Understanding population patterns can help us tackle climate change

Understanding population patterns can help us tackle climate change

14 SEP 2023

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


19 JUN 2024

What is the COP Presidencies Troika?

A new environmental partnership aims to accelerate and strengthen climate action at the highest levels of government worldwide. So what is the COP Presidencies Troika, and how will it work?

The COP Presidencies Troika unites the UAE, Azerbaijan and Brazil, the hosts of COP from 2023-2025. With its name derived from a style of carriage drawn by three horses side-by-side, the Troika embodies a growing global commitment to cooperation and action, to meet the ambitious climate goals set for 2030. The Troika aims to tackle three problems that have slowed progress on climate action: maintaining momentum, ensuring continuity and driving implementation.

What is the COP Presidencies Troika?

Maintaining momentum year round

Critically, the Troika aims to keep the urgency of climate action high between COP conferences. It’s not uncommon for global climate initiatives to take place at a staccato rhythm, marked by intense flurries in discussion and ambitious commitments, then inactivity or inaction in intervening months while climate goals get sidelined by economic factors, regulatory delays and ebbs in political will.

In just the last year, the UK government announced its intention to “water down” some of its climate change commitments. Under the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil saw deforestation of the Amazon rainforest greatly increased, often called the lungs of planet Earth for its importance to global environment health. In Poland, five citizens resorted to taking the government to court for their poor environmental record.

What is the COP Presidencies Troika?

These commitments often stumble when the urgency from COP has faded and governments are faced with considerable regional or local economic pressures to compromise on sustainability. With the three governments actively working to keep climate discussions a priority, the Troika aims to give the environment a stronger voice throughout the year, strengthening action for climate change long after the conference doors close.

Ensuring continuity and driving implementation

Moreover, the Troika aims to streamline climate change efforts and bridge the gap between commitment and action. The UAE Consensus included a plan for the three COP Presidencies to collaborate on a "Roadmap to Mission 1.5°C."

COP29, happening in Baku, Azerbaijan, is expected to focus on a new collective financial target, called the New Collective Quantified Goal, or NCQG for climate action. This target aims to address the specific needs of developing countries. If agreed upon, the NCQG would be the most significant development in climate finance since 2009, when developed countries pledged to jointly raise $100 billion annually by to support developing nations.

Building on the progress from both the UAE Consensus and COP29, the focus at COP30 in Brazil will be on ensuring strong commitments from individual countries in their next round of national climate plans, due in 2025. The Troika will play a key role in this. The aim is to make sure these national plans are ambitious enough to collectively achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement while also considering sustainable development and poverty eradication efforts.

By working in tandem and with this clear plan for the next three COPs, the Troika aims to ensure that – individually and collectively – there is no wavering from working towards sustainable goals. 

A Historic COP Initiative

Previous COPs have been heavily criticized by observers and journalists for discordance, misalignment or lack of urgency.

COP4 in Buenos Aires in 1998 was described as “two weeks of ill-tempered talks”. Action at COP12 in Nairobi was lambasted for “glacial progress.” Lima’s COP20 was summed up as a conference that “overran and underdelivered.”

What is the COP Presidencies Troika?

COP28 grabbed headlines for many reasons, including being the first COP to call for a clear transition “away from fossil fuels”, but also for recognizing that there are only a few more years left before climate change makes our decisions for us.

At the launch of the Troika in Dubai, COP28 President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber said: "COP28 delivered a different, groundbreaking COP, that culminated in The UAE Consensus. At COP28, Parties mobilized behind historic climate action through both the negotiations and their commitments to the Presidential Action Agenda.”

“The Troika helps ensure we have the collaboration and continuity required to keep the North Star of 1.5°C in sight – from Baku to Belém and beyond. The breakthroughs we all achieved at COP28 must carry forward to COP29 and 30 – in ambitious nationally determined contributions, climate finance follow through, and accelerated implementation."


14 JUN 2024

ADSW Answers: the Director of the SME Climate Hub on how SMEs can decarbonize

As countries continue working to limit global warming according to the Paris Agreement, most recently with the landmark UAE Consensus reached at COP28 to transition away from fossil fuels, small businesses are realizing they have a big opportunity to make a significant impact. But lowering carbon emissions can also be a significant challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Pamela Jouven, Director of the SME Climate Hub, an online platform for small and medium-sized enterprises, talks about the Hub’s work to accelerate a global movement and mobilize SMEs to take climate action – and why that action is critical for the planet.

