done the least to cause it.

PM, joined by a few fantastic volunteers, took its ‘smaller families’ message to the streets, carrying a banner which read ”Condoms Cut Carbon”. It was gratifying to meet many people who not only got our population message, but were also delighted that someone was campaigning on the issue openly.


PM attended key fringe events in the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), otherwise known during COP26 as the Blue Zone – the site of the climate negotiations – and in the Green Zone at the Glasgow Science Centre, and asked questions of the speakers. Some responders were supportive of PM’s position, whereas others completely side-stepped or denied the population issue. The latter highlights both the challenge PM faces in getting policymakers to acknowledge population growth as a driver of the climate crisis, and the importance for PM of engaging in such debates at such fora to find new friends and supporters.

Most gender-related events were focused on the role of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and girls’ education in helping people to cope with the effects of climate change (adaptation and resilience-building), not in reducing the severity of climate change (mitigation); and mention of population was largely absent from these discussions. However, reassuringly, there were clear and powerful voices from the Global South that were willing to acknowledge the population factor.

At one event, Malawi’s Minister of Education, Agnes Nyalonje MP, commented on the pressures that her country’s quickly growing youth population is placing on the space, infrastructure and money needed for education. ”Running to stand still” was her assessment of the situation. And at a WHO-sponsored event, Malawi’s Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources, Nancy Tembo MP, was happy to talk about family planning as a climate change mitigation as well as an adaptation strategy. In response, however, a European WHO representative highlighted the WHO’s support of SRHR access for climate adaptation only. PM supporter Dr Eliya Zulu, Executive Director and founder of the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), also spoke at the event and emphasised the importance of the “p-word”: population.


Wandering the vast Blue Zone afforded PM the chance to network with contacts old and new. Our Director and networking supremo, Robin Maynard, led the charge, connecting with people such as Lord Adair Turner, who spoke at our economics conference in October; Philip Dunne MP, Chair of the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC); and a UN representative who was interested in how positive population solutions can contribute to cutting carbon emissions. Other PM staff also met a wide range of individuals in the Blue and Green Zones, most of whom were keen to engage on the population issue.


On Monday 8th November, PM found itself engaging the public in the cold and rain again when we took our Big Baby inflatable out on Glasgow Green. Wearing a bib saying ”Smaller Families, Cooler Planet”, 7-metre tall Big Baby informed COP26 negotiators, activists, politicians and the public that, for Brits who can make the choice, having one fewer child is one of the most effective single actions they can take over the long term to cut the emissions they are responsible for.

Our Big Baby flyer, which we handed out to passers-by, also highlighted our call on the governments and negotiators at COP26 to include ethical and empowering population solutions in climate mitigation strategies. Research shows that empowering women and girls through education and access to modern, voluntary family planning improves their lives, gives them choice over family size, and reduces population growth. Because of that, the international Project Drawdown study found that it is one of the top five available policy solutions to tackling the climate crisis. 

The event elicited some great global press coverage, including in The Guardian, Kuwait Times, and RTL Today (Luxembourg). There was also a front-page article in The Sunday Times Scotland, highlighting a poll that says half of Scots back small families to help the planet.


In the coming weeks and months, PM will be reflecting on its experiences at COP26, and will build those thoughts into its future work on population and climate change.

One major recurring theme at COP26 was that girls and women bear a disproportionately high amount of climate change impacts – for example, hunger, lack of education, gender-based violence, and reduced access to SRHR.

Another key observation made was that people in the Global South are supportive of family planning and girls’ education as climate mitigation solutions. This gives PM confidence that it, alongside its Empower to Plan partners and others in the Global South, is making the right arguments for people and the planet.

It, however, was very disappointing that the conference as a whole, while making progress, did not steer humanity away from the cliff edge of runaway climate change. Much more work over the coming decade must therefore be done to ensure that the planet can be protected for all living things.


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