Humanity needs to halt both population growth and climate change

Many of today’s environmental problems are more due to population growth than climate change, and climate change is driven in part by continued global population growth. Development funding to make family planning and modern contraceptives universally available could make a big difference in solving these interlocking problems.

By Malte Andersson, Frank Götmark, and Anders Wijkman

This article was originally published in one of Sweden’s largest morning newspapers (Svenska Dagbladet) and is accessible here or here in Swedish.

The next few years will be crucial in the work to limit global climate disruption and stop the depletion of vital ecosystems. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced rapidly in Western countries, China, India and other nations with a large prosperous middle class, the consequences, according to the IPCC and the UN, could be catastrophic. The responsibility lies mainly with us in richer nations. We got the benefit, for two centuries, of using the stored solar energy that accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. Our civilization prospers from this “free lunch”, as Therese Uddenfeldt called her enlightening book about this unique event in human evolution (“Gratislunchen” in Swedish; an alternative title could have been “Brakfesten”, the Big Spree). We are now beginning to see the consequences: thawing permafrost and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather, giant forest fires, dehydrated farmland, food and water shortages, eradication of wildlife habitats, accelerated extinction of species.

In the shadow of these catastrophes and driving them, another challenge is growing: the world’s population growth, from 3 billion in 1960 via today’s 7.8 to perhaps 11 billion in 2100 according to the most recent UN forecast. An increasing number of people in poor countries are being hit hard by climate change in combination with rapidly growing populations. Until recently, malnutrition had been declining, but in places where the number of people is increasing at a faster pace than food supply, it is growing again. The FAO and the 2020 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the World Food Program, find that 690 million people (approximately 9 percent) were malnourished in 2019, and estimate that the number will climb to 840 million by 2030.

The situation is worst in Africa. Although the economy has improved for many Africans in recent years, the number of malnourished people has been increasing since 2014 and is now 250 million. If the trend continues, every fourth African will suffer from malnutrition by 2030. To avoid future humanitarian disasters, the supply of food needs to increase and birth rates must decrease considerably (from today’s 4.5 children per woman). Otherwise, the same mistakes as with global climate change threaten – passivity that increases future suffering and damage.

Do we in rich nations even want to understand what is happening? Hans Rosling’s bestseller “Factfulness” shows that the proportion of malnourished people has decreased steadily since 1970. But it does not mention that the number of malnourished, suffering people is increasing. That number has grown every year since 2014, and in 2019 also the proportion of malnourished people increased.

Number of people in the world from 1950 to 2100, separated into regions (black – Oceania, brown – Latin America, red – North America, yellow – Europe, light blue – Africa, dark blue – Asia). Actual data to 2019, projections to 2100, both from UN Population Division.

The Global Challenges Foundation recently found that among ten countries, Swedes were the most aware of the problems caused by global population increase. But unlike climate change, population growth is rarely discussed in the media and is almost entirely avoided by Swedish environmental organizations. Why this lack of interest in one of the root causes of the rapidly growing imbalance between people and the environment? With a smaller population in rich countries, consumption, greenhouse gases and climate disruption would certainly also have been less. The IPCC wrote in 2014 that “economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions”.

Is one reason why population growth is seldom mentioned that the increase mostly takes place in poor former colonies? The influential European opinion leader George Monbiot argues that rich racist Westerners are trying to blame climate change on the population growth in third world countries, in order to avoid lowering their own unsustainable consumption. This may be so in some circles, and consumption in wealthy countries must indeed decrease to help fight climate change. But it is a grave mistake to claim, like Monbiot and many other supposedly “progressive” thinkers, that the fears of population growth are exaggerated.

Some debaters claim that population growth is not a major problem from a climate or ecological perspective, due to the small ecological footprint of the poor. True, per capita footprints are smaller in the developing world, but a lot of feet can lead to large environmental impacts. In addition, the goal is that every child who is born gets a decent standard of living. To achieve that, sufficient water, energy, farmland, housing, and much more is required, which means that footprints increase over time. This is happening in many developing countries, and therefore efforts to strengthen the economies of these countries must be paired with efforts to limit population growth. There are two main reasons.

