Reducing fertility rates in low income countries will hardly make a dent in global CO₂ emissions.
Great analysis, as always. I am convinced.
Hi Hannah, thanks for a great article. Do you know why Project Drawdown still has Family Planning as a top solution to reducing greenhouse gasses? https://drawdown.org/solutions/family-planning-and-education
From the point of view of women in the low and low-middle income countries, the most important observation in this post is:
"Every girl should have the opportunity to go to school. Women should have the right to work and build a career. They deserve access to contraceptives and to have autonomy over their healthcare decisions.
"My point is not that these things are not important. They are. It’s just that they are important enough in their own right. Girls should go to school because they deserve the right to go to school. Not so that they will have fewer children that will emit small amounts of CO₂ later in life."
Emphasising CO2 emissions as a reason for birth control is just blaming women for environmental destruction and is hardly a way to get them to either fight for their own reproductive rights OR to defend the environment.
I would say that the difference between the poor and the rich is even greater than suggested in this article, though. As it uses world bank data for whole countries' income and also their average emissions per capita, it over-estimates the emissions of the poor people in EVERY country. This is understandable, as it seems that income distributions over the world (in purchasing power parity, PPP) seem to be quite hard to come by. (If anyone can suggest in the comments a source of such data, I would be grateful). There are academic papers that do try to look at this issue: I remember one called "One billion high emitters" which said that halving their emissions would cut world emissions by 1/3.
This raises the question of where these emitters are. I looked at the Credit Suisse global wealth report (wealth being the closest proxy I could find for individual emissions) and it shows that over over 500 million adults own over $100,000 in net assets. These are incredibly unevenly distributed - as you would expect - (at least 300 million in high income countries, including 90 million in the USA and 25 million in the UK), but there are also 100 million in China and I should imagine several tens of millions in lower concentrations in other middle income and low and low-middle income countries.
These people lead to an over-estimate of the emissions of the population groups that are actually likely to grow in future. But they are also illustrative of a path of development that is completely unsustainable and have patterns of consumption that are rightly coming under close scrutiny in the West. 33 years ago, I stated that I thought there was a better way for these societies to develop, in the face of climate change. They didn't listen!
This does mean as well that is is no use just projecting a "western" path of development onto the poorer countries. They can do much better than that, as they already have an elite which is profligate with resources and exploits and oppresses the poorest in their own countries (as every country has). It means that it is difficult to know what levels of emissions these places will be responsible for in the future, as projections (and likely over-estimations) leave out political change and moves towards greater equality, something that Hannah Ritchie is advocating in this article.
Below is a link to my article. It is replete with socialist jargon, which I think readers who are not used to such vocabulary should perhaps consider to be a shorthand for ideas that could be expressed more elegantly without fundamentally changing their meaning.
So let's be sure to keep the poor really poor so that they never enjoy much of anything. Food insecurity is probably just a super-duper way to live and walking 2 miles round trip to carry water and wood is even more fun.
Sit in the subway in Munich and read your article. It's interesting this global network... Very interesting what effects the population growth has. Ultimately, it is the industrialized countries that have an impact on emissions. This means that before you point to others, you should start saving on yourself.
Here's Prof. Partha Dasgupta's assessment of humanity's impact on nature ... 'unconscionable' ... https://www.tortoisemedia.com/2022/09/06/what-africas-population-boom-means-for-the-planet/
My understanding is that the analysis hinges on two assumptions 1) slow rise of emissions for lower income countries 2) concurrent development of low carbon tech in developed world that will substitute fossils as primary energy sources for the countries coming out of poverty. You addressed them in the "Poor people will hopefully get richer: how would that affect emissions?" section, but I don't think it's robust enough.
First, while I understand the logic of just looking at incomes and bumping emissions from one country group to another, I think it's too pessimistic. While most countries were struggling to find ways to grow so far, I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that it won't stay the same and more countries will copy what works. So it might make sense to look on a developing country success story, not just average, and see how its emissions evolved. Bangladesh is a great example of a development success: https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/bangladesh You can see that their per-capita CO2 footprint grew about x5 in the last 30 years; looking at China which is arguably about two decades ahead https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/china it doesn't seem likely that Bangladesh will encounter a ceiling any time soon. What's more, they are effectively 100% fossil fuels. So if more countries copy Bangladesh's success and grow in the next 50-80 years, their CO2 output will increase more than the calculation of just bumping the average from one income group to another might suggest.
Second, low carbon tech doesn't say much about *what* it is. Again, talking about Bangladesh, as of now they are unlikely to pursue their own nuclear program, while not having much space for PV or wind that won't work during monsoon season anyway. Tech that works for the US, China, or Europe won't really work there, so the assumption that they'll just be able to copy whatever US does might not be true. Although it might not be that big of a problem as the majority of developing countries have more space for PV/wind.
Third, I think it underestimates the staying power of fossils. Even if developed countries decarbonise through a mixture of market and political measures (say, outright banning fossils in 50 years), marginal cost of a barrel is still much lower than the current market price for a number of Gulf states, which means they'll be happy to sell fossil fuels to developing world decades in the future, even on massive discounts if rich countries' demand drops. That would be a major disincentive for the decarbonisation.
I agree with your main point that decarbonisation through education is a bad take though, mostly because I think it's patronising and unethical. We should, however, plan for 9 billion people coming out of poverty by 2100 and focus on decarbonisation that can scale to the entire 10 billion (I'm being a bit loose with 2100 population estimates, sorry), not rely on poor countries staying poor.
Thanks so much for this. I whole heartedly agree we should want to improve women’s rights for more than emissions reasons. However, from an eco-feminist perspective changing mindsets on women’s rights is directly linked to how we treat the environment. The fact that we elect officials who think they can “grab women by the pussy” and that they can not be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies, while we also gender the earth as being female, it’s no wonder the controlling, destructive, abusive mindset caries over to the planet. There’s not a data set that shows this but it can be seen everywhere - trying to dominate and control woman - and the environment. We need new ways of living and working that empower women, treat them with respect and in turn do the same for the environment.
I think reducing the poverty level for these countries is more important than reducing carbon emissions. Many more lives would be improved if they used the cheapest energy source available now, even if it is fossil fuels. The poverty reduction this would enable would likely bring down the fertility rate naturally so the CO2 emissions per capita would not rise as quickly, and the more people with economic and educational power would bring more resources to reduce emissions later. The first thing to do is to reduce poverty; asking people to suffer so that the climate is 1 degree or less cooler in 50 years is inhumane and I think people in those countries would certainly agree.
Fine but your assumptions is they stay poor and don’t rise out of poverty. Which may not be a valid assumption.
I do agree with your main argument however