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Dangerous distraction or elephant in the room? Population growth, affluence and carbon emissions

Updated: Apr 18

How often have you heard some version of this claim: “population growth is not a problem for climate change, because populations are growing in poor countries whose contributions to global emissions are negligible”? It gets repeated like a mantra, soothing words that banish thought. But what justifies a claim is not the number of times it is repeated, but the evidence supporting it. In a new study, we analyzed carbon emissions and demographic data from the past three decades, and found evidence for a very different claim.

by Lucia Tamburino and Phil Cafaro

This article was first published on The Overpopulation Project blog here on March 21, 2023.


A dominant narrative in climate change debates asserts that addressing population growth is not relevant for climate mitigation. Population is only growing in the poorest countries, whose contributions to global carbon emissions are negligible, while the largest contributions come from rich countries, where the population no longer grows (or so they claim). Talking about population growth would hence be a dangerous distraction from the “real cause” of climate change: over-consumption in rich countries. It is inferred that addressing excessive consumption among the rich would be sufficient to deal successfully with climate change.

An underlying assumption of this narrative is that the world can be divided neatly into rich and poor. Although common, this view is obsolete and does not reflect today’s reality. As figure 1 shows, when we look at per capita income, the world’s countries form a continuum. Most are neither very poor nor very rich, but somewhere in between.

Figure 1. Life expectancy graphed against income for the world’s countries, 2018. Circles are proportional to population size. Source: Gapminder.

A common and useful categorization among economic analysts is the World Bank’s division of countries into four income groups: high-income, upper-middle income, lower-middle income, and low income. As you can see in Figure 2, the high-income group includes not just Western but also Arab nations (some of which are the richest), Japan, South Korea and several other countries in Asia and Latin America. The upper-middle group includes not only China but also Russia, Mexico and most countries in Latin America, and several countries in Europe and Africa. Africa is usually perceived as a poor continent, but it is actually quite varied, with the majority of the world’s low-income countries, but also many countries in the two middle groups, as well as a few small countries in the high-income group (e.g., Seychelles).