From August 31 to September 3, the National Forestry Commission of Mexico and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment held an international conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, in preparation for the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) in 2011. The focus of the workshops was on forest governance, management, and finance, with a particular emphasis on implementating the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) mechanism and the rights of communities relating to REDD+.

REDD+ measures seek to create financial incentives for developing countries to decrease their emissions from forests while at the same time alleviating poverty. However, skeptics worry that more centralized forest governance will infringe on the rights of local communities to manage their own forest resources.

Aftermath of Deforestation

All of Latin America shares similar struggles when it comes to deforestation. In most of these countries, growing populations and economies are putting a strain on limited environmental resources, including forests. In Mexico, as a result, less than 10 percent of the original tropical forest is left.

The benefits of REDD+, such as sustaining forest ecosystems and providing greater motivation to reduce climate change, seem obvious. So why is it taking so long to implement these practices? One answer raised at the conference was the difficulty in finding balance between preventing social and ecological harm and being as cost-effective as possible. It is nearly impossible to share the costs and benefits of REDD+ equally, whether internationally, nationally, or locally.

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Climate Change, developing countries, forests, governance, International Year of Forests, Latin America, Mexico, population, poverty, rain forest, REDD, United Nations Forum on Forests

The climate change report by the United Nations Population Fund was admittedly a bit outside the ordinary, especially for the UN. It included a bit of the usual background material on the basics of climate change, of course, and some material on various country’s greenhouse gas emissions and how warm the last couple of decades have been. But the focus of State of World Population 2009 was not on gases or temperatures. Consider the subtitle: Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate. Not your parents’ climate change report, if indeed your parents read any.

The basic message of the report, for which I served as lead researcher and author with the help of Worldwatch colleagues and others, is that women in charge of their own lives can change climate for the better. Let me count the ways: Women plant and protect trees, put carbon into soil by improving their farmland, tend to use fossil fuels less than men (at least for travel), and work together with dogged creativity to protect themselves from floods, droughts, storms and erratic temperatures. Moreover, when they can manage the timing of their own pregnancies, they have fewer children, later in life, and point humanity toward a smaller world population in the decades to come.

From a climate change perspective—as well as just about any other—what’s not to like about all this? Yet women are routinely marginalized by their societies, walled off from decision-making bodies and denied the education and health care that could make them more than second class citizens.

The UNFPA report, launched on November 18, has gained some good press and careful attention. (And also, perhaps predictably, some amazingly sloppy distortions of its message. This Associated Press story was even posted for a time on the home page of the conference itself.) It just may contribute to the efforts of many groups at the upcoming Copenhagen climate conference to bring negotiators’ attention to the importance of gender equity and population in considering the climate challenge.

Climate Change, Copenhagen, population, UNFPA

Have the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) been miscalculating GHG emissions from livestock? An article in the latest edition of World Watch magazine outlines how livestock emissions have been severely underestimated. In “Livestock and Climate Change,” Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang deduce that livestock and their byproducts annually account for at least 51 percent of global GHG emissions (way above common estimates) and suggest decreasing meat consumption as a means of mitigating climate change.

The FAO’s widely cited 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow credits livestock for only about 18 percent of annual global emissions. According to Goodland and Anhang, this report (among many others) has overlooked and underestimated many sources of livestock emissions. For example, the FAO states that “livestock is not a net source of CO2” and that emissions from respiration “are part of a rapidly cycling biological system.” According to Goodland and Anhang, however, livestock (like automobiles) are a “human invention and convenience” and the large numbers (and subsequent emissions) only exist to satisfy consumer demands. Emissions from livestock respiration should therefore be given equal consideration as automobile emissions during international climate change negotiations.

Clouddragon pic

Should livestock emissions receive equal consideration as automobile emissions?

The global population is estimated to increase by about 35 percent from 2006 to 2050.  The FAO projects livestock numbers to double over the same time period; Goodland and Anhang reason that livestock emissions will double accordingly. They explain that growth in livestock markets will increase deforestation to produce grassland which will further accelerate climate change. Rainforests store about 200 tons of carbon per hectare; moderately degraded grassland (from grazing) stores only about 8 tons of carbon per hectare.

Worldwatch’s Vital Signs trend, “Meat Production Continues to Rise,” provides a synopsis of meat production and outlines some of the other environmental and health issues associated with factory-farmed livestock. Not only are the living conditions harmful to animal welfare, but they pose significant health risks to humans. Avian flu, Nipah virus and BSE (mad cow disease) are a few of the many health issues associated with livestock factories and their hazardous wastes. Reducing meat consumption would not only benefit human health and the environment, it would also help reduce malnutrition in developing countries.

“Replacing livestock with better alternatives,” Goodland and Anhang conclude, would consequently provide a rapid and effective strategy to reduce atmospheric concentrations of GHG emissions and lessen the effects of climate change. The FAO estimates that 37 percent of human-induced methane emissions, for example, is generated by livestock. Although methane has 20 times the effect on climate change than carbon dioxide, its half life is only about 8 years compared to carbon dioxide’s half life of at least 100 years.  Replacing livestock with vegetarian alternatives would consequently affect the atmospheric GHG concentration more quickly than current international mitigation efforts to promote energy efficiency and “clean” energy production.

Demand for animal protein generally increases as countries develop. Many regions still practice sustainable farming methods, but factory farms have been increasing to meet the demands of wealthy consumers.

There is no silver bullet that will address climate change. This new publication does make clear, however, that livestock play a larger role in global GHG emissions than previously thought. Unfortunately, meat consumption provides yet another illustration of the global inequalities and injustices associated with climate change, where consumption in industrialized countries directly degrades the quality of life in developing countries.

