How population growth affects global warming

It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed. The brilliant earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for example, claimed last month that “those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.”(1) But it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.

A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions(2).

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.

Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together(3). Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm(4).

The paper’s author, David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development, points out that the old formula taught to all students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT) – is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.

While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I’ve been taking a look at a few superyachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they’re accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour(5) I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 l/hr(6). But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3400 l/hr when travelling at 60 knots(7). That’s nearly one litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre(8).

Of course to make a real splash I’ll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jet skis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga caviar and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I’ll do more damage to the biosphere in ten minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime. Now we’re burning, baby.

Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.

In May the Sunday Times carried an article headlined “Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation”. It revealed that “some of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly” to decide which good cause they should support. “A consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.”(9) The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that it’s the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it’s impossible to satirise.

James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich.

The obsessives could argue that the people breeding rapidly today might one day become richer. But as the super wealthy grab an ever greater share and resources begin to run dry, this, for most of the very poor, is a diminishing prospect. There are strong social reasons for helping people to manage their reproduction, but weak environmental reasons, except among wealthier populations.

The Optimum Population Trust glosses over the fact that the world is going through demographic transition: population growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century(10), probably at around 10 billion(11). Most of the growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.

But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock’s words, “hiding from the truth”. It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich.

So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against superyachts and private jets? Where’s Class War when you need it?

It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.

– from

Poverty is the reason of population growth. Rich is looting from the poor. Poor families can only improve their livelihood by increasing their numbers. That is happening in the poor countries.


1. Optimum Population Trust, 26th August 2009 Gaia Scientist to be OPT Patron.
2. David Satterthwaite, September 2009. The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change. Environment & Urbanization, Vol 21(2): 545–567. DOI: 10.1177/0956247809344361.
4. For example, Satterthwaite cites the study by Gerald Leach and Robin Mearns, 1989. Beyond the Woodfuel Crisis – People, Land and Trees in Africa, Earthscan Publications, London.
8. 15 US gallons/nm = 56.775l/nm = 31 l/km.
9. John Harlow, 24th May 2009. Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation. The Sunday Times.
10. Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516
11. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects. The 2004


13 thoughts on “How population growth affects global warming

  1. Actually, this has been a concern of mine since I was seventeen. I’m 43 now. No children by prudent choice, in that there are better people than I to reproduce. I chose to focus on fundamentals of being for my career and endeavors, dealing with habitat, environment, and health. And yes, I eat animal products, – confirmed omnivore/meat eater. And in that regard, live by response and results,…and perform.
    And, be a steward, as well as develop positive and inspiring legacy.

    1. But, I don’t think about global warming. Abrupt climate change is a normal part of Earth’s history. I just think of quality of living.
      Look at Mexico City, places in India,…..and so on.
      I believe humanity and the world are better with maybe half the population we currently have, say, 1960 population numbers.

      1. There was a work of Fourier in 1827. He suggested that CO2 have some kind of insulation around it to trap the incoming heat. He coins the term ‘greenhouse effect’ to describe the phenomenon. Burning oil and coal produced CO2. So it should have a connection in the melting of ice. There are lot of work done after 1827. So find it by yourself. Like Galileo said about earth’s movement around sun, Its not important that you believe it or not, human activities have direct impact in nature.

        Regarding the quality of life. Who defines the quality? Remember, economy is a very small subsystem of nature. So it cannot develop more than nature.

        The reason for population growth is explained in the post.

  2. Where do you get your presumption that “there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers.” other than your casual observations of the rich who heat their swimming pools to bath temperature? Can you please point to the specific reference you used? I think you assume a great deal about human nature with that statement. The rich are a subset of people with some rather unique characteristics. It’s absurd to suggest that all or most human beings are endlessly greedy and will suck down resources infinitely, to the extent they are permitted to do so.

    I agree with you that Global Warming is at least partly a manmade phenomenon and we are in it, but I also agree with your first respondant that we could do much better in our efforts if world population was reduced to 1960 levels. And, speaking of rising consumption per capita, isn’t that at least partly a noble goal — End World Hunger? If we cannot sustain a population of 10 or 11 billion humans, while feeding them all and making sure they have clean water to drink and electric lights to turn on, then it would make sense to slowly and gently reduce population to a manageable level. It would be humane as well as green. Don’t tell me this would mean totalitarian enforcement. Population control has been skilfully managed in Thailand by simple campaigns and education. If it can be done there, then there are ways to do it other countries.

    “The poor will always be among you” was something said 2000 years ago. We have the technology to provide for all. But growing world population and/or consumption to ANY crisis point is going to jeopardize that ability and maybe even throw us all into poverty. We are at a point of perhaps the greatest global wealth and health in the history of human beings. Why aren’t we doing something to stabilize this level of prosperity? Instead of curbing population we mutter darkly about disappearing resources and taking from the rich and giving to the poor, in order to make even more babies who will want even more resources. Makes no sense. Your math doesn’t add up.

      1. I’ve seen part of it and I see where this argument is going. It’s invalid. It does not follow that because some people are rich, that makes others poor.

