Do countries consider population growth in their national plans for a sustainable future? A new working paper from TOP

According to the IPCC, economic growth and increasing human populations are the two main drivers of global climate disruption. However, to date only efficiency improvements and technological changes have been seriously considered to meet the goals of the UNFCC’s Paris Agreement. In a new study, we examine how the parties to the agreement dealt with population growth in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the national action plans submitted to the UN under the treaty. Only 7 of 164 national plans included strategies to slow population growth, and none specified detailed implementation measures. Revised plans are now being written and submitted, and we encourage national policymakers to plan and implement actions to reduce population growth, such as fully funding family planning programs and providing universal access to modern contraceptives to all their citizens.

by The Overpopulation Project

The Paris Agreement in 2015 was considered a success at the time, given earlier difficulties in reaching any international climate treaty at all. Since then, many analysts have emphasized that the agreement is voluntary, and thereby limited and uncertain in what individual nations will actually achieve. The mitigation aim of the agreement is to “set the world on a course towards sustainable development, aiming at limiting warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels”. The parties also agreed to a “long-term goal for adaptation – to increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience … in a manner that does not threaten food production”. The Paris Agreement required that the signatory parties send in plans, so called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to help fulfill the goals of the treaty. National commitments to date under the NDCs would not be sufficient to achieve the treaty’s mitigation or adaptation goals, even if all the voluntary steps they mention were taken.

Population growth is a driver of both climate vulnerability and climate-altering emissions. In TOP’s new working paper, “Population Growth and Family Planning in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) made under the Paris Climate Agreement,” we ask to what extent countries take population growth into account. To do this, we made a comprehensive text review of the first round of 164 NDCs submitted under the Paris Agreement. We distinguished between simple statements of population trends, included in most submissions, and substantive discussions of population’s impacts on mitigation or adaption goals.

A number of countries included at least one impact of population growth in their NDC (’population inclusive’, see map below). About one-third (49) of the NDCs either link population growth to a negative effect and/or identify population growth as a challenge or trend affecting societal needs. As might be expected, these countries had a significantly higher population growth rate and unmet need for family planning than those with no substantive attention to population growth.

Map of countries and microstates that refer to impacts of population growth in their NDCs. Orange indicates countries that did not include impacts of population growth in their NDC (population exclusive), while red indicates countries that included at least one impact of population growth in their NDC (population inclusive). Gray indicates countries that either had not submitted NDCs or were excluded from our review.

The impacts of population growth identified in the NDCs were increased energy demand, natural resource degradation, vulnerability to climate impacts, and decreased food and water security. These are all serious impacts that in turn could severely harm people and other species. Yet only 7 NDCs, from countries representing only 2 ½ % of the global population, included an action to slow population growth: Mali, Mauritius, Egypt, Togo, Niger, Uganda and Tunisia (see chart below). These actions were primarily adaptation measures, national development priorities, or means of NDC implementation. Only 2 of these 7 NDCs (Mauritius and Uganda) included clear strategies to slow population growth; the others described ambiguous efforts, or included a population goal but provided no implementation measures. No national NDC, some of which ran to hundreds of pages, described detailed implementation measures to reduce population growth.

Proportion of NDCs that included actions or strategies to slow population growth. Of 164 NDCs (left), just under one-third included at least one impact of population growth. However, recognizing the climate-related impacts of population growth largely did not transfer into actions or strategies to slow population growth: only 7 NDCs included an action or strategy to slow population growth (right).

Parties to the Paris Agreement are now working on a new round of revised NDCs. The secretariat for the UN’s climate agreement and its Climate Action Tracker reports that as of December 10, 2020, 19 countries had submitted new NDC targets, but only three (Chile, Norway, Vietnam) submitted overall stronger targets. In total 164 countries have not yet submitted a revised plan.

In the ongoing revision of the NDCs, all governments need to carefully consider the potential impact of population growth on mitigation and adaptation efforts. As TOP recently reported in our review paper “Population Growth and Climate Change: Addressing the Overlooked Threat Multiplier”, slowing growth and stabilizing population is especially important for climate adaptations, such as minimizing heat exposure in vulnerable regions. Moreover, governments need to prioritize meeting unmet needs for family planning, and integrate population-health-environment projects into their national climate plans. In addition, low-fertility countries with declining populations, such as Japan and several European countries, should emphasize this beneficial aspect (see TOPs earlier study about the advantages of aging and declining populations).

