climate change development poverty

Population offsets – a marriage of misconceptions

From today, you can assuage your eco-guilt by paying for family planning in developing countries. The offset innovation is called PopOffsets and is brought to you by the Optimum Population Trust.

Where other offsets see trees planted or solar panels installed, Popoffsets will pay for contraceptives and education in Africa and Asia.This is apparently the cheapest way to offset carbon emissions, with a tonne of carbon saved for every £4 spent. “Human activity is exacerbating global warming,” says OPT director Roger Martin. “Higher population levels inevitably mean higher emissions and more climate victims.”

Now, I’m all in favour of contraception and education for women, and it’s great that the trust is pursuing those goals. However, there is something deeply disturbing about selling those as an offset. It implies that the people most responsible for climate change are the poor, and that if we stop them breeding, we can carry on flying, driving and consuming. That’s an abrogation of responsibility of massive proportions.

1) Population is not the biggest cause of climate change.
Make no mistake, population is a factor in climate change, but it is by no means the driving force. “It is not the growth in population but the growth in consumption that drives the growth in greenhouse gas emissions” says an International Institute for Development and Environment report from earlier this year. The highest levels of population growth are in the poorest fifth of the world, but take a look at this chart showing human contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) levels:

The contribution of the poor to climate change is minuscule. In fact, the average ecological footprint of the world’s poorest people is actually getting smaller. Here’s a graph from the WWF’s Living Planet report.

Since 1961, the world’s poorest have got poorer, and therefore use less of the earth’s resources. At the same time, the rich have almost doubled their impact.

Honestly now, let’s own our own emissions and take responsibility.

2) Offsets will not prevent climate change
The second massive flaw in this sorry scheme is the idea of offsets. By the logic of offsetting, you can pay someone not to emit carbon on your behalf, and carry on with a clear conscience. This is a bit like saying it’s okay to run people down in your SUV as long as you pay their medical bills. Aside from the injustice and dodging of responsibility, offsets can only ever prevent future emissions. They cannot reduce them. Since global CO2 emissions are already too high, preventing a potential future increase doesn’t help. What matters is what George Marshall calls ‘the carbon bottom line’.

Offsets are a form of commodified denial, allowing us to buy pollution permits rather than cutting down on our environmentally profligate lifestyles. As George Monbiot says “any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change.”

In short, PopOffsets is a marriage of two distractions – offsetting and population. The real business of climate change is cutting consumption, as fast and as deep as possible.

  • UPDATE: I am not alone in thinking this is rather over the top. Here’s Leo Hickman’s article Population offsetting? Fertile ground for ridicule
  • UPDATE: Friends of the Earth’s Head of Climate Change Mike Childs has also commented on the idea: “The idea of paying for birth control in developing countries to offset carbon-intensive lifestyles in rich countries is repugnant. Rich countries caused climate change and their reluctance to cut their own emissions is pushing the planet to the brink of climate chaos.”

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  1. I think the PopOffsets idea is a great one! In this I back David Attenborough who Jeremy clearly regards as misguided!
    Always a shame when people sound off their own views irrespective of what the case actually is. Jeremy has not read what the PopOffsets project is trying to do.
    Firstly the needs for access for family planning, according to the website FAQs ( (and common sense) are all over the world not just in poorer countries.
    Secondly – as the footprint of a westerner is so much higher, the more we can do to encourage people not to have children that they do not want IN THE WEST, the higher the benefit to us all.
    Thirdly – yes the “poor” as he describes them, have a small carbon footprint. But if they are entitled to any aspirations at all (one assumes he allows the “poor” to have “aspirations”) then they want to reach for the lifestyles of the West and the resultant carboin footprints that derive. Therefore from points 2 and 3 above, it is necessary to address the problem all over the world.
    His second point (pay someone and carry on polluting) is directly contradicted in the website. (See questions 4, 5 and 7 of FAQs Clearly it is better to make an offset than do nothing. But clearly it is better to reduce carbon yourself and pay as well for that which you cannot reduce.
    If Jeremy is such a nay-sayer, he cannot get much fun out of life – try looking to the positives.

    1. Ditto, ditto, ditto. Thanks for saying it, cfreddie. If footprint is a problem, the number of feet clearly has equal weight.

      Dave Gardner
      Hooked on Growth: Our Misugided Quest for Prosperity

  2. Of course PopOffsets don’t tell people that they can pay and carry on polluting, they’ve got more sense than that. But offsets still give the impression that we can buy our way out. It’s the message it sends – flying is okay… as long as you offset. Actually it’s not okay.

    I did actually read the PopOffsets FAQ this morning. It shows that they understand the complexities of what they’re doing, and they’re honest enough to say they’re one of many answers. It doesn’t get away from the fact that this is a site that will be making money from rich people by encouraging poor people not to have children.

    Incidentally, why would you presume that because I don’t like PopOffsets, I get no fun out of life? Surely the only thing I’m saying nay too here is PopOffsets, which doesn’t look like any fun at all.

  3. My 2cents worth.

    For me it is both a question of population and resource use, but taking more of big picture view.

    I see little doubt that resource use by the developed nations must drop drastically -esp for luxuries- and that any offsets should only be for needs not wants.

