16 September 2011

Population, women and climate change

 My late colleague and friend, Dianne Proctor, was immersed in family planning and women’s rights through her latter career. Nevertheless, she took a holistic approach to global issues. Dianne realised that, not only was rapid population growth an impediment to development, it also had a deleterious effect on the environment. “There are too many people,” I remember her saying to an audience back in 1992.


It was thus appropriate that just prior to her death, she reflected on the connections between women’s rights, population growth and the environment for these very pagesDissent, Summer 2009/10).  She had been an active member of Sustainable Population Australia Inc (SPA) since her retirement and was supportive of our efforts to get observer status for the Preparatory Meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) leading up to the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen in December.  Dianne knew all too well that women in developing countries were the worst affected by climate change. She worried that an extra 2.4 billion people on the planet by mid-century would present enormous challenges for maintaining ecological sustainability, and that climate change would make this task even more challenging.

In early June we celebrated her 70th birthday on the day I left for Bonn, Germany, where the second of the Preparatory Meetings were held.

The general intention of SPA was to try and get population growth and size recognised as drivers of climate change in the negotiated texts.  In retrospect, it suggested undue focus on mitigation (tackling the causes of climate change) rather than on adaptation (preparing for and coping with the impacts of climate change).  We had, however, been more specific in our submission to UNFCCC, accepted by them and put on their website <www.unfccc.int>, where we spelt out how stabilising population numbers would be a cost-effective mitigation  

As I attended the Bonn meetings in June and again in August as SPA’s lone representative, it became apparent that there was resistance to the idea. (Our delegation increased at the Bangkok Preparatory Meetings where Drs Jane O’Sullivan and Peter Schlesinger did much of the negotiating.  Dr O’Sullivan attended Barcelona alone from SPA but was joined by Roger Martin, President of the Optimum Population Trust in the UK. They, with Professor Paul Erhlich, hosted a side event there.) We had written earlier to the focal points of Parties to the Convention, but only the Slovenian showed interest.  I attended the daily women’s caucus meetings and, while we all got on well, they were unhappy about any suggestion that population might be a problem. They argued that hyper-consumption of the developed world and its attendant emissions were the issues that needed to be addressed as far as mitigation was concerned. And when I confronted the Secretary of UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, at a civil society meeting about population being a factor, his response was polite but dismissive. “Population is important but it is a different issue and we’re not here to deal with that.”  


Yvo de Boer said much the same when I asked about peak oil. Putting issues in ‘silos’ and refusing to acknowledge their interrelationship is a problem shared by many, of course, not just de Boer.  As an exception to this, Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute wrote an essay following Copenhagen in which he argued that climate change is just one of several enormous interrelated dilemmas that will sink civilisation unless all are somehow addressed. These include at least five long-range problems:·       topsoil loss (25 billion tons per year), ·       worsening fresh water scarcity, ·       the death of the oceans (currently forecast for around 2050 based on current trends), ·       overpopulation and continued population growth, and ·       the accelerating, catastrophic loss of biodiversity. He argued that “these problems, together with climate change, will combine over the next few years or decades to trigger a food crisis of a scale and intensity that will dwarf to insignificance any famine in human history” (Heinberg 2010).

Heinberg was speaker at a population meeting I attended in Washington in October at which he warned that Copenhagen should be about food security.  The UNFCCC Preliminary Meetings did not ignore the issue but it was given only passing mention in the plenary sessions of the two Ad-Hoc Working Groups (LCA – Long-Term Cooperative Action and KP – Kyoto Protocol) and by the various subsidiary groups.  Between these plenary sessions, however, were side events on the many issues relating to climate change, including agriculture and food. At these there was general consensus that, in order to feed an extra 2.4 billion people by mid-century, another 70 per cent of food would need to be produced. Henning Steinfeld, a speaker in a session hosted by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO),said four-fifths of this extra food would come from ‘intensification’ (increased yields on existing farmland) and one-fifth from ‘extensification’ (cutting down forests). Given that forests are an important sink, and agriculture is a net source of emissions, it is evident that population growth is exacerbating climate change, at least in this respect.  Indeed, one Australian negotiator on REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), said to me vehemently: “Of course population growth is a driver of climate change.”  And the venerable Professor Rattan Lal from Ohio State University told a meeting a little sadly: “There are some parts of Africa where population already exceeds the potential agricultural productivity of the region.”

