We must stabilise the human population says Royal Society

Posted: 26 April 2012

Author: John Rowley

Britain’s prestigious Royal Society gave fresh impetus today to the growing concern over human impacts on the Earth by calling for the stabilisation of the planet’s population by voluntary methods. But, it said, this must be accompanied by a rebalancing of consumption between developed and developing nations.

In the richest parts of the world per capita material consumption is far above the level that can be sustained for everyone in a population of 7 billion or more, it said. But this was in stark contrast to the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people who need to consume more to be raised out of extreme poverty.

Absolute population growth
Click on image to enlarge.

In its long-awaited report on People and the Planet, the Royal Society said the most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise consumption levels, then reduce them, to help the poorest people to escape absolute poverty through increased consumption. Alongside this, education and voluntary family planning programmes must be supported internationally to stabilise global population. This, it said, is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.

The new report is the result of a 21- month study by the Royal Society, the UK’s 350 year-old national academy of science, on the issues around global population.

Reframing values

Sir John Sulston
Sir John Sulston.

Sir John Sulston, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chair of the report’s working group, said: “The world now has a very clear choice. We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption. We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices. Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.

Africa, with the fastest rates of population growth of any region of the world, and some of the ooorest countries, is of special concern the report shows. And decisions about childbearing today will have a big impact on future numbers.

It illustrates this with the case of Ghana. In 2010 the population was a little above 40 million with a fertility rate of 4 births per woman. If fertility declines dramatically and reaches replacement level by 2020, the population would nevertheless continue to grow for a further 40 years until it stabilises at 40 million.

Population variants
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If replacement level fertility were achieved by 2040, the population would stabilise at 50 million and if this achievement were delayed further to 2060, the population would reach 65 million before stabilising.

Sir John Sulston said "l call on all governments to consider the issue of population carefully at the Rio+20 meeting and to commit to a more just future based not on material consumption growth for their nations, but on the needs of the global community, both present and future.”  

Analysing trends in the consumption of the key resources of water, food, energy and minerals the report highlights the facts that

  • A child from the developed world consumes 30-50 times as much water as one from the developing world and it is now estimated that by 2025, 1,800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.
  • Across the world, average calorific consumption of food increased by approximately 15 per cent between 1969 and 2005, yet in 2010 close to one billion people did not receive enough calories to reach their minimum dietary energy requirements.
  • Taking CO2 emissions as a measure of energy consumption, per capita, CO2 emissions are up to 50 times higher in high income than low income countries, with energy insufficiency a major component of poverty.
  • Production of minerals dramatically increased from 1960 to 2007, for example by four times in the case of copper and lead, close to four times for lithium and 77 times for tantalum/niobium (used in technological devices).

Population trends

Total CO2 emissions
Total carbon dioxide emissions in Least, Less and More Developed Countries. Click on image to enlarge.

Assessing demographic trends across the globe, the report finds that:

  • The annual increase in numbers of the world’s population peaked in the 1990s and the rate of population growth has been declining since the mid 1960s. Continued global population growth is inevitable for the next few decades but is not inevitable in the longer term.
  • Between 2010 and 2050, it is projected that global population will add 2.3 billion people and become predominantly urban. Developing countries will be building the equivalent of a city of a million people every five days from now until 2050. Governments should plan for urban growth with reduced material consumption and environmental impact.
  • The global population is ageing: in 1950 5 per cent of the population was 65 and above, in 2010 it reached 9 per cent and by 2050 it is expected to be 20 per cent or almost 2 billion people. The percentage of the UK’s population that is over 65 is predicted to rise from 16 per cent in 2010 to 24 per cent in 2050, but the effects will be substantially mitigated by improved health of the elderly.
International migrants
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The report says that despite a decline in fertility almost everywhere the global population is still growing at about 80 million per year, largely because of the demographic momentum inherent in a large cohort of young people. But the poorest countries, where high fertility rates are still primarily found, are neither experiencing nor benefiting from population decline.

It says the transition to low birth and death rates has occurred in various cultures, in widely different socio-economic settings. Countries such as south Korea and Iran have moved through this transition much faster than Europe or North America.

Act collectively

Total Fertility Rate
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In addition to concluding that the consumption by those that consume most must be reduced and that health and voluntary family planning must be supported, the report features numerous other recommendations including:

  • Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues and demographic changes and the influences on them should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning.
  • GDP is a poor measure of social well-being and does not account for natural capital. New comprehensive wealth measures should be developed that better reflect the value of a country’s assets.
  • New socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth must be developed, which will lead to better targeted governmental policies that are not based on consumption of resources without consideration of wider impact.

Sir John Sulston said: “Ultimately, we should all strive for a world in which every individual has an opportunity to flourish. Science can help us to achieve this goal, not only by developing practical solutions that improve our health and living standards and optimise our use of resources, but also by identifying potential problems, such as emerging diseases or the impact of greenhouse gases. However, science is not a panacea and scientists alone cannot solve the challenges we now face. Humanity must now act collectively and constructively if we are to face the future with confidence.”

The Royal Society report can be downloaded from the Royal Society website at http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/people-planet/