2019 Summer Academy Group
© Paul Desanker

Risk from demographic change – population growth needs to play a more central role in climate debate

Summer Academy “Global Risk Trends – Climate and Demographic Change”

Climate change will force virtually every country in the world to adapt to changes: hotter summers, more frequent intense precipitation, more intensive storms, and loss of land areas due to sea level rise – to name just a few. The various countries have very different potentials for coping with the impending changes. These depend on their economic clout, social stability and intact ecosystems.

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© Munich Re Foundation
Based on case studies, 30 participants from around the world, including Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria and India, illustrated what an important role demographic change needs to play in adaptation measures.
Essentially, the risks from climate changes are determined by three factors: hazard, exposure and vulnerability. Changes in the climate are material for the degree of hazard, and these are being intensively analysed and processed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat. One problem is that the area of vulnerability harbours major risk drivers that have not been adequately reflected so far in the risk models. Yet, to a large extent, these models are used as the basis for the different national adaptation strategies. In simple terms, the national adaptation plans (NAPs) are currently based on what, in some cases, are unrealistic future scenarios. One risk driver that does not receive nearly enough attention – despite the fact that it can have massive repercussions – is demographic change. The impacts include issues relating to gender, age, migration, level of education, and population growth. At the 2019 Summer Academy, there was an in-depth focus on these subjects, and we examined how scientific findings on demographic change could be better integrated into UNFCCC recommendations for action.
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© Munich Re Foundation
Benjamin Delali (University of Accra, Ghana) explained how education can help reduce fertility rates in Africa – a crucial requirement for sustainable population development. The picture shows Delali in conversation with Koko Warner from the UNFCCC Secretariat.

Population growth and climate change in Accra
In the course of a local excursion in Accra, Academy participants were able to witness on the ground how the above-mentioned factors influence a society’s vulnerability and resilience. Accra is a rapidly expanding city that currently has around 1.8 million inhabitants. Prices for land and rents are increasing much faster than incomes. Many new arrivals in the city are therefore unable to afford standard accommodation. This group includes former subsistence farmers, for example from the north of Ghana, who are no longer able to farm in their regions because of changes in climate conditions or due to other factors. They often settle in Agbogbloshie, an informal, densely populated district in Accra that extends along the banks of a brackish lagoon. The settlement is tolerated by the city, but is poorly connected to urban infrastructure, and the inhabitants are exposed to various risks: health risks from extreme environmental pollution, unstable housing structures, and a high flood risk. The area is built on sediment from the shrinking lagoon. Prior to the development, this provided natural flood protection for the surrounding city. But today, the entire Agbogbloshie district floods in heavy rainfall.

The absence of waste removal is one aspect of the lack of infrastructure, with the result that rubbish poses a further serious problem. Domestic waste is frequently dumped in the water and collects at the bridges spanning the lagoon. This forms a type of artificial dam that prevents efficient run-off of rainwater or flood waves. Because of this disposal gap, the population becomes more vulnerable to climate risks – in this case floods. And extreme precipitation events are also on the rise in Ghana.

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© Paul Desanker
Some 40,000 people currently live on the banks of the lagoon. The hills of waste from the city of Accra are in the immediate vicinity. Many of the inhabitants of the lagoon make ends meet by manually separating waste. The World Health Organisation has designated the lagoon as one of the most polluted urban environments in the world. (© Paul Desanker)
Electronic waste from Europe part of the problem
Just a few hundred metres upstream, there is a landfill for electronic waste, most of it from North America and Europe. The size of the landfill has dramatically increased over recent years, and is now virtually impossible to manage properly. The people of Agbogbloshie work here as day labourers, burning the electronic waste, in part to get rid of plastic components. What is then left is a small residue of copper, iron and other saleable raw materials. But burning the waste also releases a quantity of toxins that contaminate both soil and air. And then there are the effects on health. The Safety Officer from the UN University in Accra recommends that people should not spend longer than two hours without a break on the landfill, as their health may otherwise be impacted. Yet the workers from Agbogbloshie often spend eight hours or more on the site. This small example clearly shows that urban adaptation strategies are not working. Population pressure in Accra is preventing a better solution being found. Climate changes pose an increasing threat to people in both the old and new environments. For this reason, Prof. Benjamin Delali, of Accra University, argues that, while demographic change – including migration – cannot really be controlled, it must be better managed.
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© Munich Re Foundation
During a large panel discussion at the Summer Academy, the Deputy Minister for Education, Osei Adutwum, explained how Ghana is endeavouring to slow population growth by investing in education and free schools. He hopes that this will improve future opportunities for the younger generation.
Matthias Garschagen (LMU Munich), Koko Warner and Paul Desanker, both from the UNFCCC Secretariat, warned that demographic changes are still seriously under-represented in the existing UNFCCC processes. They praised the Academy because it was now opening a window of opportunity. Decision-makers must be reminded more clearly that greater attention needs to be paid in a planning context to demography as a key driver of risks. Participants at the Summer Academy have drawn up the wording for a policy brief intended to draw the attention of decision-makers directly to this important gap. The policy brief is to be introduced into the debate at the COP 25 climate change conference in Chile. For sustainable solutions can only succeed in the context of climate change if adequate allowance is made for demographic change.

Further information

The Academy 2019 was jointly organised by Munich Re Foundation, the UNU-EHS from Bonn, LMU Munich and the UNU-INRA Ghana in collaboration with UNFCCC Secretariat. The excursion received substantive support from the NGO People’s Dialogue and was prepared with assistance from staff of the World Bank.

16 October 2019