Issues & Insights

Science Says: We Can’t Grow The Population And Cut Carbon Emissions At The Same Time

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Two Biden administration goals are on a collision course.

Early in his term, the president pledged to tackle the climate crisis. He announced important new targets: to reduce nationwide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve zero net emissions by 2050.

At the same time, the White House is encouraging immigration. On his first day in office, Biden proposed reforms that would raise legal immigration limits and grant citizenship to undocumented residents. He later expanded asylum eligibility through an executive order. Collectively, policies like these have abetted an unprecedented influx of migrants at the southern border.

The problem is, more people lead to more energy consumption, which means more greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1990, U.S. carbon emissions per capita have declined by 15% thanks to concerted efforts by governments, companies, and individuals to cut back. Yet over the same time period, total U.S. carbon emissions have increased by about 2%.

If it feels like we’re running to stand still, that’s because, over those same three decades, the U.S. population has increased by nearly a quarter, from 250 million in 1990 to a little over 330 million today. With U.S. fertility rates a little below replacement level, that increase is coming from immigration.

To be sure, environmental issues are global, not just national. But Americans are some of the most resource-devouring people in the world, even with the improved efficiency of recent years. We consistently rank among the top few nations in the world for the amount of electricity consumed, meat eaten, and greenhouse gases emitted per person. 

That means most new immigrants expand their carbon footprint as soon as they arrive in the United States, which is bad news for the planet as a whole.

Instead of pursuing increased immigration and the inevitable environmental consequences, the current Democratic administration should look to a 25-year-old report issued by a previous one.

Early in his first term, President Bill Clinton established the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. He’d been inspired by the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which popularized the notion of sustainable development, defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Since that pivotal global meeting, it has become increasingly unacceptable for our current generation to mindlessly deplete natural resources while leaving our children to fend for themselves on a ravaged Earth. 

Clinton’s new presidential council formed a Population and Consumption Task Force, an eminent body made up of environmental leaders, industry representatives, and government officials, including two cabinet members.

When it released its findings in 1996, the Task Force concluded that “the size of our population and the scale of our consumption are essential determinants of whether or not the United States will be able to achieve sustainability.” It further observed that “This is a sensitive issue, but reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability.” 

Today that issue is more sensitive than ever. And yet there’s no getting around the basic fact that increasing our population is at odds with decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, the Task Force’s recommendations fell on deaf ears. Instead of stabilizing the population, the United States has grown by about 27 million people per decade.

That said, it’s not too late to implement the Clinton Task Force’s good advice. If Democrats are serious about acting on climate change, they need to give serious consideration to our ballooning population, which is growing mostly due to immigration.

It’s time to take a page from a quarter-century-old playbook.

Leon Kolankiewicz is an environmental scientist and Scientific Director of NumbersUSA.

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