Later in Copenhagen at a breakfast hosted by the UN Foundation on the issue of food security, one speaker was ashen-faced about the prospects for southern Africa where maize production is likely to decline by 30 per cent by 2020 from the effects of climate change.  At another side event, members of the audience were invited to comment following a documentary on trying to effect social change. A young Ugandan woman stood up to speak but instead burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” she apologised, “but people are already dying of hunger in my village.” At all the meetings I attended, stories of hardship abounded: worsening drought in Africa, increasingly frequent floods and cyclones in Bangladesh, and storm surges in the Pacific. There was no doubt that climate change was real and happening now.  For me to then return home and find Australia fighting a lone rear-guard action against climate science was disheartening.

In some side events, despite all the discussion on food, there was still resistance to discussing population per se. “We’re not here to blame anyone” was one curt reply.  It was never SPA’s intention to cast blame on those countries that did not have the health, particularly reproductive health, and education services to allow birth rates to fall.  On the other hand, we were quite happy to blame those developed countries like Australia, the US, UK and Canada with both high population growth rates and very high emissions – countries that do have the means to stabilise their numbers.  As an Australian, I was embarrassed that our overall population growth rate had crept up to two per cent annually while we maintained unconscionably high per capita emissions.

In a large side event, however, in answer to my question, the speaker said calmly: “It’s up to individual countries to include population in their NAPAs (National Adaptation Plans of Action)”.  And indeed, this was what was already happening.  Of the first 40 NAPA reports submitted by governments from least developed countries (LDCs) to the Global Environment Facility for funding, 37 (93 per cent) identified at least one of three ways in which population trends interact with the effects of climate change: faster degradation of natural resources; increased demand for scarce resources; and heightened vulnerability to extreme weather events (Bryant 2009).  Surprisingly, despite 37 LDCs identifying population as a problem, only six made proposals to address population growth directly.

As we progressed through to Copenhagen, it appeared that cutting or lowering population growth as an adaptation tool was increasingly acceptable, but not as a mitigation tool, even though SPA and OPT agreed  that the main mitigation tool needed to be cutting emissions from the developed world. In addition, it transpired there were serious cultural obstacles to achieving population stabilisation in many countries. Members of the Nigerian delegation told us cheerfully that Nigerian men still aspire to 10 children each.  In Copenhagen at a side event, the splendid Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Matthai spoke about her Green Belt movement.  In the same session, a Maasai man told us how, when a man married, he was expected to acquire many cattle, but these same cattle were eating the very trees planted by the women in the Green Belt movement. I asked whether the Maasai might consider stabilising their numbers through voluntary contraception, and in turn the number of cattle, but he apologetically rejected the notion, explaining: “Large families are part of our culture.”

By the time we got to Copenhagen (I was joined by two members of OPT), a number of prominent organisations were negotiating to have population included in the agenda, and advocating that countries include voluntary family planning in an integrated response to climate change, that is, in their NAPAs.  A new Population and Climate Change Alliance (PCCA)was arguing that, by increasing access to voluntary family planning, women, couples and families will be empowered, become more resilient and better able to cope with dramatic climate changes.  A member of PCCA, Population Action International (PAI), backed up by solid research of its own, said meeting the demand for family planning and reproductive health services “can play an important role in climate change adaptation and mitigation”. It noted that areas of high population growth and high vulnerability overlap; that population growth is already putting a strain on the world’s limited supply of fresh water; that increases in temperature are expected to negatively affect agricultural production in the tropics where crops are already at the top of their temperature range; and that higher population growth generally results in higher greenhouse gas emissions, except where highly carbon-intensive economic growth and technological change can offset the effects of population growth (PAI 2009).

Prior to Copenhagen in November, OPT released the findings of a study they had commissioned by Thomas Wire of the London School of Economics (Wire 2009). The study found that each $7 spent on meeting unmet need for family planning between 2010 and 2050 would reduce CO2 emissions by over a tonne; whereas the same abatement would cost $32 using low-carbon technologies. In other words, “investing a modest proportion of the total cost of stabilising emissions in family planning is four times more effective than investing the same money in conventional solutions.” The following month OPT launched the PopOffsets project www.popoffsets.com that enables people to offset their carbon footprint by making on-line donations to support family planning. It estimates that £4 spent on family planning saves one tonne of CO2.

Very appropriately, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) devoted its 2009 State of the World Population Report to Women, Population and Climate. It concluded “that women bear the disproportionate burden of climate change but have so far been largely overlooked in the debate about how to address the problems of rising seas, droughts, melting glaciers and extreme weather.”  It noted that women make up a majority of the very poor, and the poor are more likely to depend on agriculture for a living and therefore risk going hungry or losing their livelihoods when droughts, rains or hurricanes affect agriculture. The report found that investment to empower women and girls, particularly in education and health, bolsters economic development and reduces poverty. This has a beneficial effect on climate since girls with more education have smaller and healthier families. Lower fertility rates contribute to slower growth in greenhouse gas emissions in the long run (UNFPA 2009).

