Addressing Climate Change through the Lens of Population

Posted June 3, 2012 from Uganda
A hill in Ibanda district, Uganda being degraded by human activities
A hill in Ibanda district, Uganda being degraded by human activities
A hill in Ibanda district, Uganda being degraded by human activities (1/1)

The development of a Climate Change Policy by Government of Uganda confirms the urgency and pressure to domesticate the Kyoto protocol and deliberately and systematically address and mitigate the effects of climate change that are taking a toll on the country’s development efforts. However, tackling climate change requires new, innovative solutions and ambitious policies. It’s important to note outright that dealing with climate change is not simply an issue of CO2 emission reduction but a comprehensive challenge involving political, economic, social, cultural and ecological concern and therefore the population concern fits right into the jigsaw puzzle.

One key factor in addressing climate change is population: how many they are, how old they are, where they live and how they live, what are their demands, consumption levels among others. It is worth noting that population and climate change are interweaved, however, the population issue has remained a blind spot in discussions of how to mitigate climate change and slow down global warming by policy makers. Recent studies have linked population growth with emissions and the effect of climate change to the population.

Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates in the world today (3.2 percent per annum) mainly caused by high fertility rates of about 6 children per woman of reproductive age. In comparison, over the period 1980 to 2010, the world population has increased by 30 percent, Sub Saharan Africa population by 66 percent, Eastern African population by 68 percent and Uganda population has increased by 89 percent. This kind of population growth is said to have made a substantial contribution to emissions growth globally of between 40 per cent and 60 percent (2009 State of World Population report).

Much as the government of Uganda acknowledges that the rapid population growth rate as a result of persistent high fertility rate over the last 4 decades, it is a hindrance to achievement of development goals, and population also aggravates existing problems over access to water, land, food and other resources. Of course, it is principally much easier to talk about how areas of high population growth will be impacted by climate change, rather than how population growth itself is a cause of climate change and other environmental problems, as Attenborough argues.

The increasing numbers of people on the planet and their actions are impacting our environment and causing climate change. It is projected projects that if the global population would remain 8 billion by the year 2050 instead of a little more than 9 billion according to medium-growth scenario, it might result in 1 billion to 2 billion fewer tons of carbon emissions (United Nations). Meanwhile, studies show that family planning programs are more efficient in helping cut emissions, as indicated by Thomas Wire from London School of Economics where every 7 dollars spent on family planning can reduce CO2 emissions by more than one tonne.

It has been argued by researchers that a holistic approach that integrates policy on population and development, a strategy promoting sustainable development of population, resources and environment should serve as a model for integrating population programs into the framework of climate change adaptation. A broad thought that a larger population leads to greater emissions and the per capita carbon dioxide emissions average varies hugely from nation to nation holds but the general trend is that, as the population has grown, emissions have increased in proportion. The world population currently stands at around 7 billion, up from 1 billion in 1830, and the United Nations projects that 9 billion people will share the Earth and generate the associated emissions by 2050. So on the face of it, having fewer people is one reasonable approach to mitigating climate change. Reducing the population growth rate in a country like Uganda, for example, where the population size is predicted to triple by 2050 would not have a dramatic effect on emissions right now because the population momentum is already created, a strong reason why factoring population in climate strategies at the very start is critical. The population has increased from 5 million in 1969 to the current projected population of 34 million, thus evidence that those numbers are ecologically unsustainable.

Reducing unintended births is argued as a possible useful strategy when tackling climate change. In Uganda, 38 percent of pregnancies are unintended. Instead, ensuring adequate reproductive health services and contraception supplies to communities will enhance and promote having children by choice but not by chance. Increasing the awareness and demand for family planning services is also key in facilitating their acceptability and use. It is increasingly evident that in Uganda, many people are beginning to desire smaller families, therefore reducing unwanted or unintended fertility. The need is created but the question is ; are they able to fulfill their demands?. Of course reducing population growth helps, though it is not the one single magic bullet for climate change mitigation.

The population of Uganda is estimated to grow to over 100 million by 2050 and will continue to grow for the next over 40 years. This is because the momentum is already built. Population policies could have an immediate effect if they are built into our thinking on climate change here and now. Uganda needs to start taking notice of population effects today. Population policy can have immediate impacts on lots of things, but effects on total population size aren't significant for generations. The population size visa vis consumption levels matter to emissions levels and also urbanization. Statistical analyses of historical data suggest that population growth has been one driver of emissions growth over the past several decades and that urbanization, aging, and changes in household size can also affect energy use and emissions.

It is estimated that between 1990 and 2005, a total of 1,329,550 hectares (27 percent of original forest cover) was lost in Uganda, with some districts losing all of its forest cover. It is estimated that every year, Uganda loses 1.8 percent forest cover and this is largely attributed to increasing demand for agricultural land fuel wood by the rapidly growing population. The habitat loss has affected the ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, rangelands and catchments and has resulted into loss of biodiversity. The proportion of the population dependent on wood fuel in Uganda is over 90 percent, however, even if this dependence on fuel wood declined, the consumption is likely to increase to about 39.5 million tonnes by 2037 with a continued high fertility. The size of the population and its growth rates will always greatly impact on the environment and for this reason; population policy should be a critical feature in climate change adaptation strategies. Slowing population growth could provide 16-29 per cent of emission reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising population and this is a threat to the planet. It is time to include the population factor in the climate change debate that is more transparent if sustainability is to be achieved. Based on assumptions used by the United Nations Population Division, the urban population in Uganda is projected to increase nearly six fold by 2037 with high fertility continued, rising from 3.7 million in 2007 to 21.9 million in 2037. This implies that Uganda will require 4.3 million new urban housing units between 2007 and 2037.

As empowering women, education of the girls beyond primary education is priority to lowering fertility and changing reproductive behaviours, it is critical that countries (Uganda) move to satisfying current unmet need for family planning among the 41 percent of married women who want to space or limit their births but are not using contraceptives or else, it will not be on track to achieve a fertility transition in a generation. Also essential is meeting the reproductive health needs and demands of young people is key. The bottom line is putting the population at the centre of addressing climate change will give direction and solutions to tackling climate change and achieve sustainable development on this earth. Everyone has a contribution to make!!

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  • Jade Frank
    Jun 12, 2012
    Jun 12, 2012

    Dearest Ikirimat,

    As always, I found your story so powerful and insightful—and really spot on. I have learned so much from you over the past year and see you as a world expert and leader on population, family planning, reproductive rights and sexual health.

    Thank you for participating in our Rio+20 initiative and courageously sharing your voice. Your story and recommendations are en route to Rio de Janeiro with our partners at WEDO, and will be presented at the conference to ensure grassroots women's perspectives are included at the negotiating table. Our editorial team is working on an E-magazine for publication next Wednesday which you will receive in your inbox, highlighting selected pieces from our Rio+20 initiative. We will keep you updated on the outcomes of the conference and how you can stay involved as a vocal leader for your community on these issues.

    I encourage you to read the stories of your fellow PulseWire sisters and engage in conversation to share experiences, ideas, and best practices for addressing sustainable development issues in your communities.

    In friendship and solidarity, Jade

  • ikirimat
    Jun 19, 2012
    Jun 19, 2012

    Thanks Jade, My article is now part of the WP magazine and Im sure many more readers will be able to hear my voice. We need a quality population in a sustainable environment.