Why enabling all children to flourish helps tackle the climate crisis


In an important article published last week, Georges Monbiot from the Guardian describes how people in rich nations tend to blame all the world’s environmental problems on population growth. This “panic” reaction not only conveniently leaves the richer societies “off the hook” in regard to their unequivocal responsibilities, but is also off the mark in terms of understanding the underlying demographic trends. Rather than perceiving the number of new-born children as a threat, rich societies should fast reduce their own high level carbon emissions and acknowledge evidence highlighting the irreplaceable role of education, health and women empowerment in stablizing population and climate. In fact, as WHO and UNICEF have already put forth, supporting the well-being of children should be at the very centre of sustainability policies.

Why it matters: voices in favour of more radical population control measures are becoming more numerous as the climate crisis deepens – and not only in far right deep ecology circles. Population growth matters without doubt and is linked to various forms of environmental damage. The problem is that these voices often ignore the bigger picture. First, carbon emissions in very low-income countries, where high fertility rates are concentrated, are insignificant and will remain so for a long time. Second, if education and voluntary reproductive healthcare programmes were implemented at scale, it is estimated that about 85.4 gigatons of CO2 could be avoided by 2050, representing the second most impactful solution to keep temperature increase below 2°C. As Project Drawdown sums it up:

When levels of education rise (in particular for girls and young women), access to reproductive healthcare improves, and women’s political, social, and economic empowerment expand, fertility typically falls. Across the world and over time, this impacts population, [and] population interacts with the primary drivers of emissions: production and consumption, largely fossil-fueled.

Let us see why.

Hitting the nail on who emits what: the distribution of carbon emissions by income and region is without ambiguity. According to Our World in Data:

  • The lowest income countries, representing 9% of the world population are responsible for only 0.5% of global emissions, while the richer half of the world population is responsible for 86% of emissions. No comment needed.

  • On its side, Africa accounts for only 4% of global emissions. Even if its population triples by 2050 and the region’s income increases several fold, the continent will still account for only a very limited proportion of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Co2 emissions by income and region

More babies? Wrong answer: contrary to what many people are believe, the world population is not going up because of more children being born. With falling fertility rates worldwide, their number is now relatively stable and expected to remain so.

When will the world reach 'peak child'? - Our World in Data

In fact, the population is growing because of better health and people living longer. This is also true in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, the only two regions in the world where extra population growth is expected over the 21st century.