Lead author and researcher of this State of the World Population Report, Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute, spoke to it at another UN Foundation breakfast in Copenhagen.  Also attending were Rajendra Paucheri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Mary Robinson and Sir David King, former chief science adviser in the UK.   Engelman stressed that all that was required were those measures advocated in the Programme of Action arising from the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, namely empowerment of women, education of women and girls, and universal access to reproductive health including family planning. Among the speeches following, Sir David King noted it takes a couple of generations for the cultural change of smaller families to be achieved. The question left hanging in the room was: do we have time?

Perhaps a lesson can be learned from the Thais. While in Bangkok, Jane O’Sullivan and I were fortunate to have an hour long discussion with Viravaidya Mechai, the Australian-educated economist who almost single-handedly, through his energy and good humour, halved the Thai birth-rate in less than a generation. Known as “Dr Condom” for throwing condoms off the back of trucks, he convinced the Thais that if they wanted to escape poverty, they had to keep their families small. And they did, once they had the means to do so. Mechai likes to point out that Thailand’s population is just over 60 million, while the Philippines, that once had the same population, now has a population over 90 million with its people mired in poverty. The vast majority of Thais, meanwhile, are no longer poor.  Mechai has much to teach the rest of the world.

But forward to Copenhagen.  As we all know now, it failed to come up with a “FAB” Agreement – Fair, Ambitious and Binding.  The Copenhagen Accord, cobbled together by a handful of nations at the last minute, was non-binding and weak.  And the P word was missing.  Even ‘gender’ got the boot along the way except in a couple of sections such as REDD and Adaptation. The Chinese mentioned that their one-child policies had reduced births by 400 million and emissions of carbon dioxide by some 18 million tons a year.  (Not a lot of applause for that given the generally coercive nature of the policy.) But Andrew Revkin of the New York Times did some simple mathematics: current emissions are over 30 billion tons a year but with a population of about nine billion mid-century, assuming everyone has an emission level of 10 tons a year (Europe’s current emissions level), total emissions would be 90 billion tons a year.  Even with Europe’s planned target of six tons a year by 2020, there would still be 54 billion tons. And yet the world is meant to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.  Revkin goes on to note that Sub-Saharan Africa is a region regularly beset by epic droughts and devastating floods. Climate change is likely to exacerbate this pattern but population is poised to double. “[H]ow can population be excluded from any discussion of ways to limit exposure to climate risks?” he asks, quite reasonably (Revkin 2009).

About the time I, as a member of a civil society organisation and not a negotiator or Party or head of government, was being excluded from the Bella Center on the third last day, Australian Prime Minister Rudd arrived.  He announced, depressingly reminiscent of George Bush, that he was not going to set any targets for Australia that were “not in the interests of the economy”.  Australia seemed stuck with a miserable target of a five per cent reduction by 2020 yet the science was demanding 40 per cent from developed countries. Back home, Mr Rudd announced on the 7.30 Report on ABC-TV, that he was in favour of a “big Australia”, of the 65 per cent increase in our population by 2050 to 35 million. This coincided with Bob Birrell and Ernest Healy publishing their analysis of Treasury’s prediction that, in the absence of abatement measures, Australia’s emissions would grow from 553 million tons in 2000 to 774 million tons in 2020. They found that 83 per cent of this forecast increase would be attributable to population growth.  Birrell and Healy concluded it is very unlikely Australia will achieve the five per cent reduction target by 2020 “in the absence of attention to the population growth factor” (Birrell and Healy 2009).

It would be encouraging for SPA if Australia would take a lead in setting a path towards stabilisation of national population. It would certainly make it easier for those of us who are recommending that other countries do so.  In the meantime, we fight on. Copenhagen was not the end – there’s still COP16 in Mexico City at the end of the year.  Perhaps Copenhagen’s very failure is our opportunity to get population finally mentioned in the Mexico Agreement. We live in hope. We work on for our grandchildren, including Dianne’s.





Birrell, B and Healy, E (2009). Population Growth and Australia’s 2020 Greenhouse Gas Emission Commitments. People and Place, vol 17, no.4, pp18 – 27. 


Bryant, L, Carver, L, Butler, C, & Anage, A. (2009) Climate change and family planning: least developed countries define the agenda. Bull World Health Organ 2009; 87:852-857.

Heinberg, R. (2010) www.richardheinberg.com

PAI (2009). Revkin, Andrew (2009).

UNFPA (2009). Wire, T. (2009). www.optimumpopulation.org/reducing emissions.pdf

 Jenny Goldie was a co-founder of Sustainable Population Australia (then Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population) in 1988. She held the position of national secretary while delegate to the 2009 meetings of UNFCCC.  She has degrees in science and journalism. 


Scroll to Top