Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Should Overpopulation be the Target?

Now and again the question of global population moves from the back burner to the front burner. Most of this movement can be attributed to how future increases in global population will influence resource consumption, global warming and food production. Some individuals reason that despite significant energy efficiency gains in recent years a continuously increasing world population helps explain the increase in both energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. To bolster this argument proponents cite IEA statistics that from 2004-2008 the world population increased by approximately 5% and ‘in response’ global energy production increased an additional 10%. Unfortunately for proponents this reasoning appears flawed.

Too often when individuals want to reach a specific conclusion they tailor interpretations to fit that conclusion and omit information which would demonstrate flaws in the methodology of that conclusion. For example the contention that world population is a significant driver of global warming is a premise which will always be shrouded in confusion as long as the premise remains so broad. Addressing this particular issue demands specificity to determine how increasing population provides a significant contribution to global warming. The initial cause-effect link between greater population and increased climate change is that an increased population results in increased energy use, which because most energy is generated from fossil fuel source, increases carbon emissions and the probability of detrimental climate change. However, this reasoning is too restricted. It does not consider other avenues of increased energy use such as how the energy consumption behavior of existing members of the global population is changing.

To support or disprove this conclusion it is important to look at three pieces of information: where the population growth is coming from, what capacity for energy use these new members have available to them and the origins of increases or decreases in greenhouse gases. Below table 1 lists information for the ten countries with the largest birth rates, how much total annual carbon emissions the countries produce and their GDP. Table 2 lists information for the ten countries with the largest carbon footprints on an absolute level, their respective birth rates and their GDP. Table 3 lists information for the ten countries with the largest carbon footprint on a ‘per capita’ level and their respective birth rates. The reason ‘per capita’ information is included is for a sense of completeness because overall ‘per capita’ is irrelevant relative to absolute levels of carbon emissions. Such a point is obvious when comparing the absolute emissions to ‘per capita’ emissions between countries like China and Aruba.

Table 1: Highest Global Birth Rates with Associated Carbon Emissions and GDP [1,2,4]

Table 2: Highest Global Total Carbon Emissions with Associated Birth Rates and GDP [1,2,4]

Table 3: Highest Global Carbon Emissions 'per capita' with Associated Birth Rates [1,3]

Note that in table 1 birth rates are defined as crude birth rates which are the number of births over a given period divided by the person-years lived by the population over that period. The information from table 1 demonstrates that of the ten countries with the highest birth rates all but one, Angola (78), are outside the top 100 in absolute carbon emissions. Their GDPs also demonstrate these countries have significantly underdeveloped economies. Comparing countries between tables 1 and 3 there are no commonalities; therefore, based on this information it is reasonable to conclude that in the near future any significant increase in population within these countries will have little impact on the overall level of climate change.

Table 2 demonstrates that those countries will high carbon footprints generally have low birth rates; outside of Iran (96) the other nine all have birth rates outside of the top 100 in the world. An interesting conclusion can be drawn from this result. Based on the high birth rates in lower emitting countries and the low birth rates in the higher emitting countries it can be reasoned that a majority of the emissions generated by increases in global populations come from only a small number of those new births. If accurate this conclusion can significantly influence future policy with respect to global population growth relative to carbon emissions.

Finally table 3 demonstrates another situation with low birth rates, yet high ‘per capita’ emissions. Again even the countries that have the highest ‘per capita’ emission rates have birth rates outside the top 100, except for Brunei (87). Of course one must be careful when dealing with ‘per capita’ because it is a ratio derived from averages and does not include standard deviations. Therefore, ‘per capita’ information could be misleading in the fact that it does not describe a possible wealth gap between socioeconomic tiers within the country where a small portion of the population is responsible for a large portion of the emissions. However, overall when looking at the above information is appears more likely that the driving force behind increasing carbon emissions are not additions to the population, but through members of the existing population having greater opportunities for energy consumption, a hypothesis supported by the dramatic rise in carbon emissions from countries like China, Brazil and India.

Clearly an increase in population will increase energy use because all humans, no matter what their socioeconomic status, will need to consume energy. However, if a majority of these new humans are responsible for a minority of the energy consumption and resultant emissions then a conservation strategy becomes more valid over addressing the overpopulation issue.

