14 SEP 2023
Understanding population patterns can help us tackle climate change
Climate change and demography share deep ties but their relationship is more complex than it might seem. Population growth is just one side of a story that, when we dig a little deeper, reveals some cause for optimism in the face of adversity.
There are three times more people on Earth today than there were in the 1950s. With a population of eight billion that looks set to continue growing into the middle of this century, we often think about the negative environmental impact of population growth when we consider the relationship between demography and climate change. Whilst the impact of this rapid expansion has been undeniable, it’s not the only side to the story.
The connection between population patterns and climate change is a complex matrix that includes not only population growth, but also food systems, urbanization and displacement. Negativity dominates the headlines, but there are more than a few causes for hope in this story. Ahead of COP28 and the vital decisions that need to be taken to slow the impacts of climate change, exploring the intricate connections between population dynamics and climate change uncovers reasons for optimism and pathways towards a more sustainable future.
The urban paradox
Rapid urbanization is a defining characteristic of our time. Over half of the world’s population lives in cities, 80% of GDP is generated in urban areas, and cities account for over 70% of global CO2 emissions. This concentration of people, wealth and resource consumption paints a picture of cities as major emitters and, while this is true, the reality is more complex. Urbanization increases household carbon footprints in developing countries, but studies suggest that the inverse can be true in developed economies thanks to more efficient energy and transport infrastructure. Turku and Dijon, for example, are lowering household and municipal emissions through the installation of quadruple glazed windows and solar panels.
Designing more sustainable urban areas with efficient public transportation and green infrastructure could significantly reduce global emissions and improve quality of life, but only if access to these innovations is equitable for all countries. Furthermore, the sheer number of people and resources in cities means they can serve as hubs of innovation, fostering the development and implementation of sustainable technologies and policies. Cities are some of our largest polluters, but they have the potential to be the source of our greatest sustainability successes.
Reclaiming the climate refugee narrative
Extreme weather events, rising sea levels and ecological disruption are creating climate refugees. According to UNHCR, 21.5 million people have been displaced by weather-related sudden onset disasters – like floods and wildfires – every year since 2008.
But there could be a glimmer of hope. This adversity is compelling governments and individuals to find solutions, develop sustainable practices, and create stronger, more inclusive societies. Marshallese community members and artists, for example, are strengthening ties to their traditional culture and fostering national pride by resisting the narrative that they are helpless in the face of climate change. And climate refugees in Bangladesh are building new lives in climate-resilient areas like Mongla that provide them with jobs, housing and a renewed sense of purpose. Displacement due to climate change will challenge our societies in new ways, but the movement of people has always been a fact of human existence. We can work to create positive outcomes for those affected by it.
Feeding the future
Addressing the nexus between population patterns, climate change and food security is at the top of the sustainability agenda. As many as 811 million people faced hunger in 2020 and that number is continuing to rise. Extreme weather events – like flooding in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa – are threatening more people with starvation through the destruction of crops and livestock, while the environmental impact of food production continues to grow: agriculture accounts for a quarter to a third of global emissions.
Solving world hunger and reducing emissions from food production seem to be totally at odds but there’s significant potential for sustainability success. Eco-friendly farming practices – such as agroforestry, organic farming, and precision agriculture – can help mitigate emissions while enhancing productivity and resilience. Increasing attention is also being given to the sustainable agricultural practices of indigenous peoples, paving the way for greater social cohesion and inclusion of historically marginalized communities. The USDA, for example, is engaged in a national project to revive the indigenous American practice of planting several different crops alongside each other, and new research suggests that indigenous farming knowledge is key to the creation of sustainable food systems. Embracing sustainable agriculture has the potential to increase food security and reduce pressure on natural resources in the same stroke, allowing us to feed future generations.
Optimism amidst challenges
The complex interconnectedness of demography and climate change presents formidable challenges and demands our immediate attention, but the opportunities for positive change are also great. Governments, businesses, and individuals are recognizing the urgency of addressing these issues and are taking action. COP28 will provide an historic opportunity to enable a unified approach to global sustainability efforts and a chance to accelerate positive change.
Optimism is not only possible but necessary if we are to effectively tackle the challenges of climate change and shifting populations together. In many cases, a solution to one is a solution to another – the pursuit of sustainability is inevitably the pursuit of a healthier, happier and more prosperous society