Population Growth Injected into Carbon Cut Debate

October 14, 2009



As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, at least one low-level government official recognizes that projected U.S. population growth will make America’s goals for reducing carbon emissions much more difficult.  Brian O’Neill, a scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, who also works at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, has correctly observed that projected population growth makes carbon emissions reductions more difficult for the U.S. compared to some other developed countries where their populations are stable or declining. 

The leaders of the G8 nations have agreed to cut carbon emissions by 2050 by 80% from their 1990 levels.  Some of these developed nations are expected to decline in population by 2050, but not the U.S., whose population is projected to be 60% higher in 2050 (at 400 million people), vs. its 1990 population of 250 million.  So an 80% reduction in those emissions by 2050 would translate into a per capita reduction of 87.5% for the U.S.  For nations whose populations are projected to decline, their per capita reductions would be less than 80%.  This will translate into a lower standard of living for Americans than for other developed countries. 

Why is O’Neill talking to Reuters correspondents about this?  Is he a rogue low-level official speaking for himself?  Or is he parroting thinking that he’s heard at higher levels in his organization?  Or is it possible that this is an intentional move by the Obama administration to inject the subject of population growth into the carbon emissions debate? 

If the latter is the case, then to what end is the administration broaching this subject?  Two possibilities come to mind.  Since virtually all of our population growth is due to immigration, could it be that the administration is setting the stage for a dramatic change to immigration policy?  The second possibility seems more likely to me – that the administration is trying to shift the focus of carbon emissions reductions to a per capita basis instead of total emissions.  If so, they may think that the U.S. can get some relief on its own emissions goals vis-a-vis other G8 nations, but there’s a danger that such an approach could back-fire.  If total carbon emissions reductions are translated into a per capita basis, then it would be logical to apply the per capita figure evenly to all people of the world.  In such a scenario, U.S. emissions would have to be cut much further, since vast numbers of people already exist at far lower levels of per capita emissions, and population growth projections for many third world countries is even worse than the projections for the U.S.  In other words, if everyone gets to emit their fair share, then U.S. emissions will have to be cut much more drastically than 80%, a level that many already believe is simply unattainable. 

My interest in all of this is, of course, not so much reductions in carbon emissions, but the pressure that this subject brings to bear on the need to reduce our population.  Since economists don’t understand that reductions in our population would actually have huge economic benefits, we’ll all be better off in the end whether the impetus for population reductions is economic or some environmental concern.  The good news here is that, as much as environmentalists would like to keep the population factor below the radar, it’s beginning to be openly discussed.

Finally, the article ends with a quote so egregious that I can’t let it pass without comment:

David Satterthwaite, of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said … “It’s consumption that drives dangerous climate change, not population.” … “There is at most a weak link between population growth and rising emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Anyone who would make such a statement is being disingenuous, to put it mildly.  The rise in greenhouse gas emissions is directly related to the growth in population over the past couple of centuries.  Even a fifth-grader can understand that total emissions is a function of population times the average per capita emissions.  Only a fool would focus solely on per capita emissions while discounting the role of population growth.  Stabilizing and reducing our population is critical to achieving our goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  If reduced enough, it could also have the side effect of providing a huge boost to the standard of living for everyone.