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Another Voice: Biden’s climate plan won’t save us without population curbs

Another Voice: Biden’s climate plan won’t save us without population curbs

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By Gary Wockner

Democratic nominee Joe Biden in July released a sweeping plan to fight climate change. The former vice president's $2 trillion proposal would phase out fossil fuels by 2035, make 4 million buildings more energy-efficient and ramp up production of electric vehicles.

Policymakers have greeted the plan with great fanfare. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a staunch climate activist, called it "visionary."  

Unfortunately, it's not.

Joe Biden gets some things right – but even momentous reductions in per-capita emissions won't save us if we don't curb U.S. population growth.

It is true that by investing in cleaner energy over the last 50 years, the U.S. has caused its carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions to stabilize at roughly 5,000 million tons per year. This stabilization has occurred at the same time that the U.S. population dramatically increased from 205.1 million people in 1970, to 330 million today.

However, if the U.S. population would have stabilized at its 1970 threshold, CO2 emissions would have dropped dramatically. In 1970, emissions were 2.43 tons per person. In 2019, emissions were 1.52 tons per person. If population would have stayed at the 1970 level, total emissions would have decreased by about 38%.

Further, Biden's climate plan not only ignores, but actually greenwashes, all of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by a rapidly growing U.S. population. As one simple example, an electric car produces about half of the GHG emissions compared to a gas-powered car over the life of the vehicle. But, in 2019 there were 284 million vehicles registered in the U.S. versus in 1970 there were about 108 million. Any gains made in switching to cleaner vehicles are being completely wiped out by population growth.

Biden has said that "fracking is not going to be on the chopping block" at the same time that his climate plan has pledged to limit oil and gas drilling on federal land. This sleight of hand is possible because only about 13% of natural gas production in the United States is on federal land. Biden can limit drilling on federal land and still support fracking to serve a growing U.S. and global population.

The United States adds 2 million new residents each year. If current growth rates continue, we'll add almost another 100 million people by 2065. Already we consume renewable resources twice as fast as they can regenerate.  

Unless climate action plans – including Biden's – stop denying the impact of population growth, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, and climate change will worsen.

Gary Wockner, Ph.D., is an environmental activist in Colorado specializing in population stabilization. 

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