    Likewise, though while I’m only starting to look into it, my first thoughts on the ethics of finite resources, then contraceptives is just one of many other things we are morally obliged to be sharing with devoped nations. Trickle down development won’t have enough time to bring down fertility rates.

    Having said that it is about time that a debate should start about the usually unquestioned right for any person to have as many children as they want or nations to continually increasing their populations through births. Yes there is little point sharing resources if some countries allow explosive population growth.

    Unfortunately I think the tripple threats of Climate Change Peak oil and Peak resource will make this all academic, long before groups like OPT can make any difference.

    1. I agree that making contraceptives available in developing countries is an urgent priority. But selling that as an offset? There’s just something perverse about that!

      Like you say, it might end up being academic. I really hope not.

  4. This is a great post. The idea of population offsets is truly repugnant. Women should have the right to control their own fertility – but this right should not become a tradable asset sold to assuage the guilt of high consumption in the global North!

    1. To Jeremy & Simon B:
      I agree with you on this, while contraceptives based offsets could be thought the natural way for a population org to go, it does have a unethical stink about it.

      One of the reasons poor families have so many children is because many of their children die from preventable causes. A more considered offset would be funding group that provide contraception AND basic health care.

    2. Yes, Simon, let’s avoid the topic of overpopulation altogether. Of course this means with certainty that, no matter how much consumption reduction is achieved by the high-consuming people (who will continue to reproduce I guess, there will not be enough resources for everyone on the planet. We just doom the poorer people on Earth to remain that way.

  5. So any thoughts on what sort of population limits countries should set?

    BTW I can see a point in the future when the world gets down to true resource sharing that while developing nations we say the developed nations had and still have more than their fair share of resouces esp CO2 allowing their consumption of fossil fuels to get high, the developed nations will point the finger and say ok yes but countries like India, China have allowed their populations to get high compared to everyone else, so why should you now have an equal share per capita but greater total share due to ‘excessive’ populations?

    If you also throw in historical shares it becomes even more complex.

  6. Of course population is a problem, and we should be working to alleviate poverty, educate women, provide healthcare and make contraceptives available. Those are things that we should be doing anyway, overpopulation or not.

    It’s the idea that this can be sold as an offset that is wrong. Stop and consider it for a moment: PopOffsets has turned lack of access to contraceptives into a tradeable commodity.

    How would you feel if someone infinitely richer than you was subsidising your condoms so that they could keep on emitting CO2?

    1. I’m not saying this offset idea is the perfect solution, but allow me to suggest that some are jumping to conclusions about the motives of anyone who promotes addressing the overpopulation issue. The conclusions are factually inaccurate, for one. Plus, every good idea attracts a few backers with selfish or evil motives. That does not really speak to the merits of the idea.

      Can we try to look at this more objectively, rather than give in to the emotional urge to assume ideas like these are always rich vs. poor or north vs. south? Personally, I am an equal opportunity sustainable population advocate. I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, overconsuming now or hoping to overconsume in the future; I want you to make responsible, informed decisions about family size.

      I’ve seen no one write about how repugnant baby bonuses in Russia and Japan are. Why not? I suggest it’s because it is emotions talking here, not sound reason. An objective person ought to have as much problem with financial incentives to larger families as they have with the idea of financial disincentives.

      I venture to guess the reason for the disparity is our emotional/instinctual baggage around reproduction.

      Dave Gardner
      Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  7. The way I see it: resources round the world are limited (doesn’t matter when you think they will run out, they are limited) and combined with an increasing population, there will come a point when there will be a total collapse. Therefore population needs to be on the agenda.
    Whose population? We need to address the huge carbon footprint of the rich as well as the aspirations of poorer nations. This will involve both family planning as well as footprint reduction for all.
    There are 2 million married women wanting access to family planning. Who are we in the west to say that they should not get such access?
    Given that everything costs something, who is going to supply this family planning (training, advice, contraceptives, lobbying, culture change and so forth)?
    If someone comes up with a method whereby people are willing to pay for this family planning provision where there are people who WANT it, then what is wrong?
    The issue about whether westerners should be “allowed” to assuage their guilt by buying carbon offsets is another matter entirely. Firstly, we need to recognise that the gas guzzler user that doesn’t give a damn, is not going to buy offsets or change their ways until they are forced to (which could be peer pressure – such as everyone else is buying the offsets). The aware person tries to buy carbon offsets to compensate for their footprint. Most aware people are already trying to reduce their footprint in the first place. Why not give them the satisfaction that the money is being put to good use?
    Why Popoffsets? I haven’t found another carbon offset scheme that also has as a benefit, the reduction (over time, granted) of demand for scarce resources, reduction of impact on ecosystems, reduction of pollution etc all as corrollories of the provision of a service that people WANT and are desparate for.

  8. The Global Population Speak Out of 2010 will take place place in February. Of course, anything one can do to make contraception available for our fellow women of the world is a good thing in and of itself. Unfortunately, many of them still remain under the brutal thumb of culture and spouse. I am continually shocked at the tendency to otherwise thoughtful people to fall into polarized thinking when it comes to sustainability — addressing both population and consumption are crucial to achieving long lasting bona fide sustainable living scenarios for the planet. Pledge to speak out by visiting:

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