Population Growth Demographics Spur Climate Change

Country: USA
Author: Deborah Zabarenko

The world is probably going to be a more crowded place by 2100 and demographic changes in this growing population -- how many more people there are, how old they are and where they live -- will affect climate-warming emissions, researchers reported on Monday.

Slowing down population growth could have a profound effect on the level of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use, the researchers found, but this alone will not be enough to prevent the most severe impact from climate change.

Scientists have long drawn a connection between population growth and increased greenhouse gas emissions, but previous research has not focused on demographic shifts that are likely to go along with the increase in the number of people.

World population is expected to be generally older and more urban by century's end, and more people are likely to live in smaller households rather than in extended families, U.S., German and Austrian researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But how many people might there be? The researchers considered three scenarios: a continuation of current trends, which would yield a 2-billion-person increase by 2050; a slower growth path which could mean about 1 billion more people; and a faster growth path, which could see a population rise of as much as 3 billion by 2050.

That would mean about 9 billion people living on Earth, compared to more than 6 billion now.

A slower-growth path could cut emissions by 16 to 29 percent of the amount needed to keep global temperatures from causing serious effects, the researchers said. And an aging population with lower participation in the workforce could cut emissions by as much as 20 percent in some industrialized countries.


Generally speaking, the more people there are, the more fossil fuel they use, causing more greenhouse gas emissions. But those who live in rural areas, particularly in developing countries, use more biomass as fuel instead of fossil fuels like coal and oil, said Brian O'Neill of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, one of the study's authors.

Therefore, a big move from country to city living is likely to mean greater fossil fuel use, especially in the developing world. Even if city-dwellers have relatively smaller carbon footprints -- living in smaller spaces, using public transit and less fossil fuel per person -- an influx of country people into cities is likely to make greenhouse emissions rise.

Another effect of urbanization is that urban workers tend to contribute more to economic growth than rural workers do.

"That's not because they work harder or longer hours," O'Neill said by telephone from Boulder, Colorado.

"It's because they're in sectors of the economy that drive economic growth more."

As a result, he said, the whole economy of the country grows faster and overall demand for energy rises, driving emissions up, as much as 25 percent in some developing countries.

The trend toward urbanization could have a noticeable impact on energy demand, especially in Asia, O'Neill said.

"I think it's possible ... that we're underestimating potential growth rates in energy demand in regions of the world that may urbanize very quickly over the next 20 to 30 years," he said.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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