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P OLICY FORUM

CLIMATE CHANGE characteristics of climate response options:
benefits to both mitigation and adaptation,

Global warming policy: Is co-benefits with human well-being and
other environmental issues, synergies with
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
population left out in the cold? and cost effectiveness. These policies can
also enable women to achieve their desired
family size, and lead to lower fertility and
Population policies offer options to lessen climate risks slower population growth (3). The resulting
demographic changes can not only lessen
By John Bongaarts1 and Brian C. O’Neill2,3 ernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the emissions that drive climate change but
the primary source of scientific information also improve the ability of populations to

W
ould slowing human population for the international climate change policy adapt to its consequences.
growth lessen future impacts of process, is largely silent about the potential
anthropogenic climate change? for population policy to reduce risks from MISPERCEPTION 1: POPULATION GROWTH
With an additional 4 billion peo- global warming. Though the latest IPCC re- IS NO LONGER A PROBLEM
ple expected on the planet by port (2) includes an assessment of techni- The population growth rate of the develop-
2100, the answer seems an ob- cal aspects of ways in which population and ing world increased sharply in the 1950s and
vious “yes.” Indeed, substantial scientific climate change influence each other, the 1960s, resulting in a doubling of the world
literature backs up this intuition. Many assessment does not extend to population population from 3 billion in 1960 to over 6
nongovernmental organizations undertake policy as part of a wide range of potential billion in 2000 (4). The main cause of this
climate- and population-related activities, adaptation and mitigation responses. We acceleration was the spread of public health
and national adaptation plans for most of suggest that four misperceptions by many measures, which rapidly reduced death rates
the least-developed countries recognize in the climate change community play a while birth rates remained high. Slowing this
PHOTO: ECO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

population growth as an important com- substantial role in neglect of this topic, and population expansion became a top priority
ponent of vulnerability to climate impacts propose remedies for the IPCC as it pre- for the global development agenda. In the
(1). But despite this evidence, much of the pares for the sixth cycle of its multiyear as- 1970s and 1980s, substantial international
climate community, notably the Intergov- sessment process. assistance was invested in voluntary family
Population-related policies—such as of- planning programs to reduce fertility.
1
fering voluntary family planning services This early consensus on population
Population Council, New York, NY, USA. 2National Center
for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, USA. 3University of as well as improved education for women policy ended in the 1990s when interest
Denver, Denver, CO, USA. Email: jbongaarts@popcouncil.org and girls—can have many of the desirable and international support waned for rea-

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INSIGHTS

A community health worker shows women lack of access to services and the high costs ing poverty and reducing pressure on the
how to use a condom in Bangladesh. of modern methods. Fear of side effects of natural environment. Family planning
methods, disapproval of partners, and re- programs are one of the most cost-effective
sons including (i) the belief that fertility luctance to violate social norms are also health and development investments avail-
declines already under way in Asia and substantial barriers to use (7). able to governments (9).
Latin America would soon occur in Africa; Voluntary family planning programs de- Population policies often include other
(ii) the expectation that high AIDS mortal- signed to be responsive to cultural customs relevant programmatic interventions such
ity would halt population growth in sub- reduce these obstacles by increasing access, as education and empowerment of women.
Saharan Africa; (iii) the failure of earlier providing subsidies, and expanding method These are not only important development
dire predictions, such as worldwide famine, options. Well-run voluntary programs have interventions, but they also accelerate fer-
to materialize; and (iv) the call from the contributed to sustained declines in fertil- tility decline (10). Of course, educated and
1994 International Conference on Popula- ity and population growth across Asia, the empowered women must have access to
tion and Development (ICPD) to empha- Middle East, and Latin America and in contraception to regulate their fertility.
size reproductive health and rights over some countries in Africa (5, 7).
demographic aims. As a result, funding for Although many studies have assessed MISPERCEPTION 3: POPULATION DOES NOT
reproductive health issues (e.g., maternal outcomes of family planning programs, MATTER MUCH FOR CLIMATE
care, safe delivery, sexually transmitted dis- these mostly examined near-term effects The emissions and land use that drive climate
eases, and female genital cutting) rose and on raising contraceptive use and reduc- change are a result of income and consump-
funding for family planning programs de- ing birth rates. Very few studies estimate tion growth, technological change, changes
clined. These issues were widely debated in impacts of family planning programs on in economic structure, related policies, and