        And no, you can’t use history to support a theory of infinite human greed. Trends of greed and human oppression have actually gone in the other direction over the same course of time. As people are able to produce more, there is more wealth available for everyone. Yes, half, or maybe even over half the world is in poverty. Guess what? That means that roughly 40-50% of humans have enough to eat. In 1492, when one person says “capitalism” started, something like 90% of people in the civilized world lived in poverty. Average life expectancy in 1500 was between 30-40 years. Today global life expectancy is roughly 68 years. That tells you something about trends in human prosperity and quality of life. All good.

        “Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth” agreed, but, “there are no limits to human extravagance” disagreed. There are limits and history is your proof.

        If you think we have a problem with manmade Global Warming, curb population growth, don’t stifle prosperity. I want to end more world hunger and we’ve been doing a fine job, so far.

        1. Then why poverty rate is increasing even in US?
          Any improvements happened in human society is only because of social movements. Now its started again. People are seeing they are exploited. So they make changes and that will improve our social well being.
          The problems of our society is not a single word such as capitalism or something else. And it does not started in 1492. It is 10,000 years old problem. Until you go back to that time and start from there, you will never see the complete picture.

          1. Hi Jagadees, please take a look at the link I sent you to see the trend. Life is improving for people globally over time.

            Poverty has increased somewhat in the US over a short period of time. It started when the recession started. Over the longer term, the standard of living for the middle class dropped in the US over the last few decades. There are several reasons for this. A couple of them are increased taxation of the middle class to fund social programs and the baby boom generation+rise of women in the workplace creating increased competition for jobs.

            There are always going to be some people who wish to exploit others. We simply have to stay on top of them and not let it happen. That’s why I question everything (including GW). If there is a lot of alarmist news about something it always makes me wonder if someone is trying to manipulate public perception for personal gain.

            I am relieved that you do not think it’s capitalism. People are self-serving by nature, but when there is plenty for all, they stop grabbing and let others have what they don’t need. Animals do the same thing.

            Good to talk to you!

  3. OK, I’ve seen it. An interesting patchwork of truths, misrepresentations and outright lies. Imagine making World Bank a bad guy after all it has done to improve living conditions in these countries! And Dominion Farms is doing a fabulous job in Kenya, so they must have found the only discontented family in the area to interview. Look it up.

    I found an interesting link for you. This is only 20 minutes long, not an hour and 44 minutes. And this pretty much puts to rest the fears that capitalism leads to increased exploitation and poverty. It also gives a tiny segment of information on the relationship of carbon emissions and wealth. If what he is showing is true, I am not off my rocker. We need to continue to grow per capita consumption until everyone has enough to eat and if GW is a problem, we need to simultaneously curb world population growth. It’s not going to be that hard because population growth is slowing down anyways.

    Don’t base your conclusions about human behavior on the habits of the super-rich. Most people don’t want to work that hard for their toys and would rather just have a balanced life with some leisure time.

  4. With all the growth and development we still have poverty and more important to get that growth we are killing our environment. Even ocean is reacting now,
    “growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable” Henry Wallich, a governor of the US Federal Reserve said this.
    People who become rich not because of working hard. There is a limit a person can get wealth by his/her own work. Those 1% became rich by making laws to loot the 99%. Bank bail out, Copyright, Patent law in Software etc are classic examples.

    Answers to you comments are available in different posts published here. If really interested to know (not for arguing) please go thought the posts.

    1. We still have poverty, yes. But I think that even you will have to admit that we have less poverty than ever before in the history of the world. “Growth is a substitute for equality of income” — I don’t care if Jesus said it. He’s wrong and this is exactly backwards. Distributing income is not a
      substitute for growing more income. Some people grow rich by working hard; some others are rich for other reasons. I am against bank bailouts. That is not capitalism anyways. I am against government in the hip pockets of big business. I am not against copyrights or patent laws and can’t imagine why anyone would be; however I am against Monsanto and how they are twisting the use of patent laws to squeeze farmers and control our food supply. The movie you had me see is filled with wrong ideas. Believe me, I stopped it every few minutes and factchecked. You need to do the same thing and stop pushing your socialist agenda. I’m not wasting any more time here, sorry.

      1. Bank bailout is not a new thing. Last 50 years how many times government rescued the rich?
        Think about the Iraq war. The people who worked for it is the soldiers. But who made money? The oil companies by grabbing Iraq state owned oil fiends and bankers.
        Why renewable power does not get importance? Because its distributed development, so less chance to grab money from users. Its reliable and need less maintenance. The LED bulbs and solar panels lasts more than 20 years. When women does not have the right on her own bodies, Michele Bachmann is for Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. Why? It will increase they money transactions that we do.
        From that transactions, the people belong to 1% and the upper part of the 99% get automatically get a small percentage. Because rules are made by themselves.
        They will start witch hunt if anything that challenges the money flow. But now people realized that. Thats why they bravely appear in the streets with slogans.
        Its not about left or right or socialist. Its about the exploitation. Dont use growth to end poverty. We want equality right now. Whether there is growth or not does not matter.

        Please join the May Day Strike.

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