Firstly, the risk of increased malnutrition. If Africa’s population grows from today’s 1.3 to 4 billion, it will have dramatic consequences. It is hardly possible to increase food production in proportion to such an increase in population. Malnutrition has been growing steadily in Africa for the last six years according to the FAO. No new green revolution is in sight. Poverty and famine therefore threaten a growing part of Africa’s population, if it continues to increase as the UN predicts. Migration within and from Africa will then be even greater as a result of population growth and climate change.

Secondly, there is also the risk of an uncontrolled increase in greenhouse gases, from the large part of the population whose standard of living is increasing. The rich world should therefore greatly increase its efforts to help African nations, especially its women, to achieve the reduction in birth rates that many countries are striving for, according to the United Nations (see Population Facts No. 2017/10 in the UN link).

A major problem is that many women lack access to, or are actively prevented from using, modern contraceptives. Correcting the shortage is not a particularly expensive effort but can quickly contribute to lower birth rates. Smaller families also strengthen the economies of poor countries, as the proportion of children decreases relative to working adults, more women can join the workforce, children can receive longer and better education, and so on. Independence and education for women are important and deserve strong support, but it is equally important to quickly increase support for modern contraception, counseling and family planning, where increased development funding from wealthy countries could make a big difference.

The Oasis Initiative works with international aid in Africa with the vision of “A Sahel where all girls are educated and free from early marriage, where all women are free to choose the timing and number of their children, and where everyone has enough to eat.” Photo credit The Wellbeing Foundation Africa

Halting population growth is clearly beneficial for poor countries and rich countries alike. Many of today’s global problems are more due to population growth than to climate change. For example, exposure to new viruses, and extinction of species as population growth leads to more agriculture, deforestation, hunting, and fishing. To stop the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity, measures are needed both to end population growth and to curtail the wasteful lifestyles and excessive consumption among the world’s middle and upper classes. Reports on global development and measures to solve these challenges must be more balanced, by drawing attention to the consequences of population growth and the great need for family planning in Africa and throughout the world.

Malte Andersson is an ecologist and professor emeritus at the University of Gothenburg.

Frank Götmark is an ecology professor at the University of Gothenburg and studies population growth

Anders Wijkman is Honorary Chairman of the Club of Rome.

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As a reply to the article above, Per Zachrisson, a social anthropologist and historian, wrote the following response (published in Svenska Dagbladet).

In their opinion piece, the authors Malte Andersson, Frank Götmark and Anders Wijkman write that population growth is “one of the root causes of the rapidly growing imbalance between people and the environment” and that “many of today’s problems are more due to population growth than climate change.” It is a simplified message that has been repeated for decades and which, in the face of increasing climate change, risks becoming counterproductive.

The article confuses causes and symptoms. The population increase we see, in Africa, for example, is a symptom of poverty. The causes of this poverty are intimately linked to an unequal distribution of the earth’s resources and the ongoing climate change, both caused by wealthy nations.

The authors want more attention on “the consequences of population growth and the great need for family planning in Africa and throughout the world”. It sounds like an echo of the big, externally controlled, family planning projects in India 50 years ago. Since then, India and other developing countries have reduced their childbearing through increased living standards, not through the wealthier nations’ family planning programs in former colonies.

It is impossible to get away from the fact that increased living standards, such as the one we have in the West, are a prerequisite for reduced childbearing. How did we reach this standard of living? Through a comprehensive structural transformation of our societies, both economically and socially, as well as politically. What, then, is preventing, for example, Africa from undergoing a similar structural transformation of its societies?

The crucial obstacles lie in the limited opportunities for Africans to industrialise their societies. Through emigration, the impact of population growth in the West, being a result of agricultural transformation and early industrialism, was diminished. The opportunity to emigrate and reduce population pressure in Africa is not available to poor Africans today.

Africa became the source of raw material and labour for the West’s industrial construction. Today, the transformation and streamlining of African agriculture is hindered by the commodity interests of wealthier countries and by the accelerating climate deterioration. Western nations were also not interested in any industry on the continent. African domestic industry today has a very difficult time establishing itself and growing. The lack of willingness to invest and poor trading conditions are maintained by the richer nations of the world.

