Population, Consumption and the Future
As the world population grows toward 10 billion, consumption of water, food and energy is expanding at a rate that cannot be maintained without depleting the planet’s resources. If we fail to address these two issues together, we face a grim future of economic, social and environmental ills, warns a new report prepared by a group of scientists and other experts for the Royal Society.
The report “People and the Planet,” published this week by the London-based society, examines trends in population and consumption and points to some stark realities:
- While population increase has been declining since the mid-1960s, experts project we will still add 2.3 billion people by 2050, much of it in increasingly crowded cities.
- Along with an increasing demand for basic needs, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is striking. For instance, the report says, “a child from the developed world consumes 30-50 times as much water as one from the developing world.” By 2025, the report says, 1.8 billion people could be living in areas where water is a scarce commodity.
- A similar gap holds for food and energy: While average consumption of calories has increased, in 2010 “close to one billion people did not receive enough calories to reach their minimum dietary energy requirements.” Per capita emissions of CO2 “are up to 50 times higher in high income than low income countries, with energy insufficiency a major component of poverty.”
“The world now has a very clear choice,” concluded Sir John Sulston, a fellow of the Royal Society and chairman of the report’s working group. “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.”
The report says the UN’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in June and other international meetings present opportunities to reframe the relationship between people and the planet.
One of the more controversial recommendations is to curb consumption in the developed and developing world. This is both to reduce emissions that are contributing to a warming and more volatile climate and to ensure adequate resources to help the poorest achieve a better life.
Key to this effort will be the debate over the role of Gross Domestic Product – GDP – as a world standard for economic development. The authors argue a new standard is needed that takes into account both human well-being — in health and education, for instance — and the value of the natural world, including resources such as healthy ecosystems and clean air and water.
“It is necessary to make space for those in poverty, especially the 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty, to achieve an adequate standard of living,” the report says.
Also key will be reducing population growth. This presents complex challenges: In some cases, more people can mean a more productive society; in others, it can lead to more competition for scarce resources, more poverty and illness, and a greater potential for conflict. In some developed countries, a stable but aging population can pose challenges for the economy and health system.
In regions with fast-growing populations such as Africa, family planning is a “fundamental health issue” that especially affects women and children. It also has an impact on economic development. Reproductive health services and family planning are sorely needed but should be offered in a non-coercive environment, the authors say. The cost to provide that to all who need it: $7 billion a year.
The authors summarize their conclusions – and their hopes — in nine recommendations:
- The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development, education, family planning and health.
- The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilize and then reduce material consumption levels through dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
- Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programs urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.
- Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues. Demographic changes, and the influences on them, should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning at international meetings, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and subsequent meetings.
- Governments should realize the potential of urbanization to reduce material consumption and environmental impact through efficiency measures. The well planned provision of water supply, waste disposal, power and other services will avoid slum conditions and increase the welfare of inhabitants.
- In order to meet previously agreed goals for universal education, policy makers in countries with low school attendance need to work with international funders and organizations, such as UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, IMF, World Bank and Education for All. Financial and non-financial barriers must be overcome to achieve high-quality primary and secondary education for all the world’s young, ensuring equal opportunities for girls and boys.
- Natural and social scientists need to increase their research efforts on the interactions between consumption, demographic change and environmental impact. They have a unique and vital role in developing a fuller picture of the problems, the uncertainties found in all such analyses, the efficacy of potential solutions, and providing an open, trusted source of information for policy makers and the public.
- National governments should accelerate the development of comprehensive wealth measures. This should include reforms to the system of national accounts, and improvement in natural asset accounting.
- Collaboration between national governments is needed to develop socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth. This will inform the development and implementation of policies that allow both people and the planet to flourish.