The Effects of Population Growth on Climate Change

Mr. Gumisiriza Modern, Executive Director at Youth for Nature Conservancy (YNC). PHOTO/COURTESY


  • Population growth significantly impacts climate change by increasing demand for limited natural resources and contributing to higher carbon emissions. This growth, particularly in developing countries like Uganda, leads to deforestation, resource depletion, and greater vulnerability to climate disruptions

Climate change has been described as the biggest global threat of the 21st century. According to United Nations estimates as of April 16, 2024, the world population has grown to about 8.1 billion people, with most of the growth occurring in developing countries. The population growth rate in Uganda is 3.0% (UNFPA 2022), with a total population of 50 million (UN estimates). Population growth undermines climate adaptation strategies by increasing demand and reducing the supply of limited natural resources such as agricultural land, water, and energy sources. Uganda’s population has doubled from 1990 to 2024, contributing to an increase in global carbon emissions. Population growth is driven by high fertility rates, increased poverty levels, decreased death rates, and migration.

During the last two decades, population growth has led to agricultural expansion, logging, development, and other human activities, causing deforestation of more than 120,000 square kilometers each year and reducing forest cover (NFA reports). Rapid population growth endangers human development, provision of basic services, and poverty eradication, weakening the capacity of poor communities to adapt to climate change.

Demographic trends play a role in determining the magnitude of climate disruption and societies’ ability to adapt to it. Population growth is a primary driver of increasing climate-altering emissions. National climate change pledges are insufficient to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Mitigation scenarios that reduce emissions consistent with this goal rely on the widespread deployment of uncertain technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which could negatively impact biodiversity and conservation.

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Population growth, in tandem with climate change, depletes key natural resources such as water, fuel, and soil fertility. It significantly increases demand and often leads to mismanagement of natural resources already compromised by environmental variability and climate change. Population growth demonstrates human vulnerability to climate change in numerous ways, forcing people to migrate to environmentally marginal or high-risk areas. For example, population growth in Uganda results in soil degradation, low agricultural productivity, and increased pressure on poor people to move to environmentally marginal or urban areas, making them more vulnerable to exploiting new resources unsustainably.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprising over 2,500 international scientists, estimates that by 2100, global temperatures could rise by 1.1-6.4 degrees Celsius and sea levels by 28-79 cm. Additionally, weather patterns will become less predictable, and extreme weather events such as storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts will occur with increasing frequency and severity. It is clear that the impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect developing countries and the poorest sectors within all countries, exacerbating inequities in health status, access to adequate food, clean water, and other resources.

Rapid population growth exacerbates the harmful impacts of climate change by affecting fresh water availability, land degradation, and soil erosion through deforestation and overgrazing. It increases waste disposal, including plastics and other wastes, dependence on firewood for cooking, and industrial activities, all contributing to higher carbon emissions. The growing demand for food due to population growth has led to the destruction of wetlands and forests on a large scale. Shrinking forests are unable to counteract the effects of increasing carbon emissions, causing temperatures to rise. Population growth also increases the extraction of natural resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, water, and wildlife, particularly from oceans, leading to pollution and lower air quality, endangering human health.

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The increased demand for food, shelter, water, and social services implies more land for agriculture and settlement, more water for domestic and industrial use, and more forest resources for timber, food, and fuel. It also means extracting more resources, including minerals and wildlife, to meet the demands of a growing population. These losses are evident in increased biodiversity loss and pollution of water, land, and air from chemicals, dust, and waste.

Limiting climate change disruptions and their impacts will require systematic change, including transitioning away from fossil fuels, reducing unsustainable energy and material consumption, and slowing population growth. Developing policies that accelerate fertility reduction will increase adaptive capacity, thereby limiting climate disruptions and reducing human exposure to climate risk.

I recommend the following strategies and actions to reduce the negative effects of a growing population on climate change:

  1. Increase investment in family planning to address the unmet need, promote rights-based development, and contribute to climate change adaptation.
  2. Increase investment in female education to enable control of fertility and develop a skilled labor force to maximize potential demographic dividends.
  3. Ensure effective leadership to discuss population growth’s importance in relation to climate change at influential levels for just action.
  4. Expand successful locally led actions on climate change, such as climate-smart agricultural practices, sustainable management, research, and innovation.
  5. Ensure that policies related to population growth and climate change are affordable and accessible.

The writer, Mr. Gumisiriza Modern is the Executive Director at Youth for Nature Conservancy (YNC)

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