By Natasha Gilbert
Providing access to contraception for 215 million women, mainly in developing countries, would help to stabilize population growth and significantly reduce the effects of climate change, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says in a report today.
The State of the World Population 2009 report says that population levels will affect countries' abilities to adapt to the immediate effects of climate change, although the longer-term influence of population growth on climate change will depend on future economic, technological and consumption trends.
The study says that if the world's population grows from 6.8 billion to 9 billion people by 2050 -- the UN's "medium-growth" scenario -- an extra 1-2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is likely to be emitted each year, compared with a "low-growth" scenario that leads to 8 billion people by 2050. In comparison, the burning of fossil fuels produced about 8.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide globally last year.
But despite the influence of population on climate, the link has barely featured in scientific and diplomatic discussions, the report says.
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UNFPA, says that countries are probably shy of talking about this link because they fear that the discourse will turn to population control. "We understand these fears," she says, "but if contraception and family planning were made available to all those who want it, this would slow population growth and have a huge impact on climate change."
Economic growth is generally believed to be one of the key drivers of lowering fertility rates, but Obaid argues that education and access to family-planning services are more influential on population levels.
Paul van Gardingen, professor of international development at the University of Edinburgh, UK, agrees that the role of education and contraception "is stronger than the relationship between GDP [gross domestic product] and fertility. This is not to say that GDP is not important, but to say it is the thing that will reduce overall fertility and stabilize the global population is a bit tenuous," he says.
"Until we get population dynamics integrated into our understanding of climate change and our responses to it, both will be ineffective," he says.
The report also calls for greater attention to be paid to the different impacts of climate change on women compared with men. It argues that women are more vulnerable than men because they tend to earn less money, are less well educated, and have fewer resources to buffer the effects of global warming. It also cites a lack of research and reliable data in the area. "Women suffer most," says Obaid. "They must be included in discussions for adaptation programmes to succeed."
Obaid hopes that the report will influence negotiations at the Copenhagen climate summit in early December.