On a logical level it makes sense to address an overpopulation issue because of energy gap and food production issues; however, unfortunately monetary resources are not in infinite supply. Therefore, certain goals must be given priority over other goals. The information above demonstrates that investing in conservation and changes in energy generation portfolios should go further in addressing global warming concerns over directly addressing birth rates. One concern with this strategy may be what happens if these countries with higher birth rates begin to modernize which would lead to greater opportunities for energy consumption and more than likely overall higher carbon emissions.

While concern for such a situation is understandable it seems unrealistic on two fronts. First, most of those countries that have high birth rates have yet to significantly modernize in terms of energy consumption and do not demonstrate any meaningful signs that the situation will change drastically in the near future. Second, even if the process of energy consumption modernization begins a wide variety of high efficiency low carbon emission energy providers have been developed and brought to market which could be utilized instead of the more carbon intensive providers from the past. To those that are concerned that these lower carbon emission alternatives will not be adopted due to near future cost concerns, it stands to reason that in the near future high carbon emission providers will see a significant and lasting price increase due to supply shortages relative to existing demand. Clearly modernization will more than likely involve some increase in carbon emissions, but if acted on properly should not mirror the changes which occurred in China and India.

In addition one must address the reason behind high birth rates. First it must be stated that there may be nothing inherently wrong with a high birth rate. Some individuals seem to have an impression that there is something bad about creating a sustainable population. With that said it does stand to reason that with the myriad of personalities in the world birth rates exceeding a certain threshold point can be viewed as distortion. Unfortunately there is no real way to determine that threshold point.

There appears to be four major reasons why a country may have a higher than anticipated birth rate: lack of female empowerment, lack of general sex education in both sexes of the populous, lack of contraceptive availability and large family advantages. The chief advantage gained from having a large family is additional labor. Most of the countries in table 1 still have largely agrarian economies; therefore, birthing children provide additional labor that can work the fields or find work on other farms nearby.

So how could these elements, which distort natural birth rate, be addressed? The most difficult is female empowerment, giving females the confidence to better manage their sexual lives and getting males to cooperate with their potential partners instead of control them. The difficulty in accomplishing this goal is that some cultures have defined gender roles which somewhat to significantly contradict these changes. Therefore, these cultures and traditions that have existed in these countries for centuries are in conflict with this empowerment standing.

The sexual education issue seems easy just put the children into a classroom and discuss what a condom is and how to use it appropriately and how birth control pills and other forms of contraceptive work. If the classroom environment is deemed inappropriate give the tools to parents so they can have these educational conversations with their children. However, this initial ease disappears when considering that even highly modernized countries like the United Sates have trouble addressing sexual education. Also the general disarray of most educational infrastructure in most high birth rate countries adds difficulty to executing this solution.

The most straightforward element is to make contraceptives more available. Unfortunately even if the funds were generated to the point were the contraceptives could be situated in an affordable and easily accessible manner individuals would still have to understand how to utilize the contraceptives properly. Therefore, the second and third elements above are specifically tied together, one fails without the other. Also due to the general poverty that exists in most of these higher birth rate countries charitable or low priced contraceptives have to be continuously supplied. Any call for abstinence is clearly misguided because abstinence programs at their optimistic best have proven to be inconsistent and at worse complete failures. On a cynical note it is surprising a company like Trojan has not constructed a factory and distribution center in one of these countries and employed locals that would then turn around and use their wage to purchase significant quantities of their product.

Finally the fourth explanation can only be addressed through diversification of the economy. However, any diversification would require greater energy use, thus low emission energy sources would have to be introduced in order to eliminate any offset loss of carbon emissions from population growth with greater energy use per person opportunities that may come from diversification. Overall it is reasonable to suggest that at least two of these four elements, which induce distortions in the natural birth rate, need to be addressed in order to significantly balance global birth rates. With respects to climate change focusing efforts on conservation in high emission countries appears to be a much more effective strategy than focusing on lowering global birth rates.


1. Wikipedia - List of sovereign states and dependent territories by birth rate; World Population Prospects, Int2006 revision: Online data (http:/ / esa. un. org/ unpp/ index. asp?panel=2).

2. Wikipedia - List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions; United Nations Statistics Division, Millennium Development Goals indicators: Carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), thousand metric tonnes of CO2 (http:/ / mdgs. un. org/ unsd/ mdg/ SeriesDetail. aspx?srid=749& crid=) (collected by CDIAC).

3. Wikipedia - List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita; International Energy Agency. "CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion - Highlights" (http:/ / www. iea. org/ co2highlights).

4. Wikipedia - List of countries by GDP (nominal); International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, April 2011: Nominal GDP list of countries. Data for the year 2010.

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