Is Overpopulation causing Climate Change? Overpopulation vs Overconsumption

I touched briefly on overpopulation in my second biodiversity video: Human’s Impact on Biodiversity Loss. While I still stand by what I said, I realized I need to expand more on this issue.

In that video, I said how overpopulation isn’t necessarily the issue but rather overconsumption. What I mean is, families in some countries have multiple children and don’t consume as much as Americans. In a study, children in Malawi consume about .07 - .1 metric tons of CO2 annually, which is not a lot. Meanwhile, American children consume about 58 metric tons of CO2 per year. That is per year, per child! We can even compare children in the US to children in China. A child born in the US will create 7x more CO2 than a child in China. That was the point I was getting at and I poorly explained it in the first video, which is why I’m expanding now.

Now, all that to say, we consume a lot because of our privilege. We have cars and malls and Amazon and we fly and we consume a lot of data (which does require CO2), and so forth. While people in non-Westernized countries typically do not have these luxuries or don’t want them and continue to live off the land more sustainably. Would our carbon footprint lower if we were forced to live in Malawi, probably. Would a Malawian coming to live in the US have a higher carbon footprint than they did living in Malawi, probably. It’s not necessarily the people but the culture and the privilege of living in certain regions and have certain jobs and opportunities.

But, I’m not saying we need to incite population control. Keep in mind this is all my unprofessional opinions based on scientific research and studies. I encourage you to take this with a grain of salt, do your own research, and form your own opinions and if you disagree, that’s fine, let’s have a discussion about it (without arguing).

We need to consume less

With great privilege comes great responsibility, or whatever the saying is. We are privileged to live in a country with Amazon and malls and airplanes and cars. But we need to use these things wisely. We can’t keep flying willy nilly and buying new item after new item and just throwing it in the trash. I’m not saying we all have to become minimalists and only make enough trash to fit in a mason jar, but we need to be conscious about our choices. Do we need every single baby accessory brand new? No, try to find them second-hand. Do we need every single baby accessory period? Probably not.

And it’s not just for babies either but teaching our children about healthy consumer habits like shopping second hand, donating, reusing, upcycling, recycling, trading, and so forth. We need to learn for ourselves and teach others (including our children) to create a circular, more sustainably economy. Because of how much we buy for our children, they can add up to 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to our carbon footprint. This is 20 times more than someone can save by driving a better car, recycling, and using energy efficient appliances.

The US has the largest population among “developed” countries and is expected to double (to roughly 600 million) within the next 80 years. Currently, the US produces more CO2 per capita than Europe by two times and five times the global average. So, yes, our overconsumption is clearly to blame, but this will continue to get worse the more children we have.

More importantly, focusing on human numbers obscures the true driver of many of our ecological woes. That is, the waste and inequality generated by modern capitalism and its focus on endless growth and profit accumulation.”

Who’s really to blame?

Now, I don’t want to point fingers, but fossil fuel companies are responsible for around 1/3 of CO2 emissions and the world’s wealthiest 10% of people contribute the same amount of CO2 as the poorest 50% at 10% of CO2 each. This is why I think the real problem is overconsumption and exploiting the earth and people, not necessarily overpopulation.

Plus, when people look at population graphs compared to CO2 graphs, it looks like they line up and are linked. They might be, but we need to look at where the CO2 is coming from, from each individual person. Emissions are tied to income. People in the “wealthiest” countries emit roughly 50x that of a person in a “poor” country.

But, is overpopulation still an issue in regards to climate change?

Yes, they are related if you look at this chart. But, I still think overconsumption is at least partially to blame. Because we have more children on average, we have to produce more things, but we also aren’t producing them or disposing of them sustainably. Both charts start to increase in the early 1900s, also the time of the industrial revolution and the coal and oil booms. They’re all intertwined.

Something else important to note is that the more crowded the earth gets, the more trees we have to chop down to house ourselves meaning less carbon will be sequestered. The UN predicts another 2 billion people will occupy the earth by 2050 and another 3.5 billion by 2100. That would be over 10 billion people on the earth. Not to mention, the more the earth warms, the more the sea levels will rise, and therefore, the less land we will have to occupy ourselves. That plus living anywhere near the equator in about 30 years or so will be unbearable. We are going to be displacing ourselves.

Is population control the solution to climate change?

No, but we need to be cognizant of how many children we are having. Again, this is just an opinion! It makes sense to have 2 children to replace the parents. You can still have children without adding to overpopulation. It’s not the solution, but it does cut carbon emissions and helps control overconsumption.

It’s honestly hard to say if population control will even decrease the ever-warming climate because our population has been consistently growing for hundreds of years, doubling in my parents’ lifetime alone . But, we do know that consuming less will lead to less CO2 emissions and one way to consume less is to not reproduce, simply put.

Like I outlined in my biodiversity series, saving biodiversity and halting deforestation is one of the key things we can do to fight climate change...but that only helps sequester carbon. We need to stop emitting carbon as much, too. We overconsume before having children and then we teach our 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 children to overconsume too and it just blows out of hand. Again, they are intertwined.

But, most scientists believe that our population will cap around 9-11 billion people, not much more than we already have. Can the earth sustain 11 billion people? Probably, but not if we continue to live the way we are living. In fact, most believe that within the next 40 years or so, we won’t be having enough babies! That is not quite an overpopulation problem.

Are there smart ways to reduce the population?

Yes. What’s still wrong is governments telling us how many children we can and can’t have. That is overstepping their bounds and will not help anyone. I’ve read dystopian books and watched dystopian movies about population control and everyone always seems to have more children than “required.”

What needs to happen instead is education and access to education plus access to contraceptives. Many people fight for the right for women to make a choice about their bodies and we should have the right to choose if we want to have children or not and how many. This means providing cheaper or even free access to contraceptives (inducing permanent ones), family planning, and reproductive health. This is a relatively new term. Everyone wants to reduce the population in a smart and ethical way, but until recently, no one thought to just offer contraceptives to women across the globe and educate them on these issues.

What should not happen is forced sterilization, child limits, and worse.

Right now in history, women are having fewer children globally because of better access to school and contraception. These and overpopulation go hand in hand as well. But, other barriers to having children are having no access to childcare or it being too expensive, job pressures, the expense of giving birth itself, and so forth. So, it’s not just positive reasons that are slowing population growth.

Final thoughts

Again, these are just my opinions, but, I think that yes, we need to be mindful of how many children we are having and provide contraceptives and sexual education to women across the globe (men, too), but that is not the key issue. When people think that overpopulation is the main threat to climate change, it’s lazy. It’s brushing off the fact that me flying or eating excessive red meat or overconsumption isn’t the issue. It’s brushing off the fact that only 10% of people are contributing to 50% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Yes, overpopulation might be contributing to the rising climate, but I don’t think it should be our focus, personally. I think we should still encourage education opportunities for women across the globe and provide access to sexual health care including contraceptives to help slow the population rise, but our energy needs to be focused on carbon sequestration and cutting emissions or else we might not even have a planet for the projected 11 billion people in 50 years or so.

I think this is just a way to point fingers and make us in “wealthy” countries feel less guilt and get us off the hook. It would probably be a cleaner world with 9 billion people run off of solar and wind energy than a world with say 5 billion people run off of oil and coal.

Wow, this was a long one, but I felt that this conversation needed to happen. I hope you found this valuable and interesting and I’d love to have a discussion below. Thank you so much for reading along.

Until next time, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)


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