Read and spread the results of our working paper to media and politicians in your country! Comments and criticisms are welcome, too.

20 thoughts on “Do countries consider population growth in their national plans for a sustainable future? A new working paper from TOP

  1. All actions taken by humanity to control population growth in time to prevent the collapse of civilization and the horrible deaths of billions will fail unless coercive population control is immediately imposed worldwide on humanity

    1. lorribre,

      I agree with your logic. Unfortunately, the three main global institutions are all addicted to growth. Businesses seek expanding markets and an oversupply of labor. (controls wages, plus more consumers) Indebted governments seek more revenues via taxes and fees. Religions seek larger flocks for donations and power.

      Happy to engage.My alt e-addr: kurtzsb at yahoo dot ca

      1. Don’t blame religion! Even Roman Catholic Italy has a below-replacement level birthrate, as do Ireland, Spain, even Mexico falling into line. But in the United States, where we too have below-replacement level births, our population nonetheless explodes (92 percent immigration) by 28 million to 30 million a decades, as Big 6 DEREGULATED MEDIA (Business interests are allowed to own media in ways once banned by regulation) depict we’re no-growth. They also bury that 3 presidential commissions warned against that for either environmental or social reasons.

        And, for those bothering to consider carbon footprint, a broad reference to “governments” is absurd. ONLY THE HIGH CARBON-FOOTPRINT NATIONS matter, with the main ones being China, the UNITED STATES and India, in that order, although if you look at U.N. data, India’s inclusion is doubtful because they are at a paltry, 1.4 metric tons per capita in contrast to our nearly 17 metric tons per capita. Look at all the nations we traditionally think of as “overpopulated” and their global impacts are inconsequential.

        It is no accident–though media have buried it–that Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day to focus on U.S. growth, NOT global growth and NOT as some woo-woo celebration of Mother Earth.

        Please read my recent paper for NPG on media and population. This lifelong journalist asserts we’re being “propagandized” into the death of Mother Earth!

      2. To Kathleene: why should only per capita numbers matter? After all, if some countries have responsibly chosen to keep their population low so as to enjoy a better standard of living, and others have let their population explode and live in poverty… how is the latter better than the former?
        If you are cooking a fixed amount, would you prefer to be having three guests who eat a reasonable amount, one who stuffs himself, or a family of twenty who goes home hungry? I guess that it wouldn’t make a difference to you, but the wises is the first family.

    2. That is such rubbish. Coercion never works. Even if it did, it would be unethical. If you really want to help people plan their family size, make a big fat financial contribution to one of the many family planning organisations. If in doubt, send your money to UNFPA.

      1. The one-child policy in China slowed population growth there. Coercion can entail tax changes such as removing credits after 1 child, and also providing incentives for those on social benefit programs to use birth control.

  2. If all the Paris signatories participated in a mass-suicide pact presented on Zoom, might that attract some interest and media attention? Worth a try?

  3. What, like the United States, already the 3rd most populated nation behind China and India–although 2021 shows promise of no-growth–and through most recent decades one of the fastest growing nations on Earth, as our Big 6 DEREGULATED MEDIA depict that, do to our low birthrate we aren’t growing? That U.S. media blatantly mislead and blacklist discussion about U.S. population is sad. That many environmental publications do so is hypocritical and dangerous–that is, if you care about Planet Earth.

    1. Ms.Parker: Which religion seeks a smaller flock? 😉 There are many religions besides Christianity! Muslims have openly stated that they intend to outbreed all others so they can take over the planet. Yes, many Catholics ignore the Vatican edicts on birth control and abortion, but the RC Church still does all it can to convert and stimulate births in developing countries. Orthodox Jews and Mormons seem large families for similar reasons. Competitive breeding by religions is still operative. As to immigration, caveat emptor. I’m with NPG on that.

  4. A good article — because it asks an important question. Since about the year 1994, the UN and its influence have been sidetracked by the two big entities which are afraid of any clear discussion of the population problem. Before 1994, the UN was frankly assessing the terrible danger of population growth, but as the issue became clearer to all, the vested interests moved in and distorted the discussion. We need to get back to simple, honest talk. That is, to give to people good information for: Perception, Education, and Understanding.

