In 40 years, there will be about 3 billion additional people living on the Earth (~9.5 billion total). With all of these new folks, it’s easy to think about the added demands of energy, food, and water required to sustain their lifestyles. And in terms of climate warming, it’s hard to escape the fact that significantly greater energy consumption will lead to rising rates of carbon emissions, unless there’s a shift to decarbonize the economy.
In this week’s early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Brian O’Neill and colleagues note that emissions are not just controlled by the sheer size of the human population but also by important demographic changes.
For example, how might an aging or more urban population affect emissions? How about changes in household size? Modelers of carbon emissions don’t usually ask these kinds of questions, so the conventionally projected emissions might be off if these additional demographic details matter.
The researchers developed a global economic model (Population-Environment-Technology, or PET) in which they specified relationships between demographic factors like houshold size, age, and urban/rural residency and economic factors like the demand for consumer goods, wealth, and the supply of labor. Here’s a bit more on how this works:
In the PET model, households can affect emissions either directly through their consumption patterns or indirectly through their effects on economic growth in ways that up until now have not been explicitly accounted for in emissions models. The direct effect on emissions is represented by disaggregating household consumption for each household type into four categories of goods (energy, food, transport, and other) so that shifts in the composition of the population by household type produce shifts in the aggregate mix of goods demanded. Because different goods have different energy intensities of production, these shifts can lead to changes in emissions rates. To represent indirect effects on emissions through economic growth, the PET model
explicitly accounts for the effect of (i) population growth rates on economic growth rates, (ii) age structure changes on labor supply, (iii) urbanization on labor productivity, and (iv) anticipated demographic change (and its economic effects) on savings and consumption behavior.
Although there are some exceptions, households that are older, larger, or more rural tend to have lower per capita labor supply than those that are younger, smaller, or more urban. Lower-income households (e.g., rural households in developing countries) spend a larger share of income on food and a smaller share on transportation than higher-income households. Although labor supply and preferences can be influenced by a range of nondemographic factors, our scenarios focus on capturing the effects of shifts in population across types of households.
To project these demographic trends, we use the high, medium, and low scenarios of the United Nations (UN) 2003 Long-Range World Population Projections combined with the UN 2007 Urbanization Prospects extended by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and derive population by age, sex, and rural/urban residence for the period of 2000–2100.
What did they find?
Although a shift to older and more urban household types occurs in all regions, changes in urbanization levels are most pronounced in China, sub-Saharan Africa, and the ODC [Other Developing Countries] region. Changes in household age strongly affect the European Union (EU) and other industrialized countries (OIC) regions as well as Latin America. Household size changes are largest in India, ODC, and Latin America.
….Results show that the effects of changes in population composition can have a significant influence on emissions in particular regions, separate from the effect of changes in population size. Aging can reduce emissions in the long term by up to 20%, particularly in industrialized country regions. Aging affects emissions in the PET model primarily through its influence on labor supply. In the model, aging populations are associated with lower labor productivity or labor force participation
rates at older ages, which (ceteris paribus) leads to slower economic growth. In contrast, urbanization can lead to an increase in projected emissions by more than 25%, particularly in developing country regions, also mainly through effects on labor
supply. The higher productivity of urban labor evident in the household surveys implies that urbanization tends to increase economic growth. Although other studies find that, controlling for income, urban living can be more energy efficient, survey data for urban households include income effects and therefore result in increased emissions.
In most regions, changes in household size have little additional effect on emissions beyond those already captured by aging (older households are also typically smaller). This result could be because of limitations in our household projections, which include household size changes driven by aging and urbanization but only capture the effects of behavioral change on household size in China and the United States. In China, reduced household size leads to lower emissions, a direction of influence counter to previous results. The reduction is driven primarily by the fact that large
households in older age categories typically have greater per capita labor supply (and income) than smaller households, because they include adult children of working age. Thus, aging, combined with a decline in household size, leads to a reduction in
per capita labor supply as older households become composed primarily of the elderly.
And the overall take-home message on emissions reductions?
[R]educed population growth could make a significant contribution to global emissions reductions. Several analyses have estimated how much emissions would have to be reduced by 2050 to meet long-term policy goals such as avoiding warming of more than 2 °C or preventing a doubling of CO2 concentrations through implementation of a portfolio of mitigation measures characterized as “stabilization wedges”. Our estimate that following a lower population path could reduce emissions 1.4–2.5 GtC/y by 2050 is equivalent to 16–29% of the emission reductions necessary to achieve these goals or approximately 1–1.5 wedges of emissions reductions. By the end of the century, the effect of slower population growth would be even more significant, reducing total emissions from fossil fuel use by 37–41% across the two scenarios.
O’Neill, B., Dalton, M., Fuchs, R., Jiang, L., Pachauri, S., & Zigova, K. (2010). Global demographic trends and future carbon emissions Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (41), 17521-17526 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1004581107
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