Glasgow follies

This coming weekend, representatives from 196 nations will gather in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. Failure is assured, since addressing the fundamental causes of climate change isn’t on the agenda and all proposed national commitments are voluntary, with no penalties for not living up to them.

by Philip Cafaro

The causes of global climate disruption are clear and have been for some time. According to the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, “Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.” Between 1970 and 2000, these two drivers contributed roughly equally to driving up greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2000, economic growth has contributed more than demographic growth, but population growth’s contribution remains substantial and atmospheric carbon pollution continues to increase, far outstripping all efficiency improvements.

Figure 1. Decomposition of the decadal change in total global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by four driving factors: population, income (GDP) per capita, energy intensity of GDP and carbon intensity of energy. The bar segments show the changes associated with each factor alone, holding the respective other factors constant. Total decadal changes are indicated by a triangle. Changes are measured in gigatons (Gt) of CO2 emissions per decade. Figure SPM.3 from IPCC, Fifth Assessment Report, Mitigation Report, Summary for Policymakers (2014).

Total global greenhouse gas emissions, which need to trend sharply down to limit climate disruption, instead continue to grow. Again according to the 5th Assessment Report: “Without additional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist, driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C compared to pre-industrial levels.”

In plain language, continued growth in human numbers and wealth is set to cause a worldwide climate disaster within the lifetimes of many people alive today. Nothing in the subsequent seven years has changed this essential situation. In 2018, another IPCC study confirmed that global warming above 1.5 °C is likely to prove disastrous for humanity and Earth’s other residents. According to the recent report from Working Group I for the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, along with global temperatures, still driven by growing human populations and increased economic activity.

A rational response to all this might be: “Whoa! We’ve got to cut back on human numbers and the pursuit of ever more wealth. We’re bumping up against some basic limits here in the systems that we all depend on for survival.” Or: “Wow! We’ve got our work cut out for us. We need to start working on this problem with all the tools at our disposal. Let’s increase energy and carbon efficiency, through clever new technology. But also dial back the pursuit of affluence, limit overconsumption among the wealthy, and stabilize or reduce the human population.”

Such ideas remain unthought, or at least unsaid, among the politicians meeting in Glasgow. Instead, their chief goal remains the same as it has been for political leaders throughout the post-World War II Great Acceleration: ratcheting up economic growth as fast as possible and leaving the job of cleaning up the resulting environmental messes to their successors. Increasing wealth continues to be the driving and unquestioned goal of contemporary societies, in both underdeveloped and overdeveloped nations. Increasing human numbers, meanwhile, are treated as irrelevant to our environmental impacts, a mistake we would never make with any other species we were trying to manage, from mice to cows to elephants.


All this would be more than enough to ensure the failure of international efforts to deal with climate change in Glasgow. But just to rule out whatever small chance of success might remain, the parties to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in 2015 agreed to make national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions voluntary. The Paris meeting was already the 21st annual meeting of participants in the UNFCCC. They were about to fail yet again to secure any real commitments to deal with this growing problem. But politicians like to brag about successes, whether they exist or not. So participants in Paris hit upon the idea of voluntary commitments. They could claim real progress was made and that they had “salvaged an agreement at the last minute,” almost miraculously, while not actually committing to doing anything about climate change.

Participants at the 2015 Paris meeting agreed to re-examine nations’ voluntary plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in six years, setting the stage to do that now in Glasgow. A recent UN study finds that the nationally defined contributions (NDCs) agreed to since Paris would be insufficient to keep Earth from heating up to potentially disastrous levels, even if all the nations of the world followed through on their proposed contributions—which they aren’t. Many nations have fallen behind the measly commitments they made in the wake of Paris, while Mexico and Brazil are coming in with weaker NDCs than they agreed to five years earlier. Of course, none of it really matters, since all these “commitments” are purely voluntary, with no penalties for failure to keep them.

Figure 2. Political leaders and environmental activists at the COP21 meeting in Paris in 2015. Rather than admit failure and push for real measures to combat global climate change going forward, world leaders found it easier to pretend that voluntary efforts would be sufficient to deal with the problem. This let everyone continue with business as usual economic growth for the next six years. Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

It is interesting to compare this futile 26-year-long effort to deal with global climate change with a highly successful international effort during the same period: the effort to increase international trade, first under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then under the World Trade Organization (WTO). During the past three decades, many of the world’s nations managed to reach strong agreements on binding trade rules, systematically reducing the barriers to trade those countries were allowed to maintain. These treaties set up the WTO in 1995 as a global body to strike down national laws and policies if they limited trade, including for such newly unacceptable reasons as protecting a nation’s workers or its environment. Political leaders happily ceded national sovereignty over these matters, perhaps because they and their elite patrons were well-positioned to benefit from harming their national environments and their fellow citizens.

The WTO runs on mandatory, enforceable rules: real commitments to goals that political leaders genuinely value: increased trade, increased corporate profits, increased wealth. Whatever our leaders say in Glasgow, preserving a habitable Earth obviously does not rise to the same level of concern. Perhaps that will change in time. We’ll know it is starting to change when participants in these annual climate meetings begin to consider mandatory commitments to limiting or reducing human numbers and human economic activity. Until then, it’s just so much hot air.


Read more about climate change and population from TOP

Jane O’Sullivan, The demographic fantasies of the IPCC.

Philip Cafaro, IPCC and IPBES Ignore Overpopulation Again.

Malte Andersson, Frank Götmark, and Anders Wijkman, Humanity needs to halt both population growth and climate change.

Population Growth and Climate Change: Addressing the Overlooked Threat Multiplier. Jenna Dodson, Patrícia Dérer, Philip Cafaro, and Frank Götmark. Science of the Total Environment 748, 141346 (2020).

Population Growth and Family Planning in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) made under the Paris Climate Agreement. Working Paper, The Overpopulation Project. See a shortened version in this blog.


See also the Call on COP26 for Urgent Action for Climate, Reproduction, and Intergenerational Justice, a letter to the delegates of the upcoming conference, co-authored by Fair Start Movement and Population Balance.

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8 thoughts on “Glasgow follies

  1. Philip Cafaro writes so well. Too bad his writing (and speaking) is doomed to failure for reasons not taught in universities.

    1. An exponentially-growing human population is by far the largest threat to our planet right now. If only someone – anyone – influential would read the novel 10:59 by N R Baker and promote it to seconday schools as essential reading, the world would become a LOT better informed (and enjoy a brilliantly written thriller at the same time). I’m not the writer so have no vested interest in promoting the book, but the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads speak volumes.

  2. Seems overpopulation is taboo for countries presenting plans or promises in spite of its importance for the future climate. I could not see a single reference to overpopulation in reports from COP26. Is it mentioned in some countries declaration of intentions?

    1. That is a good question. I haven’t reviewed them myself, or seen any systematic discussion of them. In news stories about several of them in recent months, I haven’t seen any mention of population matters.

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