A Demographic Perspective on Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

When assessing the potential impact of population growth on emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), for a long time only the absolute size of the population was assumed to matter. But while population growth is undoubtedly one of the main drivers of GHG emissions at the global level and thus climate change, the importance of differential climate impact depending on demographic characteristics has been acknowledged to a far lesser extent. A growing body of research, summarized in a recent article in Population Studies (Lutz and Striessnig 2015) shows that sociodemographic factors, like people’s age, education, place of residence, and other important sources of population heterogeneity, play a large role in shaping lifestyles and thus influence – not only emissions – but also people’s ability to adapt to climate change.

On the mitigation side, reductions in emissions crucially depend on technological progress and behavioural change. These are again consequence of a population’s changing demographic composition, in particular with regard to its age and level of education. For example, there is plenty of evidence that young people are more likely than older adults to change mobility patters in favor of more ecological means of transportation (Pronello and Camusso 2011). However, the links between population characteristics and climate change are not simple one-to-one relationships either. While increasing education is linked to increased affluence, and therefore greater consumption and emissions, research also shows that at a given level of income better educated people make more environmentally friendly consumption choices, particularly when it comes to spending on home energy and transportation by car, two of the most important sources of household-level atmospheric GHG production (Sharygin 2013). Thus, if we agree that the goal of poverty eradication shouldn’t be played against the goal of climate change mitigation, investing in people’s education seems to be a viable solution to the dilemma.

On the adaptation side, researchers also observe strong demographic differentials in both vulnerability to climate change, as well as the capacity to cope with its consequences. Some of the related evidence is summarized in a recent special issue of Ecology and Society (Butz, Lutz, and Sendzimir 2014), where several contributions find strong evidence, both at the micro- and the macro-level, of the risk-reducing potential of education, which enables individuals to acquire knowledge, skills, and competencies that can influence their adaptive capacity and thus reduce risk. In another recent study, Lutz et al. (2014) show that education makes people less vulnerable to the types of natural disasters—floods, landslides, and storms—that are expected to intensify with climate change. The important differentials in disaster mortality by age and sex are treated in a forthcoming article by Zagheni et al. (n.d.).

How many people the Earth ultimately can support is not only a question of population size, it also depends on the capabilities, characteristics, and lifestyles of those people inhabiting it (Cohen 1995). Future societies, by any account, will be much older than present ones, they will be more urban, and they will be more educated. This has to be taken into account when assessing the likely impacts of changing climate conditions on mortality, health, livelihood, or migration. Until now, climate models have included only very rough estimates of future population changes. The newly developed Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (in short SSPs) overcome this dissatisfying situation by including population projections by age, sex, and educational attainment and thus giving us the possibility to look at what different qualitative descriptions of broad patterns of development imply in terms of future socio-economic challenges both for mitigation and for adaptation. Not surprisingly, the extent to which the need to reduce GHG will prevail over the need to cope with climate change is going to depend on how evenly future development will be spread across societies.


Butz, William P., Wolfgang Lutz, and Jan Sendzimir, eds. 2014. “Education and Differential Vulnerability to Natural Disasters,” Ecology and Society, Special Feature, , no. Special feature. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/issues/view.php?sf=73, http://www.iiasa.ac.at/publication/more_RP-14-001.php.

Cohen, J. E. 1995. How Many People Can the Earth Support?. New York: W.W. Norton.

Lutz, Wolfgang, Raya Muttarak, and Erich Striessnig. 2014. “Universal Education Is Key to Enhanced Climate Adaptation.” Science 346 (6213): 1061–62. doi:10.1126/science.1257975.

Lutz, Wolfgang, and Erich Striessnig. 2015. “Demographic Aspects of Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.” Population Studies 69 (sup1): S69–76. doi:10.1080/00324728.2014.969929.

Pronello, Cristina, and Cristian Camusso. 2011. “Travellers’ Profiles Definition Using Statistical Multivariate Analysis of Attitudinal Variables.” Journal of Transport Geography 19 (6): 1294–1308. doi:10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2011.06.009.

Sharygin, Ethan. 2013. “The Carbon Cost of an Educated Future: A Consumer Lifestyle Approach.” VID Working Paper. Vienna, Austria: Vienna Institute of Demography.

Zagheni, Emilio, Raya Muttarak, and Erich Striessnig. n.d. “The Impact of Climate Change on the Demography of Meteorological Disaster Mortality.” Vienna Yearbook of Population Research.

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Erich Striessnig

About Erich Striessnig

Erich Striessnig joined IIASA's World Population (POP) Program in 2007. Since then he has been working on questions concerning the demographics of economic growth, as well as the topic of optimal fertility. From 2008 to 2010 he was also affiliated with IIASA's Air Pollution and Economic Development (APD) Program, where he worked on the macroeconomic effects of air pollution mitigation in South Asia. Mr. Striessnig is currently enrolled as a PhD student in economics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

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