Poverty and population growth are symptoms of, not the root causes of, the global imbalance between humans and the environment. Only when the richer nations of the world really want to address the unequal distribution of the earth’s resources and radically reduce climate change, can the imbalance between humans and the environment, poverty and population growth, with or without family planning, be slowed down.

Per Zachrisson

PhD in social anthropology; PhD in history, previously active as a researcher at the University of Gothenburg

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Malte Andersson, Frank Götmark, and Anders Wijkman responded to the critique of Per Zachrisson with the following reply in Svenska Dagbladet:

In our post we highlighted that many of today’s environmental problems are due as much to population growth as to climate change (for example resource consumption, food shortages, expanding agriculture and deforestation, increased hunting and fishing, as well as accelerated species extinction). To halt the climate crisis and depletion of the earth’s resources, the prosperous middle and upper classes in the world’s countries must stop overconsuming energy and raw materials, but also support slowing down the rapid population growth in a large number of countries. High birth rates in many African and other poor countries need to be reduced to sustainable levels, for both environmental and economic reasons. Sharply decreasing numbers of children preceded economic development in parts of Asia and Latin America, in countries that were at a similar level of development to Africa in the 1950s, but which have now achieved significantly better living standards.

Per Zachrisson writes, without giving evidence, that “population increase… is a symptom of poverty”. But an important explanation for the increase in population is reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy. In pre-industrial societies without modern healthcare, having a large number of children compensated for high infant mortality. Mortality has gradually declined, among all ages, through advances in medicine, hygiene, and healthcare. If the birth rate then remains high, the population will increase rapidly, which is the case today, especially in large parts of Africa and Western Asia.

Zachrisson claims that “increased living standards, such as the one we have in the West, are a prerequisite for reduced childbearing”. But birth rates in western countries began to fall as early as around 1870, during widespread poverty. And in a number of developing countries, birth rates fell sharply through voluntary family planning programs, even during periods with barely any change in the wealth and living standards of its citizens. A detailed analysis from 2017 concludes that perhaps the most important reason for this decrease in birth rates was family planning programs in the 70s and 80s, combined with extensive media attention to population issues.

Compulsory programs, such as China’s One Child policy, must be condemned. In India, there was extensive sterilization of men for several years, in an appreciated voluntary program. That the program completely derailed 1975-1976, with mass sterilization of men in coercive forms, was due to Indian politicians, not to the West, which is what Zachrisson claims.

Increased education of girls and women has also contributed to declining birth rates, and lower population growth has clearly improved many national economies. Examples of birth rates being reduced rapidly on a voluntary basis are Iran, South Korea, Bangladesh and Costa Rica. In Iran, the birth rate after 1989 fell from 5.5 to 2 children per woman in just 15 years, despite the country being poor and impoverished through the war against Iraq.

In the 70’s and 80’s it became evident that family planning was slow to initiate in large parts of Africa, although partly successful programs existed in Kenya, Tunisia and Botswana. Together with the tragic opposition to family planning programs following the 1994 Cairo Conference, the slowness to initiate family planning has contributed to the slow decline in birth rates in Africa. Patriarchal and religious norms about large families still have an impact, but norms can change. Today’s Rwanda is an example, with successful family planning promotion and a sharp reduction in birth rates.

Naturally, a more equitable distribution of the earth’s resources is needed to raise the standard of living in poor countries. But birth rates can be sharply reduced on a voluntary basis without first having to raise the standard of living to Western levels, as Zachrisson claims. Today, many African researchers and African media emphasize the great need for increased family planning and smaller families. There are therefore strong reasons to increase development cooperation efforts in support of voluntary family planning and modern contraceptives. And thus contribute to many more African women being given the opportunity to decide on their number of children, education and future. Birth rates can then also steadily decrease to a long-term sustainable level.