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the 1990s and 2000s and may have affected longer-term demographic trends, in part other factors. Past and current emissions
the coverage of population policy in IPCC because isolating the exact impact of pro- have been attributed primarily to economic
reports in part because population growth grams versus socioeconomic development growth powered by fossil fuels in the cur-
no longer seemed an urgent matter. and other factors is not straightforward rently high-income countries. However, mul-
Over the past decade, two unexpected in most countries. The potential impact of tiple studies using increasingly sophisticated
developments have led to renewed concern these programs on long-range population methods have demonstrated that population
about future population growth, particularly size is illustrated by comparing Bangladesh plays an important role both in historical
in sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, AIDS and Pakistan, which had almost the same and projected future emissions (11). Although
mortality has dropped sharply as treatment population size in 1980. Bangladesh then slower future population growth would
has become more accessible worldwide. In implemented one of the world’s most effec- not be the most important means of reduc-
addition, and contrary to expectations, birth tive voluntary family planning programs. ing future emissions, it could reduce global
rates across sub-Saharan Africa have re- By contrast, Pakistan’s program was con- emissions by 40% or more in the long term
mained high, and declines in birth rates have siderably weaker, lacking government com- (12). Slower population growth and associ-
stalled in several countries. As a result, the mitment. As a result, fertility trajectories ated changes in age structure can also have
latest UN world population projection is the differed substantially from 1980 onward, positive economic effects that would tend to
highest ever, expecting 11.2 billion in 2100, a resulting in increasingly large differences in drive greenhouse gas emissions up, but these
nearly 4 billion rise from 2015 (4). Much of population size over time (see the figure). effects do not appear to be large enough to
this rise is projected in sub-Saharan Africa By 2100, Pakistan’s population is projected offset the emissions reduction produced by
(from 1 billion in 2015 to 4 billion in 2100), but to be double the size of Bangladesh’s. This the slower population growth (see supple-
Asia (excluding East Asia) and Latin America suggests that the Bangladesh family plan- mentary materials).
are also projected to grow substantially. ning program led to a large cut in the coun- The potential emissions reduction is
try’s potential 2100 population. Fertility and large even though policy-induced declines
MISPERCEPTION 2: POPULATION POLICIES population trends are also affected by levels in population growth would be largest in
ARE NOT EFFECTIVE of socioeconomic development, but this is regions that currently have low per-capita
Population policies generally recommend a unlikely to be the dominant explanation emissions. Anticipated future growth in in-
range of interventions that influence fertil- for the different trajectories (see supple- comes and energy use in these developing
ity trends, either directly or indirectly. Fam- mentary materials). Development levels as regions explain this result. Over the next
ily planning programs to assist women in measured by the Human Development In- few decades, overall emissions from low-
achieving their reproductive goals for lim- dex are nearly the same for Bangladesh and income countries are likely to rise because
iting or spacing births have been the main Pakistan (8), which are both poor majority- of a rise in emissions per capita from rapid
population intervention adopted by gov- Muslim countries in South Asia. industrialization, as well as because of in-
ernments (5). These programs have been High-quality voluntary family planning creasing population.
successful in a number of countries, but programs can also have a large impact in Slower population growth is also an-
further investments are still needed. Each Sub-Saharan Africa. Programs implemented ticipated to reduce climate change risks
year, about 85 million unintended pregnan- in the early 2000s in Ethiopia, Malawi, and by freeing up resources for adaptation. Im-
cies result in 32 million unplanned births Rwanda have already resulted in sharp de- provements in education and health, which
worldwide; the large majority of these (28 clines in fertility. Unfortunately, in many can both lead to and result from slower
million) in the developing world (6). Popula- African countries, including Nigeria, family population growth, can reduce vulnerability
tion growth could be reduced substantially planning is still given low priority. Existing to natural disasters and climate risks (13).
by avoiding these unplanned pregnancies. programs in Asia and Latin America also Population-related policies that affect the
The vast majority of unintended preg- could be improved. spatial distribution of population, including
nancies occur among women who want to In addition to improving the health and those influencing immigration, labor mobil-
avoid pregnancy but are not using effective welfare of women, families, and communi- ity, urbanization, and coastal development,
contraception. Reasons for non-use include ties, reduced fertility assists in eliminat- can also affect vulnerability.

