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UNITED NATIONS, Nov 18 (IPS) - A new U.N. report on the hazards of climate change brings a fresh human perspective to an ongoing wide-ranging debate that has focused primarily on energy efficiency and industrial carbon emissions.
Climate change is much more than greenhouse-gas emissions, says the study by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), it is also population dynamics, poverty and gender equity.
"As the growth of population, economies and consumption outpaces the earth's capacity to adjust, climate change could become much more extreme - and conceivably catastrophic," warns the annual 'State of World Population 2009' released Wednesday.
UNFPA executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid points out that environmental damage is "one of the most inequitable risks of our time".
"The carbon footprint of the poorest billion people on earth is three percent of the world's total, yet it is the poor, especially poor women, who will bear the disproportionate brunt of climate change," she said.
Against the backdrop of a rising global population - approaching seven billion people - a growing body of evidence shows that recent climate change is primarily the result of human activity.
"It is about what we consume, the types of energy we produce and use, whether we live in a city or in a farm, whether we live in a rich or poor country, whether we are young or old, what we eat, and even the extent to which women and men enjoy equal rights and opportunities," the report says.
Released in the run-up to a major climate change conference in Copenhagen Dec. 7-18, the study says an international agreement that helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and harnesses the insight and creativity of women and men would launch a genuinely effective long-term global strategy to deal with climate change.
But world leaders meeting at a summit in Singapore last week decided to focus only on a "politically binding" agreement in Copenhagen and shelve the legally binding treaty, perhaps for a future summit next year in Mexico City.
Asked about the changing political scenario, Richard Kollodge, editor of the UNFPA study, told IPS: "Whether or not the Copenhagen conference results in a ratifiable climate change treaty, the process of working for a global agreement to stabilise the climate and deal with the impacts of climate change will continue for as far into the future as anyone can see".
He said UNFPA will continue advocating for the empowerment of women, including education for girls and increased access to reproductive health care and voluntary family planning.
Kollodge also said the UNFPA report will have a much longer relevance - beyond Copenhagen.
Addressing the U.N. climate change summit last September, Finnish President Tarja Halonen focused on the gender perspective: "We know that climate change will hit most seriously the poorest regions and the weakest groups of people."
She said about 70 percent of the world's poor are women, and they will suffer most from the effects of climate change.
"By helping women to survive in their everyday lives, we can promote the overall goals of sustainable development," she added.
Halonen also said that women will, and can, be powerful actors to mitigate change. "We need to ensure full and active participation of women both in the making and in the implementation of the new deal."
Obaid said the UNFPA study shows that women have the power to mobilise against climate change, but this potential can be realised only through policies that empower them.
Extending the argument further, the report says climate change is about people.
"People cause climate change. People are affected by it. People need to adapt to it. And only people have the power to stop it," it says.
Climate change's influence on people is described as being "complex", triggering migration, destroying livelihoods, disrupting economies, undermining development and exacerbating inequities between sexes.
The study lists several risks relating to climate change: by 2075, between three billion and seven billion people could face chronic water shortages and one in six countries could face food shortages each year because of severe droughts.
Also, as much as 30 percent of plant and animal species could become extinct if the global temperature increase exceeds 2.5 Celsius.
But according to current estimates, the average global temperature could rise by as much as 6.4 degrees C. by the end of this century.
At the same time, global average sea levels could rise by as much as 43 centimetres by the end of this century, threatening the very existence of low-lying small island states.