Global Warming and Population

Author and Page information

  • 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.

On this page:

  1. Blaming China and India for climate change
  2. Common but differentiated responsibilities, or “Climate Justice”
  3. Population and Climate Change
  4. Pollution For Others
  5. Slow progress by rich countries leads to blaming poorer countries

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).

Back to top

Common but differentiated responsibilities, or “Climate Justice”

Summarizing from this site’s article that looks at this issue of “climate justice and equity1” 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.

Side Note

According to the BBC, the average Chinese citizen consumes about 10-15% of the average energy used by an American citizen2 (or 6-10 times as less). According to the Boston Globe, the emission of 1 US citizen is now the same as almost 13 Indian citizens3.

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 Change4, (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 Change5

As the World Resources Institute (WRI) highlighted (2003), there is a huge contrast between developed/industrialized nations and poorer developing countries6 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:

Cartoon depicting the difference in emissions between the rich (for luxury) and poor (for survival)
© Centre for Science and Environment7 and Equity Watch8

(See this site’s climate justice and equity9 section for further details.)

Back to top

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 population10, 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 consumption11 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 one12. 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 Resources13, 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 equity14 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.”

Back to top

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 15 and that it is mostly the developed world consuming these.