Sunday, 29 June 2014

Managing climate change: Think beyond carbon emissions

Devendra Kothari PhD
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

“So the rich countries have a huge responsibility because they have been emitting greenhouse gases for many years and they have no right to deny other people's right to development. However, the global warming is a real phenomenon but development is inevitable.  The question is: how can we ensure that the developing world continues to develop and lift people out of poverty and reduce emissions? ”

Since the first 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, the experts and policy makers have been emphasizing on curbing carbon emissions to manage the climate change. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC - 2013)[1] reiterates that carbon emissions have been accelerating and that we will crash through the global CO2 safety limit by 2030. It warns that sharp greenhouse gas emissions cuts worldwide need to begin now, with a 40% to 70% reduction by midcentury, to avert the worst effects of climate change. It appears that the climate scientists/experts are convinced that only way to manage the climate change is to stop/reduce the growth in greenhouse gas emissions even by imposing some harsh measures or taxation.  A leading Yale economist William Nordhaus, who argued in favor of Carbon Tax at the Copenhagen Climate Change Congress, believes that it “would help us to stabilize the world climate system, since taxation is a proven instrument. Taxes may be unpopular, but they work”. [2]  However, that is a crunch issue.

The Problem:
A carbon tax is a tax levied on the carbon   content of fuels. Carbon taxes, however, could be a regressive tax, in that they may directly or indirectly affect low-income groups disproportionately. Here one would like to go through the observations made by Hillary Clinton in her latest book “Hard Choices’’ (Simon & Schuster, 2014). The cooperation of the developing countries including China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa, who are gaining international clout more for their expanding economics than their military might, would be essential for any comprehensive agreement on climate change. At the same time each of these countries is committed to raising incomes and decreasing poverty by increasing industrial output. For example, China has already moved hundreds of millions of people out of poverty since Deng Xiaoping opened it to the world in 1978, but in 2009, 100 million Chinese still lived on less than a dollar per day. That poses a stark choice: Could China afford to tackle climate change while so many millions were still so poor? Could it follow a different development path, relying on more efficient and renewable energy that would still decrease poverty? China is not the only nation struggling with this question. She notes further: “When you govern a country that has deep inequalities and poverty, it’s understandable to believe you can’t afford to restrain your growth just because 19th- and 20th- century industrial powers polluted their way to prosperity. If India could improve the lives of millions of its citizens by accelerating industrial growth, how could it afford to choose a different path? The answers given by these countries  as to whether they would be part of combating climate change, even though they had not caused it, would determine the success  or failure of our  diplomacy” (Page 495).

As everyone knows that India’s per capita emissions are far below that of developed countries, and as such there is no legitimate basis for international pressure being put on developing countries like India to play equal role in managing the climate change.  But it is a stubborn fact that it would be impossible to stop the rise in global temperature if these rapidly developing economies insisted on playing by the old rules and pumping massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere. “Even if the United States some how reduced our emissions all the way to zero tomorrow, total global levels still would be nowhere near  where they need to be if China, India and other (developing countries) failed to contain their own emissions”, noted Hillary Clinton  (Page 496).  She suggests that the developed countries especially the United States must work more on developing clean technologies that would drive economic growth and fight poverty in the developing countries.

No doubt, technology and financial flows from the industrialized world to emerging economies would drive economic growth and flight poverty while also reducing emissions. But that is not going to resolve the issue on a sustainable basis.   Finding sustainable solutions has become a matter of necessity as people and communities suffer the consequences of our planet heating up.  So it is vital to think beyond existing strategies. And the post aims in this direction. It suggests an alternative way   to cut in carbon intensity, especially in the developing countries including India, which are more doable and humane. 

Think beyond Carbon emissions: 
Though the IPCC-2013 report acknowledges the contribution of “human factor” to unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions, it fails to endorse policies that can contribute to limiting such emissions by lowering population growth or fertility. Roger Martin, chairman of the UK charity - Population Matters, rightly states that human beings’ impact on the environment depends on two factors: the average ecological footprint of each person, multiplied by the number of people. While the experts and policy makers focus on how to reduce the former, scant attention however, is being paid to the latter.  There is an urgent need to discuss the implications of the galloping world’s population especially in the developing world and its impact in managing the climate change. A study by   O’Neill and his colleagues of energy use and demographics conclude that slowing global population growth “could provide 16 – 29 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested being necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change”.[3]  As such, population dynamics are one of the key factors to consider when thinking about managing the  climate change.

In the past 50 years the world has experienced an unprecedented increase in population growth. In 2010 there were around 7 billion people on earth, almost three times as many as in 1950. The next 40 years are projected to add another 2.6 billion people - 97 per cent of them in developing countries. The share of developing world in the world population is expected to increase from 82 percent in 2010 to 87 percent in 2050 (Table 1).
Today, the world is adding the largest numbers to its population than in any time in history. Despite the fact that the annual population growth rate has declined from 2.1 per cent in the late sixties to 1.2 per cent per year in 2010, world population is currently growing by about 80-85 million annually.  According to the UN World Population Prospects, future population of the world will mainly be fuelled by some large African and Asian countries including India. "The problem”, according to philanthropist Bill Gates, “is that the population is growing the fastest where people are less able to deal with it. It's in the very poorest places that you're going to have a tripling in population by 2050”. Even if most of this growth is in low consumption regions or less developed world, all of these extra people need food, water, energy and shelter. Together, population growth and rising consumption are likely to increase demand for food by 70 per cent by 2050. This may be impossible to achieve, even without the impact of climate change.