How does sustainability align with your strategy?

We support small and medium-sized businesses on their climate action journeys by providing them with free tools and resources to reduce their carbon footprint. We also invite businesses to make the SME Climate Commitment and be recognized by the UN’s global Race to Zero campaign by halving emissions by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050, and reporting on their progress each year. More than 7,500 SMEs from over 130 countries have made the commitment so far.

The SME Climate Hub is an initiative of the We Mean Business Coalition, a global nonprofit that had historically worked with larger corporations to halve global emissions by 2030. But the crucial role SMEs play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions has become increasingly apparent: 90% of companies globally are small or medium-sized enterprises, employing 70% of the world’s workforce and contributing over 50% of global GDP.

SMEs also have a more local customer base, staff and supply chain, making them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To create more resilient communities, SMEs need to be able to weather these changes, while we work to keep global temperature rise in check – but they need support.

What do you see as the most important opportunity to focus on in the sustainability space?

To reach net zero, we need small and medium-sized businesses to make consistent progress toward global targets. At the same time, we must not put a disproportionate burden on the businesses that have the least resources to navigate the energy transition. Governments, corporations, civil society and industry associations all need to come together to support them.

Over 80% of the SMEs we survey annually say they want to take action but need financial resources, tools for action, regulatory support and even support from their investors and customers. 61% of those surveyed told us their customers – whether corporate partners or individuals – were not asking them to reduce emissions. If corporations and governments want to meet their own climate goals, they need to bring their entire supply chain and constituents on board.  

How are you involving stakeholders in your sustainability efforts?  

We’re working with a diverse set of stakeholders to help us reach SMEs with the information they need, build out support and incentive systems, and streamline the commitments we are asking them to make or the data we are asking them to disclose. Through a partnership with the COP28 Presidency, First Abu Dhabi Bank and Masdar, we began to mobilize SMEs in the Middle East and North Africa and created a version of the SME Climate Hub digital platform in Arabic. We’ve also expanded our footprint in the UK and US and launched recruitment campaigns and regionalized programs in Latin America, the Caribbean and India.  

When engaging corporations in the mobilization of their supply and value chains, we’ve seen increasing progress. Last year, we launched a partnership with IKEA’s largest retailer, Ingka Group, to share the SME Climate Hub resources with its SME customers. And we’re working with multinational corporations and the finance industry to boost access to incentives that support SMEs’ low-carbon transition. 

How are you fostering innovation in sustainability?  

We’re already seeing thousands of companies taking climate action because they know it’s critical to protect their bottom lines. With the right resources to take climate action, SMEs can reduce costs from long-term climate impacts, improve efficiency and create a healthier environment for their operations and communities. Businesses are also realizing more and more that customers, investors and governments are now looking for companies that have a lower environmental footprint.  

Key to supporting SMEs in their decarbonizing efforts is innovative financing, and we are also working with financial institutions to develop tools such as preferential loans and terms for SMEs that are taking climate action. 

In what areas do you see other sustainability-related opportunities?  

The SME Climate Hub and the We Mean Business Coalition are working with more corporations around the world to mobilize even their smallest suppliers toward climate action, including a supplier cascade campaign calling on corporations to help their suppliers reduce emissions. In addition to providing free tools and resources, we work with large corporations to incentivize their smaller suppliers. This can mean beneficial contracts for companies that are taking action or procurement requirements prioritizing businesses that are targeting emissions reductions.  

Companies and governments are increasingly calling for a phase out of fossil fuels. We recently worked with Netflix to create our Action Courses, which offer guidance for EV adoption within the film and television production sector – an approach we’re planning to replicate in other industries. By moving toward clean energy solutions across businesses of all sizes and fostering essential collaborations in supply chains, we can drive larger change throughout entire systems and industries.  

07 JUN 2024

Solving water scarcity with green desalination

Alexei Levene, Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer, Desolenator

With the world facing the escalating challenge of water scarcity, the need for innovative solutions has never been more pressing. We are on a trajectory toward a 40% deficit in global water availability by 2030, according to the UN, and the pervasive impacts of climate change are putting water stress on track to reach crisis proportions.

Populations worldwide – in cities like Jakarta, Cape Town, Mexico City, and Barcelona – are already experiencing the effects. By 2025, regions home to half of the global population could be grappling with water stress.

