Global Warming and Population

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, December 05, 2010

It seems there has been a recent interest in associating climate change/global warming with “over population” and that countries such as China and India have to do more to help contain global warming.

Yet rich countries have a lot to do themselves. There were agreed reasons why developing countries were exempt from initial greenhouse gas emission targets: it was the emissions from rich countries that accumulated in the atmosphere for so long to trigger climate change.

Blaming China and India for climate change

US President George Bush has often indicated his reluctance to be bound to global targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if developing countries such as China and India are not subject to them as well.

Recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been airing similar sentiments.

Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, refused to ratify the Kyoto Agreement because of similar concerns as stated by George Bush.

From their viewpoint, it would seem that China and India are responsible for runaway climate change and the rich countries cannot do anything without these two giants being involved. It is feared that given the large populations of India and China and combined with their strong economic growth, their thirst for energy and materials may result in outstripping of resources.

However, many years ago, the world agreed that due to the way greenhouses gases accumulate in the atmosphere over decades, it was today’s rich countries that were responsible for climate change. As a result, developing countries such as China and India were not subject to the targets that the rich countries were. Developing countries were strongly urged to follow a different path to development, though; one that would use cleaner and sustainable technologies. This was known as the “Common but differentiated responsibilities” principle.

This point is almost never discussed—certainly any mainstream reporter talking to Bush, Blair (or other prominent world figures who insist China and India be subject to various targets), have rarely challenged them with this particular point (at least from what I have been able to research and observe).

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Common but differentiated responsibilities, or “Climate Justice”

Summarizing from this site’s article that looks at this issue of “climate justice and equity” in more depth:

  • The world—including the industrialized countries—accepted that the industrialized countries have more obligations to reduce their harmful greenhouse gas emissions
  • Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere for decades and centuries, so the industrialized countries’ enormous quantity of emissions are still present in the earth’s atmosphere
  • While developing countries are growing and therefore increasing their emissions, their road to development has been comparatively recent, and it would therefore be unfair to penalize them to the same extent as industrialized nations
  • Around the time of the Kyoto protocol, for example, the emission of 1 US citizen equaled that of 19 Indians.

In other words, today’s rich nations are the ones responsible for global warming and developing countries therefore feel it is unfair to be subjected to targets for something that was not their fault (and their emissions are for basic needs and development; for the rich it has moved to luxury consumption and lifestyles).

This difference was recognized as a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. When the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was formulated and then signed and ratified in 1992 by most of the world's countries (including the United States and other nations who would later back out of the subsequent Kyoto protocol), this principle was acknowledged. The principle recognized that

  • The largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries;
  • Per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low;
  • The share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (Text is original, but minor edit made to reformat as a list)

Furthermore, the need for developing countries to reduce emissions ultimately was also recognized, but via a different way: The rich countries were to help provide means for the developing world to transition to cleaner technologies while developing:

The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

As the World Resources Institute (WRI) highlighted (2003), there is a huge contrast between developed/industrialized nations and poorer developing countries in greenhouse emissions. For example:

  • In terms of historical emissions, industrialized countries account for roughly 80% of the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere to date.
  • Annually, more than 60 percent of global industrial carbon dioxide emissions originate in industrialized countries, where only about 20 percent of the world’s population resides.

The WRI also notes the differences in energy use, which the cartoon below also captures:

(See this site’s climate justice and equity section for further details.)

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Population and Climate Change

A “Malthusian” theory about the relationship between population growth and the environment suggests that as populations grow, they will strip their resources leading to famine, hunger and environmental degradation.

As detailed further in this site’s section on population, that is an oversimplification and has largely shown not to be true. Instead, it has been factors such as politics and economics (i.e. how we use our resources and for what purpose) that has determined environmental degradation or sustainability.

For example, the world’s wealthiest 20% (i.e. the rich countries) consume approximately 80% of the world’s resources, while the rest of humanity shares the other 20% of resource consumed, as noted in the consumption section of this web site.

In regards to climate change, countries with large populations such as China and India have not been the countries contributing greenhouse gases for the decades that has been required to trigger climate change, as noted further above.

