Population and climate change
Scientists know that climate change is being caused by people, and that people are at the heart of its solution.
Many people believe slowing population growth in the world’s high-fertility countries could help reduce global emissions. Yet these countries currently have very low emissions, while countries with slower population growth – namely, wealthier countries – have much higher emissions. In fact, solving climate change requires education, innovation and empowerment.
Population, economic growth, and patterns of consumption and production all play a role in climate change. But a common mistake is to equate more people with more emissions, while ignoring inequality. Right now, only 2.5 billion people make enough money – more than $10 per day – to consume enough to contribute to emissions. And among this group, a small minority is responsible for an overwhelming share of the damage.
While slower population growth would improve the situation in the long term, it would make little difference to climate change now. Most countries with higher levels of consumption, and therefore emissions, are already experiencing slow population growth or even population decline. Countries that are growing rapidly, however, tend to be mired in poverty and have very low levels of emissions.
Moreover, these poor countries have the right to develop and improve their living standards, a feat that requires higher economic growth and consumption. Unless this process is radically different than it was for wealthier countries, it will further contribute to climate change. But the elements that accompany and drive development – such as improved health, education and empowerment – can also promote sustainability.
Climate change threatens the livelihoods and well-being of all people and societies. Yet the impacts of climate change will likely be worse for the poor and marginalized, who have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions but who lack the resources to effectively adapt as droughts, floods and other consequences take effect.
And because climate change affects ecosystems and agriculture, many of the negative effects will disproportionately burden poor women, who bear the responsibilities of food production and water collection in many parts of the world.
UNFPA's Demographic Exploration for Climate Adaptation (DECA) programme helps identify communities vulnerable to climate hazards.
To adapt to the changes already underway, and to promote climate-resistant development in the future, population data needs to be integrated into planning. New technologies must also be developed and deployed to slow the pace of climate change and to facilitate sustainable development. Technical cooperation among countries is also needed to shift to greener economies.
And, critically, patterns of consumption must change to slow the frenetic waste of natural resources. One of the most established, efficient and just ways to change consumption is to invest in universal public infrastructures and services. This can improve the efficiency of transport, housing and utilities - three of the major forms of consumption.
Urbanization also offers an opportunity for action. The world is urbanizing at a dramatic rate, and with the right policies, cities can be made inclusive and sustainable. By improving energy efficiency and planning for the needs of both current and future residents, urban planning can make cities a vital part of the solution to climate change.
Individuals – particularly affluent individuals – must also engage in more sustainable consumption. Growing awareness of the risks of climate change, incentives to reduce personal consumption, and green innovations will all help people make more responsible consumption choices.
UNFPA is working on a variety of levels to address climate change and its consequences.
With the International Institute for Environment and Development and Wolfram Research, UNFPA has developed Demographic Exploration for Climate Adaptation (DECA), an automated geographic analysis system that combines population data – including location, gender, age, and availability of services – with the geography of climate hazards. DECA enables policymakers to see, at a detailed level, where vulnerable populations are, what hazards they might face, and what resources are available to encourage greater resilience. This information can form the basis of policies for planning more sustainable infrastructure and reducing disaster risks.
Multiple countries - including Indonesia, Maldives, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Lucia - have committed to using DECA to help with planning and policy development. By the end of 2015, DECA will cover as many as 20 million people, and possibly many more.
UNFPA’s work on sexual and reproductive health, education, and violence prevention also helps promote resilience among vulnerable populations. Access to voluntary family planning, maternal health care and quality education are key ways to empower vulnerable women and young people, making them better equipped to prepare for and respond to climate-related crises.
UNFPA also helps address the effects of climate change, especially the humanitarian consequences. Climate change increases the magnitude and frequency of natural disasters. In these crises, women and girls often lose access to vital health services, including sexual and reproductive health care, and they face a heightened risk of gender-based violence. UNFPA provides critical sexual and reproductive health services, raises awareness of the increased risks, and provides psychosocial support to survivors of violence.
Updated 4 June 2015.