by Sarah Fisher,Research & Communications Officer, Population and Sustainability Network / Population and Climate Change Alliance (PCCA)
Population and Sustainability Network Population is a critical but neglected link in the debate over potential policies to help ensure we respect the planetary boundaries that offer a safe and just operating space for humanity. Achieving universal reproductive health and rights offers a win-win strategy that would reduce pressure on each of the critical boundaries, while driving progress towards the social boundaries that must be met if sustainable development is to deliver for all.
The UN Global Sustainability Panel’s recent report warns that; ‘By 2030, the world will need at least 50% more food, 45% more energy and 30% more water – at a time when environmental boundaries are throwing up new limits to supply.’ Population impacts on both supply and demand.
According to the UN’s medium term population projection, by 2030 the world population will have increased from 7 billion today, to 8.3 billion; reaching 9.3 billion by 2050. Alongside unsustainable and inequitable consumption patterns, population size is a key factor in determining the scale of humanity’s use of natural resources. Whether it is increasing land use change, freshwater use, climate change or any of the other nine critical thresholds identified by the planetary boundaries approach, population growth is a common denominator. Pressures on ecosystems stem from human demands for food, water, energy, land and so on.
The resulting human impact on the environment is, of course, not only determined by the number of consumers (population size), but also by per capita consumption and the efficiency with which natural resources are utilised. Yet, given the scale of the challenges we face, we need to move beyond the simplistic belief that the cause and solution lies in either ‘population’ or ‘consumption.’ Instead we must embrace the full range of strategies available, and if population is absent from the debate, the effectiveness of other interventions will be significantly compromised.
One of the many complex reasons why population issues are sometimes either dismissed, or deemed irrelevant, is the dire neo-Malthusian warnings of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Thankfully, despite the world population having more than doubled since 1960, humanity hasn’t faced the mass starvation predicted, not least because of the Green Revolution. But on a planet of finite resources, population cannot continue to increase exponentially without serious consequences for the environment and human well-being. While today there is enough food to feed everyone comfortably (the real issue is inequitable access and distribution), that does not guarantee that we will be able to sustainability produce, and ensure access to food for all, in 2050 – when demand for food is projected to have risen by 70%. Furthermore, other population dynamics – including migration, urbanisation and ageing – have significant implications for sustainable development and deserve consideration.
It is often assumed that the trajectory of future population growth cannot be changed without coercive interventions that necessitate restrictions on individual freedoms relating to desired family size. On the contrary, global population dynamics can, and must, be addressed in ways that respect and protect human rights. In developing countries, an estimated 215 million women are not using contraception and are at risk of unplanned pregnancy. This vast unmet need for contraception offers considerable opportunities to reduce population growth, simply by reducing unplanned pregnancies. This can be achieved by increasing access to the voluntary family planning services that women want and need in order to plan and space their pregnancies as they choose. This is a recommendation made in both the recent UN report Resilient People, Resilient Planet, and Oxfam’s paper A Safe and Just Space for Humanity.
At Rio+20, global leaders must commit to increased investment in voluntary sexual and reproductive health programmes that respect and protect rights. Achieving universal reproductive health and rights would not only ease the pressures on planetary boundaries, but would drive progress towards health, gender equality, poverty alleviation, and other important goals for the social boundaries that are critical to securing sustainable development.
Article published 23.3.12 in the stakeholder magazine Outreach: http://www.stakeholderforum.org/sf/outreach/index.php/inf1day5home/694-inf1day5item4