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INSIGHTS | P O L I C Y F O RU M

The IPCC itself has partially assessed Population estimates and projections of the literature on mitigation and ad-
the topic, concluding that population aptation options. Although the outline
growth, urbanization, and changes in
for Bangladesh and Pakistan for the sixth IPCC assessment report
Differences suggest that a good family planning program (as
age structure are important drivers of in Bangladesh beginning in the 1980s) can have a large impact has already been agreed upon (with no
emissions. It has also concluded that on population trajectories in the long term. Data are from (4). explicit mention of population policy),
demography shapes the exposure and See supplementary materials for details on data and methods. there is ample opportunity within its
vulnerability of populations to climate structure to assess literature on popu-
impacts and can limit, or facilitate, the 400 lation policy as a component of mitiga-
Pakistan
ability of society to adapt to those im- 350 tion or adaptation responses, as well as
Bangladesh

Population size (millions)
pacts. What is missing is an account- 300
its costs and benefits, implementation
ing of how reductions in population barriers, and links to SDGs (see supple-
250
growth might play a role in responses mentary materials). The IPCC should
to the climate issue (see supplemen- 200 also consider the inclusion of more so-
tary materials). 150 cial scientists experienced in reproduc-
Many in the climate policy commu- 100 tive health and population policy.
nity currently focus on achieving sub- Beyond the IPCC, the climate and
50
stantial emissions reductions in the Estimates Projections environmental communities and in-
near future. Although slowed popula- 0 ternational development institutions
tion growth would contribute only mod- 1950 1975 2000 2025 2050 2075 2100 should embrace scientifically sound
estly in the short term, its cumulative analyses of population policy and hu-

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effect over the 21st century would be sub- developed countries are also increasingly man rights–based reproductive health pro-
stantial. Slowed population growth would concerned about aging and decline of their grams. Other international environmental
reduce emissions and the demand for energy populations. Many in the climate change assessments (11, 15) have done somewhat
that would have to be satisfied with low- or community believe that entering into a popu- better than the IPCC in covering this topic.
zero-carbon sources. It would therefore also lation policy discussion thus blames the poor Given the urgency of addressing climate
have an important effect on the scale of the countries for problems created by the rich change, all available options, especially those
energy system ultimately required under a countries. Although this belief is real, it does that have multiple benefits for sustainable
stabilized climate. not change the fact that population growth development, should be assessed by experts
in developing countries poses challenges for and considered by governments. j
MISPERCEPTION 4: POPULATION POLICY IS climate and development and deprives the
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in the developed world, which is primar- should be considered as a potential climate SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIA LS
ily responsible for causing the climate to policy lever. A key first step in remedying the www.sciencemag.org/content/361/6403/650/suppl/DC1
change, continue their excessive emission of current neglect of the issue is for the IPCC
greenhouse gases. At the same time, many to include population policy in its assessment 10.1126/science.aat8680

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Global warming policy: Is population left out in the cold?
John Bongaarts and Brian C. O'Neill

Science 361 (6403), 650-652.
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat8680

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