Climate and social systems are profoundly connected, and those connections open up solutions that are often overlooked. Some initiatives, designed primarily to ensure rights and foster equality, also have cascading benefits to climate change. They include access to high-quality, voluntary reproductive healthcare and to high-quality, inclusive education, which are fundamental human rights and cornerstones of gender equality.
How many people might call this planet home in 2050 or 2100? That will depend, in large part, on fertility rates and the headway we make on securing gender equality and advancing human well-being. When levels of education rise (in particular for girls and young women), access to reproductive healthcare improves, and women’s political, social, and economic empowerment expand, fertility typically falls. Across the world and over time, this impacts population.
Currently, we humans number 7.7 billion, and the United Nations estimates the human family will grow to between 9.4 billion and 10.1 billion in 2050. As we consider the future of climate solutions, it matters how many people will be eating, moving, plugging in, building, buying, using, wasting, and all the rest. Population interacts with the primary drivers of emissions: production and consumption, largely fossil-fueled.
It’s critical to note the vast disparities in emissions from high-income countries compared to low, and between the wealthiest individuals and those of lesser financial means. For example, almost half of consumption-related emissions are generated by just 10% of people globally. The topic of population also raises the troubling, often racist, classist, and coercive history of population control. People’s choices about how many children to have should be theirs and theirs alone. And those children should inherit a livable planet. It is critical that human rights are always centered, that gender equality is the aim, and that benefits to the planet are understood as positive ripple effects of access and agency.
In its most recent report on “world population prospects,” the United Nations notes that the international community has committed to ensuring that all people have access to family planning, should they wish to use it, and the ability to decide how many children to have and when. That can mean changes in everything from contraception to culture. Living up to those commitments will be a major determinant for which possible trajectory becomes our path forward.