Please click on the following links to purchase a copy of World Watch magazine, Vital Signs or a more in-depth report on the livestock industry: Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.

GHG emissions, livestock emissions, population, vegetarian

Predictably, the growing debate about the connections of population growth to climate change is growing ugly. The ever-provocative U.S. radio commentator Rush Limbaugh has publicly suggested that New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin take his own life to help out the environment.

Revkin had floated the idea of carbon credits for one-child families as “purely a thought experiment, not a proposal.” (Elena Marszalek of Worldwatch helped spread the idea by immediately blogging about it, an assist Revkin duly credited.) It could hardly be anything but a thought experiment, given that no country on earth has come close to instituting carbon credits of any kind for families or individuals. And for reasons that Limbaugh’s tasteless suggestion helps clarify, no government negotiator headed for the Copenhagen climate conference will touch population with a pole the length of a wind turbine rotor blade. The whole idea that human numbers have anything to do with the world’s climate change dilemma remains too prone to Limbaugh’s level of discourse for most of the over-stressed climate-change negotiating community even to contemplate.

Which is exactly why Revkin performed a public service in putting out the idea of carbon credits for small families—non-starter though it is. The public interest in the population connection to climate change is growing fast, and for understandable reasons. Obviously human beings, and no natural or non-human phenomenon, are responsible for the dramatic rise in the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began. And just as obviously, the fact human population has grown well into the billions since then has a lot to do with the magnitude of the subsequent buildup of these gases. This is worth discussing, and was touched upon in State of the World 2009, but the conversation still has a long way to go before most climate negotiators and policymakers take it seriously. If Revkin can stand a call for his suicide, the rest of us can welcome more people thinking about the obviousness of the human and population connections to environmental degradation.

Revkin’s non-proposal is likely to be irrelevant anyway, once the world grapples seriously with climate change. The cost of living will probably rise as we phase out carbon-based energy, and even more so if we don’t—and we’ll suffer the climatic consequences as well. Modern parents respond to tough times by seeking to postpone childbearing. They’ll get plenty of economic incentives from life to want just one or maybe two children. What they’ll need—as Revkin recognizes—is good family planning services to make sure pregnancy happens only when a child is wanted. If Limbaugh weren’t so hungry for attention of any kind, he’d concede that none of this has anything to do with suicide.

Climate Change, Copenhagen, equity, inequality, population, SOW09

Countries like Brazil, Ecuador and Papua New Guinea are asking for financial compensation to address deforestation, and now Saudi Arabia wants compensation if countries reduce their oil consumption to mitigate climate change. Is it entirely far fetched to ask if individuals should be compensated for having fewer or no children?

 At a Wilson Center discussion on Wednesday, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin considered this idea and stated that having fewer children was one of the best ways that individuals could reduce their carbon footprints. Humans reproduce exponentially, and having two children instead of three could reduce energy consumption that would otherwise occur for generations. A report by Paul Murtaugh PDF from the University of Oregon found that the “carbon legacy” of having an extra child is twenty times more important than other choices individuals take over their lifetime (such as what kind of transportation they use, for example.) In the United States, a child has 160 times the carbon impact than a child born in Bangladesh, according to Murtaugh. 

Smaller Family Tree, Fewer Emissions

Smaller Trees, Fewer Emissions

 The current world population is 6.8 billion and is projected to increase to 9.1 billion by 2050. We are in a global predicament: industrialized countries are trying to constrain their energy consumption while encouraging and in some ways helping developing countries to industrialize, which will boost their energy demand. 

 Carbon credits for fewer children might be less applicable in developing countries, since industrialized countries have much higher per capita emissions. Also, according to population expert and Worldwatch vice president Robert Engelman, an estimated 200 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are risking it anyway because they have inadequate access to contraception and related reproductive health services. As Engelman explains in his book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, providing such access to all women will naturally cause fertility to decrease. Other key factors include increasing girls’ education and gender equality, which empower women to seek out reproductive health services, influence them to start childbearing at a later age, and increase their bargaining power with husbands to decide when and how many children to have.

 According to a recent report by Population Action International PDF, 37 of the 41 National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPAs) submitted to the UNFCCC by Least Developed Countries have identified population growth or high density as a factor which makes them more vulnerable to climate change. Only one of these countries, however, proposed an adaptation project that includes reproductive health and family planning. Despite calls to promote reproductive health and family planning services as a human rights issue, it remains generally absent from the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. Even if we don’t start handing out carbon credits to childless couples or parents of very small families – an idea likely to prove challenging to turn into policy – we can foster discussion about these connections to climate change. And we can help build the capacity of women and their partners everywhere to choose for themselves the timing and frequency of pregnancy.

carbon legacy, family planning, per capita emissions, population, reproductive health services, robert engelman, women

“Theoretically, it seats 6.75 billion,” the ad for the new Honda Insight hybrid car states.

My first thought when encountering this ad in TIME magazine was that it plays to a pretty narrow demographic: people who know that this big number is the current population of the world. Then I read the ad copy.

Honda’s ad evokes one thought that ought to dominate the discussion at the international climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December: Global development is inequitable. Some of us worry about the mileage our car gets. But most people don’t own, drive, or ride in any car, let alone a hybrid.

The car that claims to be "for everyone"

On the one hand, Honda is playing to a sense of fairness that its American audience may have. “Sure,” the typical magazine reader might think. “Everyone should drive a hybrid. Good for Honda.” Yet even a fuel-efficient hybrid car could be disastrous for the planet.

“The more hybrid drivers, the better,” the ad declares unambiguously. “For all of us.”


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development, equity, hybrid cars, per capita emissions, population