IIASA demographer Erich Striessnig talks about new research linking population change with climate change scenarios.

What does your research say about population and climate?
In our recent review article published in the journal Population Studies, we give a summary of much of the work that has been carried out over the past few years both at IIASA and at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW; WU) on the contribution of changes in population size and structures to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as societies’ capacity to adapt to climate change. Similar to Mia Landauer in last week’s blog entry, we emphasize the importance of addressing challenges to mitigation and adaptation jointly.

What’s new or unexpected in this study?
The main novelty behind our approach is the explicit inclusion of the full population detail by age, sex, and educational attainment in assessments of societies’ future adaptive and mitigation potential. This is exemplified in the context of IPCC-related climate change modelling which until recently has included only very limited information on the future of population. The new Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), which were developed with a huge contribution by IIASA, are an important step to overcoming this situation and to make models of both future greenhouse gas emissions, as well as vulnerability and adaptive capacity with respect to climate change far more realistic.

Population characteristics - not just size - make a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions as well as people's ability to adapt to a changing climate. ©Chris Ford via Flickr

Population characteristics – not just numbers – make a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions as well as people’s ability to adapt to a changing climate. ©Chris Ford via Flickr

Why is it important to consider the composition of population in regards to future climate change issues?
When thinking about the challenges of the future, it is important also to think about the capabilities that future societies will have to face them. I don’t mean that we should simply lean back and wait for science-fictional future technologies to solve all the problems of humanity, but a look at the changing future composition of populations around the world gives reason for optimism that future societies will be better at preparing, coping, and dealing with the consequences of yet unavoidable climate change than we are today.

What are the links between education and climate change?
Particularly in the developing world, education leads to reduced poverty. But economic growth and the resulting greater affluence, and consumption, also increases global CO2 emissions. So on a first look, education appears to worsen climate change. This has made some environmental activists skeptical about the value of education in the context of mitigation. But to avoid playing poverty eradication and well-being against climate change mitigation, it is necessary to look at behavioral differences at given levels of income. In fact, better education has been shown to be related to more eco-friendly consumption behavior, especially when it comes to home energy use and transportation, two of the main drivers of climate change. In addition to that, education has also been a major driver of technological advancements in the transition to cleaner energy sources.

Research shows that people's education levels also play a role in how adaptable they are to potential climate-related impacts such as storms and floods. ©Aldrich Lim via Flickr

Research shows that people’s education levels also play a role in how adaptable they are to potential climate-related impacts such as storms and floods. ©Aldrich Lim via Flickr

How do the new SSPs bring demography into the study of climate change?
Population growth is undoubtedly one of the main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change. What’s far less acknowledged is the importance of differential climate impact depending on demographic characteristics. Groundbreaking work by researchers from IIASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) featured in the article has shown that people have different footprints when they are young than when they are old and that household consumption differs between rural and urban dwellers. Providing different scenarios for the future composition of populations by age, sex, and educational attainment, the new SSPs for the first time allow researchers from different fields to study the dynamics between population and climate change within a common reference frame.

Lutz W, Striessnig E (2015) Demographic aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, 69(S1):S69-S76 (April 2015). doi: 10.1080/00324728.2014.969929

O’Neill, Brian C., Michael Dalton, Regina Fuchs, Leiwen Jiang, Shonali Pachauri, and Katarina Zigova. “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (October 2010): 17521–26. doi:10.1073/pnas.1004581107.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

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