PSN debates population growth and global warming on BBC radio

November 3, 2009


Ahead of the 2009 Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, PSNs Karen Newman has taken part in a special BBC Radio 4 Frontiers debate on one of global warmings most contentious issues - population growth. 

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten 


A contentious issue

Delegates in Copenhagen will address how to reduce greenhouse gases, blamed for warming the planet. But in focusing on energy production, is there a factor that is being ignored because it is too controversial - the sheer numbers of us on the planet?

The Population Growth and Global Warming debate chaired by Geoff Watts grappled with the complex issues surrounding population and climate change, asking if there is a relationship and what can be done about it?

On the panel were:

  • Karen Newman, Co-ordinator at the Population and Sustainability Network
  • John Guillebaud, Emeritus Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health at University College London and PSN Board member
  • David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow in Human Settlements at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

What is the significance of population?

The debate began by addressing the significant of population for climate change, and whether the links between population and climate change warrant focus, given that all three panellists agreed that consumption and carbon emissions by richer nations is the factor driving climate change.

On this issue Karen explained that the way that PSN talks about population and climate change is not to suggest that population growth in the global South is responsible for climate change, but out of concern that those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are living in the global South. And many of those countries are identifying population growth as a factor compounding their vulnerability to climate change. Therefore, we must listen to what these developing countries are saying about their need to access family planning programmes, which is not only a valid right in itself, but adaptation will be easier if women are able to have the number of children they want, rather than a larger family because they didn't have access to contraception.

Concerned that talking about population distracts from the critical issue of reducing consumption, David Satterthwaite argued that population and family planning is just one of many development interventions that must be considered as important to increase a community's capacity for adaptation, including health and education provision, which will reduce population growth in return.

Karen agreed that these factors do play a role, but that there needs to be greater emphasis on ensuring that voluntary family planning programmes are in place.

Population: a focus at Copenhagen?

While there was little agreement on the extent to which population should be a focus at the forthcoming summit, the panel did appear to agree that population and family planning is likely to receive little attention at Copenhagan.

While this is likely to be the case, a resounding and important message for any discussions focusing on the links between population and climate change was made by John during the debate, highlighting the importance of a balanced and rights-based approach which acknowledges the complexity of the issues. Advocating a focus on the links between population and climate change does not mean that you are advocating coercive programmes, nor that family planning should be the sole focus for climate change mitigation and adaptation, he explained.

You can listen to the broadcast on the BBC website.