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With a world population of 8 billion, consumption, not mass, is the key to climate change, experts say

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By Associated Press: The world is getting hotter and busier and the two issues are linked, but not as much as people might think, experts say.

A baby was born somewhere on Tuesday that became the world’s 8 billionth person, according to data from the United Nations and other experts. The Earth has warmed nearly 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the world reached the 4 billion mark in 1974.

Climate and population is a sensitive subject for scientists and civil servants.

As more and more people expend energy, mainly from burning fossil fuels, as the planet warms up, the main issue isn’t so much the number of people as how a small fraction of those people are causing far more than their fair share of carbon pollution, several told Climate. — and population experts to The Associated Press.

“We have a population problem and we have a population problem,” said Vanessa Perez-Cicera, director of the World Resources Institute’s Global Economics Center. “But I think the most important thing is that we have an overconsumption problem.”

READ ALSO | We are now 8 billion. Here are 5 daunting challenges for us

And that’s why the 8 billionth child born “will not have what we had … because there are not enough resources,” she said.

Shoppers throng a market in Delhi. (AP photo)

Kenya, suffering from a devastating drought, has a population of 55 million, about 95 times the population of Wyoming. But Wyoming emits 3.7 times as much carbon dioxide as Kenya. Africa as a whole has 16.7% of the world’s population but historically emits only 3% of global carbon pollution, while the United States has 4.5% of the world’s population but has produced 21.5% of the world’s heat-trapping carbon dioxide since 1959 expelled.

The average Canadian, Saudi and Australian emit more than 10 times more carbon dioxide into the air during their daily lives than the average Pakistani, where a third of the country was flooded by a climate change-exacerbated event. And in Qatar, per capita emissions are 20 times those of Pakistan, according to the World Bank.

“The question isn’t about population, it’s about consumption patterns,” says Climate Analytics climate scientist Bill Hare. “So it’s best to look at the major northern emitters to start with.”

Climate Interactive, a group of scientists who run complicated computer simulations that can be modified to see which factors are most important in combating climate change, looked at the difference people make. It found that it made a small contribution compared to other factors such as economics.

Andrew P. Jones of Climate Interactive compared two scenarios with population projections of 8.8 billion people and 10.4 billion people and found only a difference of 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.4 degrees Fahrenheit). But the difference between no price or tax on carbon and $100 per ton was 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit).

Hare said there is more than a hint of racism in the myth that overpopulation is the main problem behind climate change.

READ ALSO | With 177 million, India is the largest contributor to the world population milestone of 8 billion: UN

“One of the biggest arguments I hear almost exclusively from men in high-income countries is that ‘Oh, it’s just a population problem,'” said Katharine Hayhoe, chief conservation scientist. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“The 50% poorest people in the world are historically responsible for 7% of heat-trapping gas emissions,” Hayhoe said. “But when you look at which countries are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change, countries like Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal and Afghanistan are at the top of the list.”

And even within countries, it’s the richest who create more carbon pollution, Hare said. Overall, he said, “80% of the population, the world’s population, emits a small fraction of emissions.”

The world’s population is growing especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia “and they contribute the least to human-induced climate change,” says Colette Rose, project coordinator at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Eight countries, five in Africa, three in Asia, will get at least half of the population growth between now and 2050, Rose said. They are Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, India and the Philippines.

Global population growth has slowed significantly, likely to peak sometime in this century, and is now growing at less than 1% a year, Rose said. But carbon emissions are growing faster, 1% more this year than in 2021.

For environmental organizations and officials, the issue of population and climate has caused problems.

“Population is a problem that no one has wanted to do anything about from the start. Too politically sensitive,” Joanna Depledge, a climate historian at the University of Cambridge in England, said in an email. “There are many dimensions, particularly with regard to religion and accusations of racism – population growth is, of course, mostly concentrated in non-white populations.”

For a long time, the Sierra Club had promoted efforts to control the world’s population, until a few decades ago, when the environmental group took a closer look at the issue and broke down the numbers, said the group’s president, Ramon Cruz. They found that the problems were more overconsumption and fossil fuel use and that those problems would be the same “at 6 billion, 7 billion or 8 billion people,” he said.

While most environmental groups try to avoid the problem, 11 years ago, when the world hit 7 billion people, the Center for Biological Diversity made special condoms with messages for the public and the environment, such as “Wrap up gently, save the polar bear.”

READ ALSO | Climate justice becomes more difficult as the world’s population passes 8 billion

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