Birth control could head off climate crunch

LONDON Wed Sep 9, 2009 11:27am EDT

Mothers hold their newborn babies inside a maternity ward of the government-run Fabella hospital in Manila April 17, 2008. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Mothers hold their newborn babies inside a maternity ward of the government-run Fabella hospital in Manila April 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

LONDON (Reuters) - Birth control and new technologies -- not lifestyle change alone -- may be needed to head off a combined climate, food and energy crunch later this century, said the head of Britain's science academy Martin Rees.

The world's population is expected to rise by one third to more than 9 billion people by 2050, and may keep growing, fuelling concern about food and energy shortages and a more difficult task to curb greenhouse gases heating the planet.

But analysts and environment and development groups rarely mention population control, which smacks of totalitarianism, in U.N.-led climate talks meant to agree in December a broader, more ambitious pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

"There should not be any stigma in providing women with ways of getting out of ignorance, poverty and getting access to contraceptives," said Rees, president of the Royal Society, at the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit.

"I think population issues need to be higher up the agenda because population beyond 2050 is very uncertain. There should not be any stigma against stronger efforts to give women in Africa more empowerment."

There will be more than 1 billion extra people in Africa than now by 2050 said Rees, who added the continent by then would have three times the population of Europe -- which had triple Africa's population in 1950.

Rees gave two priorities for policymakers now to maintain food, energy and low-carbon air supplies later this century:

"Substituting as quickly as possible fossil fuels and doing all we can to ensure the global population doesn't continue rising after 2050," he told Reuters in London.

"There are going to be pressures on the environment, not just climate change but food and water."

The Chinese government estimates its population was 300-400 million smaller in 2008 as a result of a one-child policy introduced in 1979. Its population now is about 1.3 billion.

CLEANTECH

Climate talks are deadlocked on who will foot the bill to install more expensive low-carbon energy and prepare for droughts and rising seas.

The group of eight leading developed countries committed in Italy in July to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 -- but gave no detail of how to achieve that.

"Without new technologies we will never meet the 2050 target," said Rees. "Alternative energy, biofuels, genetic modification, fourth generation nuclear power, fusion, battery technology should all be developed with urgency. By throwing more money at problems you can in many cases speed up progress."

Rees urged a substantial increase in energy research funding, which globally he estimated at the same level now as 20 years ago.

Politicians and economists are often reluctant to suggest that fighting climate change will be expensive and require painful behavior change, for example to walk more, fly less.

"Changing people's behavior is not enough. Maybe we can get 30-40 percent (emissions) cuts by insulating our houses and turning down the air conditioning."

"I don't want to disparage that because we have seen how attitudes have changed to smoking and drinking and driving."

(Reporting by Gerard Wynn; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter)

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