Source: World Resources Institute

Water underpins all aspects of life as we know it, from food production to manufacturing, transportation and energy. Global demand for water will only increase with population growth and urbanization, alongside the escalating strain from intensified agricultural practices, greater energy requirements and the expansion of industrial activities.

However, while it may appear we are facing a scarcity issue, the crux lies in water quality.

The vast majority of our planet’s water (97%) is held in our oceans, presenting a significant but underutilized resource. Glaciers and ice caps contain about 2% of the water total, leaving less than 1% readily available as freshwater. This distribution highlights the stark contrast between the abundance of saline water and the scarcity of freshwater resources. Desalination is crucial to bridge this gap.

Despite its potential, the environmental impact of traditional desalination technology, with its heavy energy consumption and reliance on fossil fuels, demands a shift toward more sustainable practices. Notably, the global water industry, including desalination, contributes approximately 10% of worldwide CO2 emissions, underscoring the urgent need for greener approaches in water treatment and supply.

This includes integrating desalination plants with renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and nuclear power to produce clean water without worsening climate change. However, this transition is not without obstacles, such as the intermittent nature of renewable energy and the difficulties of desalination when power supply fluctuates.

Specifically, variations in plant operations can lead to more frequent fouling of the membranes that separate salt from water. The inconsistent power from wind and solar installations may require the integration of storage systems to smooth out supply fluctuations, potentially increasing costs. Nuclear plants are often too large for just desalination, suggesting they need to serve additional power generation purposes. These challenges are significant for large-scale plants that supply critical water resources to areas like Dubai and Israel.

Desolenator’s solar-powered desalination facility.

In the face of these challenges, innovation plays a critical role in shaping both a secure and decarbonized water future. The following three innovations addressing this water-energy nexus provide a glimpse into what the future of desalination could hold.

Deep sea desalination: Leveraging the naturally occurring pressure differential between the surface and deep sea, Floucean is pioneering a unique alternative to renewable energy generation for water production. The subsea reverse osmosis (RO) process is powered by the hydrostatic pressure of the deep sea, reducing power consumption compared to conventional plants. The technology uses the pressure created by depths of 500 meters or more, which can be found in the majority of coastal locations, to feed surrounding water into the deep-water desalination station.

Wave-powered desalination: By harnessing the kinetic energy of ocean waves, this approach provides a novel way to power desalination processes. Projects like Oneka capture the motion of waves to generate the pressure required for desalination, eliminating the need for external power sources. This method harnesses the vast energy of the ocean and aligns with sustainable development goals by reducing ecological impacts and strengthening coastal water supply systems.

Solar-powered and distributed desalination: Utilizing solar energy, this approach employs solar thermal energy to distill seawater into fresh water, bypassing the need for harmful chemicals or complex membrane systems. The technology Desolenator has developed couples efficient energy production with innovative storage through a thermal battery. This environmentally friendly and cost-effective method offers scalable solutions that cater to diverse needs, from small communities to expansive urban centers. The adaptability of solar-powered systems is key, allowing for customized implementations that can address specific local water challenges.

But what needs to happen for these decarbonized desalination solutions to go mainstream?

First, it’s crucial to establish a policy environment that aligns with net zero goals. This requires a multifaceted strategy that includes regulatory support, financial incentives and enhanced collaboration between the public and private sectors to expedite the development of innovative solutions and stimulate investment and innovation within the water sector.

The investment gap between the water sector and other industries, particularly energy, also deserves more attention. The water sector sees relatively modest funding, according to the World Economic Forum, with annual investments in water innovation ranging from $100-$200 million. In comparison, global investment in energy transition technologies investments reached a record high of $1.3 trillion in 2022, and climate tech venture capital received $70.1 billion in 2021.

The focus on seed and pilot-phase projects within the water sector signals a need for a broader investment strategy, as well as one that nurtures initial ventures through to their full development and application at scale. Achieving this requires a more robust and varied investment portfolio, essential for realizing the potential of water technologies to combat water scarcity effectively and contribute to climate resilience.

The journey toward decarbonizing desalination is complex and filled with challenges, but it is also marked by significant opportunities for innovation. Realizing this vision demands a collaborative approach across multiple sectors to secure our freshwater supply in a way that truly safeguards our planet's well-being.