    The two entities are: 1) Biblical Religions, and 2) the Big Economic Interests.
    1) Religions. They may talk sweet, but they believe “Be fruitful and multiply” and “Dominion over life on Earth” They say “ignore that” …we’re not serious…. Yeah. I believe in religious tolerance, but I do not believe in harmful social activities. And too, the birth control issue !
    2) The Corporate Economy. This is a problem, a ponzi scheme. They crave the growth. .. (And they own the media in the US.)

    1. Stephen in DC: How are we to ever respond ably to a problem like the one presented to us by the human overpopulation of Earth if we continue to be unwilling to sensibly ask as well as objectively report in an intellectually honest way the best available science regarding one question: Why are absolute global human population numbers continuing to explode, despite declining total fertility rates virtually everywhere on the surface of Earth? Thank you.

      1. Steven Earl Salmony: I’ve read your comments here, and i’m quite puzzled by the flow of some of your thoughts. Several of your statements are flat-out wrong, and some of them mix conditions that exist here in the US with global conditions elsewhere. Three points:
        First, the rate of population growth worldwide has been declining for some time, and that’s good. But the total population number continues to increase (with 8 billion, it’s easy to increase with a small growth rate). Some people point to this declining rate of growth as proof that the problem will work itself out. But this is wrong. The reality is: Growth continues, combined with too many humans already here. Second, you say that the human species has “abundant food”. We do not. In fact, we have been taking all of the usable land on the planet for our food.(And growing it in an unsustainable manner.) Plus, we are killing off many of the other large animal species when we take the land. This leads to: Three: Some good University studies have found that, for food production over the long-term, a total human population of perhaps 3.4 billion is practical. We cannot continue to grow food in the way we are now doing. Plus, another population study notes that, to live in harmony with the other life on Earth, a total of perhaps 2 billion humans would be a reasonable number.

        In any case, as a species, we not only need to stop growing our population, but we need to drop our enormous and unreasonable total number.

    1. Humans reproduce arithmetically; Homo sapiens propagates exponentially. Fertility rates drop; human population numbers explode.

      Imagine for a moment that we are standing side by side, looking at a huge ocean wave, watching it move toward us on the shoreline. Think of a tsunami. The wave is moving toward us; however, at the same time, there are many molecules in the wave that are moving in different directions, against the tide. If we observe that the propagation of the global human population numbers is like the wave and the reproduction rates of individuals in certain locales are like the molecules, it may be inaccurate for the latter decreasing rates to be looked at as if they tell us something meaningful about the former increasing numbers. The steadily declining, geographically localized reproduction rates need not blind us to overwhelming facts that the absolute global population numbers are still continuously growing by approximately 1% to 2% per year in my lifetime (i.e., 83+/- million in 2019). Try to see global population numbers as the wave; the localized reproduction rates as evidence of the molecules.

      Put another way, human population numbers worldwide and the reproduction rates in different locales, even in many places, are pointing in different directions. Choosing the scope of observation is like deciding to look at either the forest or the individual trees, at either the wave or its molecules. Thus, the challenge before us is to perceive the growing species-wide propagation numbers, something that is different from perceiving the diminishing reproduction rates. The species numbers are going up annually; the reproduction rates are going down annually in our time. See the wave of total human beings coming toward us; and see the reproduction rates as representing individuals rushing back out to sea, against the incoming tide.