While in total amounts their emissions might be high (China is second largest emitter after the United States, for example), per person, their emissions are significantly smaller as noted earlier.

The atmosphere of course doesn’t “care” so to speak, but from the perspective of international relations, this is important: As stated above, penalizing developing countries for the problem mostly caused by the rich countries is not seen as fair by the developing world and so they will understandably resist demands by Bush, Blair and others to meet the same types of targets as industrialized nations.

An additional concern however, is that as countries such as China, India and Brazil grow in prosperity, there will be large populations with purchasing power, consuming more goods and services, thus making more demands on the planet.

Indeed, many environmentalists have constantly noted that if such countries were to follow the style of development that the rich countries used and emulate them, then our planet may not be able to cope much longer.

Yet, as also noted in this site’s population section, researchers have found that depending on what variables you factor in, the planet can support an extremely large population, or an extremely small one. These ranges are ridiculously wide: from 2 billion to 147 billion people! Why such variance? It depends on how efficiently resources are used and for what purpose (i.e. economics).

There are concerns, however, that many developing countries are pursuing the same path to development that the current industrialized countries have, which involved many environmentally damaging practices. Ironically much of the advise and encouragement to follow this path comes from the western economic schools of thought. There is therefore an urgent need to focus on cleaner technologies and an alternative path to a more sustainable form of development.

Journalist Diplip Hiro captures this quite well, when interviewed by Amy Goodman for the radio/TV broadcast of the Democracy Now! show:

2 out of 5 human beings are Indians and Chinese … 2.4 billion people. Last year, China’s oil consumption went up by 15%. That means they’re doubling oil consumption every five years, quadrupling it every ten years. And … India … 8%.

… In the USA, there are 800 vehicles … for 1,000 American men, women and children. In India, there are 8 vehicles for 1,000 Indians, men, women and children. Now, suppose India progresses economically, and you change that figure from 8 to 18 or 80, can you imagine how much oil will be required? And that is something which one has to face up to.

… And at that time [that oil peaks in production and starts its decline, in] India and China, the demand will rise. So what will happen? The price of oil will go up to … $200 a barrel.

And, you see … the internal combustion engine, can be fueled by natural gas, by hydrogen cells and by solar panels. And that’s already happening. You know, Toyota actually has hundreds of cars running on hydrogen cells. They have supplies of them in Tokyo. And I would say in ten to fifteen years time, a high proportion of cars will be run by fuel other than petroleum product. And that is the only way we can actually save ourselves from a catastrophe, which will come if we go on the present path.

Blood of the Earth: Dilip Hiro on the Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources, Democracy Now!, January 31, 2007

So, as Dilip Hiro has noted, the high populations of China and India may present a problem, but it is through the conscious decision on how to use resources that will be important to address these problems.

Researchers and commentators will often comment that “if we follow the present course” then there will be disaster ahead. To some extent there are already problems through global warming due to the slow response. Yet, rarely throughout history has the use of a resource remained constant. Many economists remind us that over time, more efficient and innovative ways emerge, so in there lies the hope that the present course will not be maintained. While some are overly optimistic that all the world’s problems will be solved because humanity always figures out an answer, many are usually wise to be cautious, given our violent histories.

Technology investment into alternatives is therefore also important. President Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2007 called for cleaner (or at least more efficient) fuel use, implying that technology and consumption patterns have a bearing on environmental issues.

The private sector as well as public has slowly been pouring more money into this, though many argue that far more could still be done, and that these alternative energy industries have not been given the kind of boost and support that the fossil fuel industry had. Hardly a month goes by without some news item of technology companies researching more efficient and innovative energy sources, or of large companies and local governments attempting some sort of initiative to cut down on wasteful energy consumption.

Interestingly, many developing countries, including China and Brazil in particular, have been making progress towards cleaner and more efficient technologies, resulting in many countries being able to reduce their emissions to some extent, as also detailed further in this site’s climate justice and equity section. As the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principles recognize, it will clearly be in the interests of developing countries to continue do these things (and more) as they face enormous consequences from climate change if they do not.

The economic, political and technology choices thus have a more important bearing on climate change than “over population.”