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11 thoughts on “Humanity needs to halt both population growth and climate change

  1. Many people will not discuss population and only want to flog the West for overconsumption. That pathology is both counterproductive and plain wrong. Please consider when and at what level of average income Western societies reduced births and stabilized population and compare that to high population growth regions today! – The West has every right and duty (the latter often denied) to criticize African & other countries still growing their populations irresponsibly, today,

  2. This is out of date as fertility rates have stalled, there is much expert criticism of the UNPD’s data analysis i.e. using inflated fertility rates for China/India (vs. many other credible research entities), Prof. Hans Rosling et al. stated that education and empowerment of women is essential for lower fertility, and we are now observing impact of a growth in longevity, from previous high fertility rates which are now declining.

    Further, presently due to Covid, there is much data to analyse due to significant decline in travel, migration and population growth (i.e. static or in decline); according to Malthusian principles this should make for low property prices, more employment, better society and environment, but has it?

    Many people talk of overpopulation as the source of many environmental related problems e.g. pollution, carbon, emissions, forest clearing, agriculture, water management etc., but this allows the fossil fuel sector off the hook by people’s own dependence, and lack of pressure on elected governments to legislate robust environmental legislation versus the use of delaying tactics e.g. blaming population growth or using Orwellian double speak to apportion blame.

    Fact is environmental measures can be improved or increased through civil society, NGOs, Quangos, international treaties and political parties, then democratic government legislation, versus being allowed to focus upon humanity as the ‘problem’, the latter implying some ‘solution’ exists by stopping ‘other’ people breeding, living, working and migrating?

    On population, Malthus was wrong, and Ehrlich has been wrong too in catastrophic predictions; meanwhile radical right libertarian policies will have society ignore humanity in our nations to further nativist conservative politics and turning societies into efficient low taxed business units run by robots and fossil fuels.

    1. It never stops to amaze me how people can keep denying the reality of overpopulation, while it manifests itself in more and more places: Mediterranean migrantery, Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, the Rohingya situation, …

  3. Go to “MAHB.stanford.edu/library-item/blip/” to watch a 20 minute video about the future of humaniy. This will be the most important 20 minutes you will ever spend. It was created by Chris Clugston, a genius and author of the book “Blip”

  4. Two plus two equals four. Families with four children generally have at least one child too many.

  5. This obsession with blaming the West for everything wrong in the world is borderline pathological, especially from educated people who should know about history. It also appears to assume that only white Westerners have any agency ever, while everyone else is just sitting around helplessly at their mercy. Talk about being racist!
    Yes, colonialism, slavery, imperialism, warmongering are all awful. But most human societies in history have engaged in those things against each other; moreover, they would never have been possible without the collaboration of some parts of the societies that were subjected to them. The Europeans did not go catch the slaves in Africa themselves: they bought them from other Africans who had kidnapped and trafficked them and brought them to the ports. Not to mention that, for millennia, white people had been enslaved too. The Arab-Islamic expansion was fast, violent and enormously far-reaching. The Japanese and Russians had empires. Etc. Civil warfare, corruption, extreme class systems, repression, poverty, exist or take root in societies due to internal factors as much as, if not more, to external ones.
    Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy has been repeatedly invaded, broken up and occupied by everyone who was around at the time, from the French to the Turks, from the Germans to the Arabs. So? Are we blaming Austria or Tunisia for what’s wrong with us today, asking for reparations? Not to mention that, if “we” went through all that, it was because lots of people from what we now call Italy loved to play those games (e.g. Pope vs Empire) to increase their own power and wealth. As is happening in many conflict-ridden countries today.
    Yet, some people love to insist that the West does everything, decides everything, is to be blamed for everything, and we can never ask anyone to do their part in solving world problems until “the West” gets rid of all its evil institutions, which no human society has managed to do, ever.

    1. P.S. From a Westerner who consumes little and locally and certainly wants equality in the world.

    2. With the climate change accelerating it might well trigger a population decline in poor countries but in a very bad way. Once we past the 1.5C warming the food production will decline globally and you can imagine the result…

      1. Well, perhaps it is time to consult demograhic data for the history of population increase in many cases before routinely sobbing over surplus population in distress. The current Sob-culture is not empathy. Empathy is reasoned care and present assistance in respect for past and future. Without past and future one suffers from dementia – as seems to be the case all too often with contemporary humanitarian intervention.

    3. You make some good points here. Too often, people invoke history to let current regimes off the hook for creating just and sustainable societies.

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