Volume 35, Issue 1
COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
|Going Green Means Having Fewer Kids|
By Emily Badger
Miller-McCune.com. Posted October 19, 2009.
There are already just too many people on the planet.
What are we supposed to do about it?
Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter for The New York Times and
author of the paper's Dot Earth blog, warns that the math is pretty
There are about 6.8 billion people on
the planet today, a number projected to get to 9 billion by 2050.
Americans, the world's greatest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gas
emissions, produce about 20 tons of the stuff per person, per year. If
we were to cut that in half, as emissions rose with the quality of life
in much of the Third World, and everyone on the planet met around 10
tons per person, per year, simple multiplication says we'd collectively
emit 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually come 2050.
That's three times the already problematic current number.
When we start to think about that number, 9 billion, a lot of "cheery
suppositions" about what the world can do to curb climate change
evaporate, Revkin said (via carbon footprint-minimizing Skype from his
desk in New York). He spoke to an event in Washington discussing
population trends and climate change, and the media that seldom
correlate the two.
The interrelated topics aren't
likely to get much talk when global leaders meet in Copenhagen in
December for the next round of wrangling over a successor to the Kyoto
Protocol. But at least the media could start highlighting the sensitive
relationship, as was suggested at the talk hosted by the Woodrow Wilson
A couple of mental roadblocks emerge,
central among them the sentiment that, well, there are just too many
people on the planet, so what are we supposed to do about it? Any
answer trips up against the politically touchy topic of family planning
(a distinctly different concept, reproductive-health advocates stress,
from "population control").
"The single most
concrete, substantive thing a young American could do is not turning
off the lights or driving a Prius," Revkin said. "It's having fewer
But this is just a thought exercise, he
cautions, and no model for the kind of official policy most Americans
would want to live with. A recent study, though, by the London School
of Economics and the British-based Optimum Population Trust, suggests
meeting the world's unmet need for access to reproductive health would
be the most effective and cheapest way to start dramatically cutting
Each $7 spent on basic family
planning between now and 2050 would reduce emissions by more than a
ton, the research says. To get the same reduction through alternative
energy would cost at least $32 (or, as much as $83 to implement carbon
capture and storage in coal plants, $92 to develop plug-in hybrids, or
$131 for electric vehicles).
family planning over the next four decades would be the equivalent of
reducing global CO2 by six times America's annual emissions.
All of this, though, assumes there's nothing controversial about
getting birth control to rural Africa. Not that the conversation has to
start with The Pill: Wherever women have been given access to
reproductive health around the world, they have tended to opt for fewer
children than they would have had otherwise, meaning that access has a
controlling effect without being coercive.
Douglas, Web editor at the liberal magazine The Nation and previously
an editor at RHRealityCheck, suggested some historical context: World
population projections were revised downward after the widespread
dissemination of birth control in the West. Officials once predicted
the trend would follow as birth control was made available to the Third
"But that assumption turned out to be false," Douglas said.
And so politicians head to Copenhagen with the most cost-effective
solution to climate change (one piece, of course, of a broader menu)
just as divisive as any other, inseparable from a web of policy
problems that grows more connected to the climate by the day.
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