  5. Homo sapiens is a creature of the earth. Understand that food is the tap root of life for the human species. There may be other factors that help sustain human life, but food is the ‘tap root’ for the growth of absolute human population numbers, just as is the case with other species of earth.
    Our problem is a biological one. A positive feedback loop has been established in the food-population relationship because natural limiting factors to the unbridled growth of absolute human population numbers have been eliminated by human ingenuity. Human beings are unique creatures of earth. We are exceptional in many wondrous ways, but not in terms of population dynamics. Hence the recent ‘bloom’ of absolute global human population numbers that are primarily caused by spectacular increases in the food supply which is derived from greatly enhanced production and distribution capabilities.
    The conundrum: increasing food production annually to meet the needs of growing population is fueling a human population explosion. With every passing year more people are being fed and more people are going hungry.
    Perhaps we can agree to a desperate need for an adequate-enough explanation for ‘why’ we have ended up where are, in this global predicament. A growing body of unfalsified research has been ubiquitously denied and consequently not widely shared much less consensually validated by population experts of science as well as those professionals with appropriate expertise in the fields of demography and economics. Uncontested science makes it possible for us to answer the question posed now, here.
    A new biological understanding is emerging from ongoing scientific research. It is simply this: as is the case with other species, human population numbers appear or not as a function of food availability; food is the independent, not the dependent, variable in the relationship between food and population numbers; and human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species.
    Sound scientific research provides straightforward empirical data of a non-recursive biological problem that is independent of economic, political, ethical, social, legal, religious, and cultural considerations. This means human population dynamics is like the population dynamics of other species. It also means that global human population growth is a viciously cycling positive feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth fuels the false perception, the mistaken impression, the fatally flawed misconception that food production needs to be increased to meet the needs of a growing population.
    With every passing year, as food production is increased leading to a population increase, millions go hungry. Why are those hungry millions not getting fed year after year after year… and future generations of poor people may not ever be fed? Every year the human population grows. All segments of it grow. More people with blue eyes and more with brown ones. More tall people and more short ones. All segments of the population grows. Every year there are also more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like all the other segments of the population. We are unexpectedly increasing the number of hungry people in the course of feeding more people. We are not bringing hunger to an end by increasing food production.
    The skyrocketing increase of the human population in our time on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth has caused a growing number of apparently unforeseen and exceedingly deleterious ecological occurrences. Among these potentially catastrophic, human-driven consequences is climate destabilization. What is fortunately becoming clearer to naked eyes, as we observe what is happening, is the manifold ways overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of the human species are occurring synergistically and simultaneously threatening life as we know it, environmental health, and future human well-being. The spectacular increase of these distinctly human, overgrowth activities is causing the mass extirpation of earth’s biodiversity, the relentless dissipation of its limited natural resources, the unbridled degradation of its environs and the reckless threat to a good enough future for children everywhere.
    For a moment let us carefully consider the remote possibility that the human community writ large pulls itself together on a war footing to fight climate change and wins that battle by reducing carbon emissions of all kinds to net zero in 2021, while the tap-root cause of anthropogenic climate change continues to be denied. We may win a major Pyrrhic victory. That is certainly a good thing. And yet, if we do not accurately enough locate the foremost cause of the biological problem that is ailing humankind, the problem that is precipitating climate change, we could lose the prospects of a good enough future for life as we know it.
    We have run out of time for population experts to remain reticent. They have to assume their responsibilities by examining data and reporting findings regarding the question, “Why are human population numbers exploding?” The time has come to disclose all of what we know — the whole truth — with regard to human creatureliness and human population growth, according to the best available science and ‘lights’ we possess.
    After hundreds of thousands of years of relatively stable population numbers of H. sapiens, why has the total human population increased in size from 1 billion to 7.7 billion in the brief time that is framed by the past 225 years?
    Unfalsified ecological science of human population dynamics indicates that the population dynamics of H. sapiens is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species, how are humans going to limit sensibly and effectively the current unbridled growth of their population numbers without beginning to limit “increases only” in the total production of food for human consumption? More attractive alternatives to this necessary step (e.g., educational/economic opportunities for females and contraception for males/females) represent useful proposals, that is certain. But these ‘interventions’ are patently insufficient to stabilize population numbers of the human species because human population numbers appear or not as a function of food supply. See articles by Hopfenberg, Pimentel, 2001 and Hopfenberg, 2003.
    Take a moment to reflect upon the way in which a thoughtful, effective and systematic redistribution of the world’s abundant food resources, if implemented simultaneously with limits placed on total food production, would feed the human population and stabilize absolute human population numbers. That is to say, limiting “increases only” in the total supply of food for human consumption, when coupled with a sensible food-for-all redistribution program, will lead to population stabilization and starvation reduction.

    hat tip to Steven B. Kurtz

  6. Hey, how the economic phenomenon of migration (internal and external) affects the ratio of labor supply and demand forces in labor markets. Internal migration contributes to the redistribution of human capital, external, depending on their prevailing direction and composition of migrants – its accumulation or loss.

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