Climate Change

COP-15 Copenhagen : Managing human-induced climate change and improving human lives

State of World Population 2009. Facing a changing world : women, population and climate

Témoignages.re / 19 November 2009

How do population dynamics affect greenhouse gases and climate change? Will urbanization and an ageing population help or hinder efforts to adapt to a warming world? And could better reproductive health care and improved relations between women and men make a difference in the fight against climate change?
Demographic factors and migration from regions deserved more attention in national responses to climate change, according to the report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Following, a UNFPA’s press release.

Global climate is changing. And it is we ourselves—in our lifestyles, our rapidly increasing numbers and the massive scale of our consumption and production—who are changing it.

Technology, especially the combustion of carbon-based fossil fuels that arose with the Industrial Revolution, has everything to do with this problem. Newer, cleaner technologies will be important to mitigating and adapting to climate change, but it is not technology that will save us. We will have to save ourselves. And to do this, we need to act on several fronts. Some of our actions will yield immediate benefits. Others only our children and grandchildren will appreciate. And yet we need to start all these actions at the same time. That time is now.

Climate change is often seen as a scientific issue, but its human dimensions are at last moving to the forefront. They will do so even more as the impacts of climate change unfold and societies respond to them. These impacts are likely to exacerbate gender and other social inequalities that are already acute today. Working now to reduce or eliminate such inequalities is thus a key anticipatory strategy for addressing climate change as well as contributing to development and the fullest exercise of human rights.

Immediately learn to adapt to climate change

The complex nature and momentum of human-induced climate change suggest three areas of work needed now, with immediate, near term and long-term benefits.

Because it is already too late to prevent some amount of climate change, humanity must immediately learn to adapt to it and become more resilient to ongoing changes in the long run. Without halting the rise in global emissions of greenhouse gases and then rapidly reducing them, adaptation to climate change will become an endless—and maybe an impossible—challenge. The push to build our resilience to climate change cannot distract from the need to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible, starting now. But this requires a shift in human behaviour and a new mindset about the way we deal with our environment individually, collectively, locally, regionally and globally. Even the critically needed early successes in reducing emissions will be a prelude to a task likely to preoccupy humanity for decades, even centuries: prospering globally while keeping human activities from sending the global atmosphere and climate outside the range of human habitability.

In considering how such an ambitious task might be undertaken, there can be no escaping a difference among countries identified in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself. As a group, developed countries have contributed a much greater load of greenhouse-gas emissions to the atmosphere—and hence to the currently elevated concentrations of these heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere—than developing countries. This is especially evident when these emissions are calculated as per capita emissions based on these countries past and present populations. For the most part the industrialized countries also have a greater economic and institutional capacity than developing ones to respond to climate change and its impacts. And this greater capacity stems in part from the fact that in emitting greenhouse gases over many decades they have developed economically. Their per capita incomes are high by global standards. If developed countries decline to make early and proportionally greater efforts to address climate change, it is very difficult to see which other countries could take the lead.

The basis of equity and human rights

The world needs innovative ideas on how to bring both high-emitting and low-emitting countries to an agreement that can reduce emissions and provide the financing and technology needed to enable all countries and all people to adapt and build resilience to climate change. A group of authors at Princeton University in the United States recently suggested that countries’ obligations to reduce emissions should be based on the share of the world’s 1 billion wealthiest people living within their borders. Since low-income countries too are home to wealthy individuals—who are also high emitters of greenhouse gases—a formula based on each population of these individuals might have some potential to break the impasse between developed and developing countries over responsibility and capacity to address climate change.

Whether this specific idea (based in part on a long-standing concept known as greenhouse development rights) moves forward or not, a global conversation is increasingly needed to generate workable ideas to address climate-change mitigation and adaptation on the basis of equity and human rights.

Societies’ adaptation and resilience to climate change can benefit from greater gender equality and access to reproductive health care. Both facilitate women’s full participation in their communities’ and societies’ development and climate change resilience. And both encourage positive demographic trends that arise from women exercising choice over childbearing that also yields benefits in poverty alleviation and the management of natural resources and the environment.

Sustainable patterns of consumption and production

Immediate mitigation—rapid reductions in emissions—is a complex and politically sensitive challenge. It is the major topic before the negotiators in Copenhagen in December 2009. It is possible that population growth in developed countries, and conceivably in some large and rapidly developing ones, will arise as among the factors to be considered in setting goals for emissions reductions. The long-term effort to maintain population-wide human well-being in balance with atmosphere and climate will ultimately require sustainable patterns of consumption and production that can only be achieved and maintained in the context of a sustainable world population. Over decades and centuries the trajectory that world population follows will help determine the levels of per capita emissions of greenhouse gases that will be consistent with a stable atmosphere and climate.

Since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), however, the world has learned that trying to "control" human population risks depriving women of their right to determine how many children to have and when to have them. What we can work toward instead is environmentally sustainable population dynamics that are characterized by safe childbearing, long life expectancies and freedom for individuals to make their own reproductive health decisions. We can also step up our efforts to support young people so they may live productive lives and fully realize their rights to education and health.

Five steps suggest

Five steps suggest themselves for action as negotiators gather in Copenhagen in December 2009, and may therefore help humanity retreat from the brink:

1- Bring a better understanding of population dynamics, gender and reproductive health to climate change and environmental discussions at all levels.

2- Fully fund family planning services and contraceptive supplies within the framework of reproductive health and rights, and assure that low income is no barrier to access.

3- Prioritize research and data collection to improve the understanding of gender and population dynamics in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

4- Improve the sex-disaggregation of data related to migration flows that are influenced by environmental factors and prepare now for increases in population movements resulting from climate change.

5- Integrate gender considerations into global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Think creatively about population

None of these are steps to be taken in isolation from broader social efforts to achieve gender equality. Action is critically needed to increase women’s ownership of land and legal control of the critical natural resources on which many of their lives depend. Assuring equal protection of the law, opportunities to engage in the formal economic sector, and access to reproductive health not only build gender equality but contribute to societies’ resilience in the face of all kinds of rapid change, of which climate change is perhaps the most hazardous.

There is still time for the negotiators about to gather in Copenhagen to think creatively about population, reproductive health and gender equality, and how these may contribute to a just and environmentally sustainable world. These linkages may indeed offer an arena where the universal exercise of human rights would help us resolve what today seems an almost insoluble challenge: managing human-induced climate change and improving human lives and livelihoods even as it occurs.


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