Stabilize global population and tax carbon to reduce per-capita emissions

March 20, 2008 • News

Many thanks to Fred Meyerson for his latest post on the population and climate debate at the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His March 19 posting is below. You can view the whole debate at

Stabilize global population and tax carbon to reduce per-capita emissions
Response: 19 March 2008
Posted by: Frederick A. B. Meyerson

Because this is the last round of our discussion, I’d like to make specific policy recommendations that address the related challenges of population growth and greenhouse gas emissions.

First, in a world where climate change will have significant adverse effects on resources and human welfare, we should do everything possible to quickly slow the current annual growth rate of more than 75 million people and stabilize global population.

To achieve this, the United States should increase its assistance for population programs by $1 billion annually and reestablish global leadership in this area. If other donor countries also increase their support for population programs, it should be possible to achieve universal access to family planning and to satisfy global unmet need within five years. As a result, the population growth rate could be reduced by about 30 percent.

Supplying contraceptives and reproductive health services isn’t sufficient to reach population stabilization, particularly where fertility rates and preferences remain high. It will also be necessary to increase the demand for family planning services and to communicate the benefits of smaller families. Television and radio programs, including serial dramas, have often proven effective in reaching underserved populations and increasing awareness of contraception–and the desire to use it. In many cases, these programs have also lowered average family size preference. (See the Population Media Center for more.)

One hundred million dollars per year in additional funding could be sufficient to ensure that these “demand-side” programs reach the widest possible audience in the developing world, and in the developed world where needed. Some of this money should be spent on further research as to which media approaches are most effective, assessments of the immediate and long-term results of past and current programs, and developing new communication methodologies in a rapidly changing media environment. There’s no bright line between “supply” and “demand” family planning efforts. If media programs are successful, they increase the demand for services.

It’s important to remember that in a world of 6.7 billion people, every year, 50 million or so teenagers enter their reproductive years, and we will always need new approaches to communicate with them. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that found 25 percent of U.S. teenage girls have at least one sexually transmitted disease and the country’s continued high teenage pregnancy rates are strong indications that this challenge never ends–even in developed countries.

While $1.1 billion is a lot of money, it amounts to less than what the United States currently spends on the Iraq War every three days. It’s a human welfare investment that can improve our image globally and help us avoid the perils to our species posed by a rising population and an unstable or diminishing resource base as the climate changes more rapidly.

Suppose the combination of supply- and demand-side programs isn’t sufficient to stabilize population globally? First, I would recommend increasing funding for the development of new forms of contraception, which has decreased in recent years because of political and social pressure. As long as contraception in the United States has an average annual failure rate of nearly 10 percent, there’s obviously work to be done. Second, we should reexamine the web of incentives and disincentives for having children, both in the United States and internationally. Tax and other economic incentives should be continuously reconsidered to make population stabilization more likely.

Stabilizing world population this century, even at 8.5 billion or 9 billion people (the most optimistic realistic scenario) won’t avoid serious climate change, but it’s a relatively easy first step. It will make both mitigation and adaptation much less difficult than a world of 10 billion or more people, where we’re now headed under current population policy.

Reducing per-capita emissions is the second critical (and much more difficult) task. As I documented earlier in this discussion, average global per-capita emissions haven’t changed in nearly 40 years. The only viable way to lower them is to make the price of emitting greenhouse gases so high that it’s in everyone’s best interest to reduce consumption and turn to other technologies for producing energy, goods, and services. This will involve significant economic and social change and disruption, but then so did the industrial and fossil-fuel revolutions of the past 200 years that fostered the population growth that brought us to this demographic and climate crisis.

Current World Population


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