Table 1: Trends in population, 1950-2050
Developed World
Developing  World

In million
In million
In million












Source: UN Population Division.

Are people in poor countries against small family norm? While world’s population continues to grow by around 85-90 million annually, more than 200 million women, mainly from the poor countries lack access to basic contraception. Often, these women must travel far from their communities to reach a health facility, only to return home “empty handed” due to shortages and stock-outs as well as non availability of staff. When women seeking family planning services are turned away, they are unable to protect themselves from unintended/unwanted pregnancies. [4]

The number of pregnancies worldwide is estimated to have been 209 million in 1995 and is projected to have been 208 million in 2008. Of the pregnancies that occurred in 2008, 185 million (89%) were among women living in the developing world, and 23 million were among those in the developed world. The estimated 208 million pregnancies in 2008 resulted in 102 million intended births, 41 million induced abortions, 33 million unintended/unwanted births, and 31 million miscarriages. [5] It means a sizable population growth in the world especially in the developing world is mainly fueled by unwanted fertility.

One can argue that we should not look upon human beings as unwanted burdens. Yet, a small planet is growing more crowded every day, and we may be reaching the limits of a sustainable ecology. The green movement will be shadowed by two or three billion extra people over the next forty years. If each of them pollutes the environment on even a modest scale, disaster looms.

Nowhere is this truer than India. India is a relatively low-carbon economy but primary energy demand is expected to more than double by 2030. India's huge rural population is directly dependent on climate sensitive resources — the forests, agricultural land and grasslands — which are increasingly under threat from that paradox: water shortage and flooding. As such, the emerging population scenario in India is of interest to anyone interested in India’s development, as well as concerned with the global warming. With around 1.27 billion people, India is currently the second most populous nation in the world. The UN Population Division projects that it will surpass China as the most populous within 10 years. India's population is projected to peak at 1.7 billion in 2060. China at its peak in 2025 will have 1.4 billion people.

While India's population growth rate has been declining over the years, the overall population will continue to grow as 51% of the population is in the reproductive age group (15-49). Millions more will join this cohort each year.  At current levels, it may take several decades more to stabilize the population.  Although India has adopted several impressive goals to reduce its population growth rates, the country has a long way to go to achieve meaningful population controls with a growth rate of 1.6%, representing a ‘doubling time ‘of less than 44 years.

Current population growth is mainly fuelled by unwanted fertility. More than four in ten pregnancies are unintended/unplanned or simply unwanted by the women who experience them and half or more of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth.  Today 26.5 million babies are born each year and out of this about 6 million births could be classified as unwanted or unplanned. It is estimated that around 450 million people out of 1200 million in 2011 in India who were result of unwanted pregnancies and most of them are from the lower economic strata.[6] The consequences of unintended pregnancy are serious, slowing down the process of socio-economic development as well as process of change, and is being reflected in widespread hunger, poor health, poverty, unskilled  labour force, unemployment,  regressing governance as well as increasing scarcity of basic resources like food, water and space despite concerted developmental efforts since 1991.

What must be done to reduce unwanted fertility and its consequences? Expanding access to effective modern methods of contraceptives and improving the quality of contraceptive information and services may be the strategy that is the most achievable in the near term, and that is most responsive to stabilize the world climate system by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It will also serve women’s long-term health needs.[7] Additionally, reducing population growth will help alleviate poverty, which will have positive impact on efforts to manage the climate change. Thus, making quality reproductive health services accessible to all women in need are urgent environmental, economic and health imperatives. It means if all women have the capacity to decide for them when to become pregnant , survey data affirm, average global childbearing would immediately fall below the replacement fertility value of slightly more than two children per woman. And population would immediately move onto a path leading to a peak followed by a gradual decline, possibly well before 2050.

As per the United Nations that the world's population is expected to hit eight billion in the next eight to nine years, and at the same time too many people do not have the means to control their fertility. As such, we must ensure that reproductive health services are better funded and that they become available to everyone who wants them. But, access to quality reproductive health services is often inadequate, partly because of insufficient resources. As such, the developed world must support and fund the reproductive health services in the developing world.  

In addition to supporting reproductive health servicers, the world, especially the developed world has to invest in clean technologies in a big way that would drive economic growth and flight poverty while also reducing emissions.  This requires that we take climate change out of the environment issue bracket as it affects all areas in life. 

In short, I strongly agree with the naturalist Sir David Attenborough that “Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it’s time to control the population to allow the survival of environment”.

[1] IPCC 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[2] For details, see link:

[3] O’Neill, Brian C. et al. 2010. “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, October 2010. Also see O’Neill, Brian C. et al. 2012. “Demographic Change and Carbon Dioxide Emissions”,
The Lancet, July 2012.

[4] “Empty Handed: Responding to the Demand for Contraceptives”, a documentary by Population Action International, Washington DC    tells the story of women’s lack of access to reproductive health supplies in sub-Saharan Africa, and its impact on their lives.

[5] For details see, Chapter 7 of Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress, Guttmacher Institute.

[6] Kothari, Devendra. 2011. “Implications of Emerging Demographic Scenario: Based on the Provisional Results of Census of India 2011”,  A Brief,  a publication of Management Institute of Population and Development – A Unit of Parivar Seva Sanstha, New Delhi.  

[7] Kothari, Devendra. 2014. “Empowering women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda”, Journal of Health Management, 16 (2) A SAGE Publication, pp 233-43.