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Pollution For Others

Pollution and emissions are related to consumption, not just population numbers alone. While pollution is increasing in poorer countries as well, it is not solely due to rising populations, because, as the U.N. points out, and as mentioned earlier, 80% of the world’s resources are consumed by the world’s wealthiest 20%. Hence, even if pollution is occurring in poor countries, a large portion of it is to meet this consumer demand.

In its September 2008 issue, the journal Energy Policy found that around 1/3rd of Chinese carbon dioxide emissions were due to the production of exports and that it is mostly the developed world consuming these.

Large amounts of China and others’ emissions are for exportsLarge amounts of China’s carbon emissions is for consumption elsewhere. Source: PNAS (Click for larger image)

Most of the above data for China was for 2005. The National Academy of Sciences of the USA produced a paper at the beginning of 2010 which used 2004 data to compare China and other parts of the world.

They found that some 22.5% of China’s emissions were exported, on net, to consumers elsewhere and added that,

Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions demonstrates the potential for international carbon leakage. Sharing responsibility for emissions among producers and consumers could facilitate international agreement on global climate policy that is now hindered by concerns over the regional and historical inequity of emissions.

Steven J. Davis1 and Ken Caldeira, Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions, PNAS, March 8, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906974107

And long before the fears that the Kyoto Climate Change protocol would encourage western businesses to move dirty industry to poorer countries that were exempt from emissions reduction targets, multinational businesses were already looking for places with lower standards.

In 1991, then Chief Economist for the World Bank Larry Summers, (and US Treasury Secretary, in the Clinton Administration, until George Bush and the Republican party came into power), had been a strong backer of IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Policies, which have proved to be so disastrous to the developing world. He wrote in an internal memo (leaked to the Economist in 1992) that is very revealing:

Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]?… The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that… Under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City… The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-five mortality is 200 per thousand.

Lawrence Summers, Let them eat pollution, The Economist, February 8, 1992. Quoted from Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, (South End Press, 2000) p.65; See also Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. 233-236 for a detailed look at this.

Summers was talking about migrating industries. That is, moving them elsewhere, but to still serve their original purpose — produce for consumption by wealthier nations and people. So instead of expensive changes to factories to deal with environmental and other issues that the public and society demand, they moved elsewhere if possible and continued on without making as much costly changes. As a result, we may see a relatively cleaner environment in the industrialized world, but it is not all explainable by using newer technologies, being more efficient, etc (which are no doubt certainly part of the explanations).

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Slow progress by rich countries leads to blaming poorer countries

What has also concerned some people is that industrialized countries have had over two decades to try and address climate change issues but their lack of progress, their faltering and even resistance to change will have the effect of putting more burden on developing countries. In effect, this could allow the rich countries to minimize the changes they may have to make to their lifestyles.

Bush’s recent call for more efficient technology use and investment, while welcome, has been criticized by many environmental groups as being slow in happening and modest. These, and other calls should have been made a long time ago.

The British newspaper, the Independent, summarized an International Energy Agency (IEA) report noting that while emissions from poorer countries will grow, per person, they will still be a lot less than richer countries for a long time:

Although the absolute level of emissions from developing countries will soon surpass that of the developed world, measured on a per capita basis, poor nations will remain far behind. The IEA predicted that in OECD countries, emissions would rise from 11.02 tons per person in 2004 to 11.98 tons in 2030. For the non-OECD, emissions would grow from 2.45 tons per person, to 3.55 tons in 2030.

Saeed Shah, China to pass US greenhouse gas levels by 2010, The Independent, November 8, 2006

(The World Energy Outlook web site has more details on this and other predictions of energy demands and use up to 2030.)

The rich countries have much to do already. The more they drag their heels on this issue while developing countries develop, the more blame and attention will be placed on countries such as China and India and “over” population will be seen as a major contributor to climate change, while other underlying issues and causes will go relatively unexplained.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Thursday, February 01, 2007
  • Last Updated: Sunday, December 05, 2010

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Document Revision History

DateReason
December 5, 2010Added a bit about countries like China making exports for others and those emissions perhaps not being accounted for appropriately

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