No, not necessarily, as the relationship between the number of people on Earth and worsening climate change is not that clear-cut.

When we talk about climate change, population growth is often seen as a key contributing factor. A famous 18th-century British economist Thomas Robert Malthus wrote a book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he theorised that populations would continue expanding until growth is stopped or reversed by disease, famine, war, or calamity[1].

By 2050, 2 billion people will be added to the world population and by 2100 there will be 1 billion more[2]. If this concept of population growth leading directly to climate change were true, this spells bad news for our future.

However, it’s not as simple as climate change being caused by population growth. Rather, the blame lies with industrialisation[3]. Industrialisation has entailed massive expansion in the use of fossil fuels to power society’s desire for goods and services and this is the source of the current climate problem[4].

But surely doesn’t more people on the planet result in greater fossil fuel consumption, which in turn leads to more emissions and thus greater climate change?

This is a pitfall which is easy to fall into. Research shows that climate change is independent of population growth and there is actually no causal relationship between them[5].

To measure the impact of human activities on the planet, an “IPAT” equation was invented by environmental scientist Ramaswami: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. In this formula, affluence is defined as the gross domestic product per capita, and technology is a measure of the amount of resources required to produce a unit of GDP[6].

U.N. reports show the use of global resources has been mainly driven by increases in affluence, not the population[7]. A small minority of wealthy people produce more greenhouse gases than the majority of people, particularly in high-income nations, which account for 78% of resource consumption, despite the population growth rates in those countries being lower than the rest of the world. In low-income countries, the population has almost doubled, but the resource consumption has stayed at about 3% of the global total[8]. For example, people living in the United States, Australia, and Canada, have about 200 times more carbon footprints than people in some of the poorest and fastest-growing countries in sub-Saharan Africa—such as Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic[9]. Wealthy people, while producing the most greenhouse gases, are also the least impacted by the effects of climate change, compared to low-income people who are most at risk of being affected by climate change related disasters such as droughts[10].

These studies show how affluence and consumption and use of resources like technology relate to climate change and therefore why only focusing on the population as a risk factor won’t make a big difference.

In order to truly tackle climate change and build a safe, healthy and equitable society, simply focusing on the number of people on the planet won’t work. There should be more of a focus on who and what is releasing the greatest amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and greater effort put into addressing inequality and overconsumption.


[1] Malthus, T. R.(1798). An essay on the principle of population. The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus, London, Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 1, 1-139

[2] United Nations(2019). World Population Prospects 2019.; Available from: https://population.un.org/wpp

[3] Evans, H.(2017). The Connections Between Population and Climate Change. [online] Population Connection. Available at: <https://populationconnection.org/resources/population-and-climate/#:~:text=Population%20growth%2C%20along%20with%20increasing,especially%20in%20low%2Dresource%20regions.> [Accessed 11 July 2022].

[4] Bretschger, L.(2019). Malthus in the light of climate change. CER-ETH–Center of Economic Research at ETH Zurich Working Paper, 19, 320.

[5] Bretschger, L.(2019). Malthus in the light of climate change. CER-ETH–Center of Economic Research at ETH Zurich Working Paper, 19, 320.

[6] Kaplan, S.(2021). It’s wrong to blame ‘overpopulation’ for climate change. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2021/05/25/slowing-population-growth-environment/> [Accessed 11 July 2022].

[7] United Nations Environment Programme International Resource Panel.(2022). Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want – Summary for Policymakers. [online] UN Environment Programme. Available at: <https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/27518> [Accessed 11 July 2022].

[8] United Nations Environment Programme International Resource Panel.(2022). Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want – Summary for Policymakers. [online] UN Environment Programme. Available at: <https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/27518> [Accessed 11 July 2022].

[9] Ritchie, H. and M. Roser.(2019) CO₂ and greenhouse gas emissions. Our World in Data; Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

[10]  Kaplan, S.(2021). It’s wrong to blame ‘overpopulation’ for climate change. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2021/05/25/slowing-population-growth-environment/> [Accessed 11 July 2022].

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