New UN Population Report Reveals Planet Changing in More Ways Than One

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The United Nations Population Division just released a new report on projections for world population growth, with somewhat surprising findings.  It said that the global population - rather than stabilizing as experts previously thought - will most likely grow to over 9 billion in less than 40 years, and continue to grow to just over 10 billion by 2100.  Even the UN’s “low” projections for world population growth have been revised upwards based on the new data

One reason for the new projections is that fertility rates aren’t declining in some developing countries as experts had forecasted.  In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, fertility rates remain high and population could more than triple from 1 billion to 3.6 billion in our children’s lifetimes. This is probably the result of several things, including the fact that foreign aid for family planning services has not kept up with demand, in part due to widespread social, religious and political pressures, and in part to shortsighted cuts in assistance. The most recent US Congressional budget recently cut 5 percent from international family planning, representing nearly 30 percent below its 1995 peak in inflation-adjusted dollars.  The number of women of reproductive age grew by several hundred million during that time. In addition, fertility rates have increased in some industrialized nations, including in the United States and Britain.

We are expected to reach the significant “7 billion global population milestone” this fall.  While this unwieldy number and the new UN projections for growth may not seem to have a real connection to our everyday lives, there are significant links, with women and girls, family planning and reproductive health, and environmental sustainability. 

Evidence for this can be seen in the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which found that well over 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems were transformed or degraded mainly from human activity in the past 50 years. Human demands on the world’s water supplies and water quality, climate systems, plant and animal species’ habitat, and land use are causing irreversible changes. 

In simple terms, the population connection comes through the sheer numbers of people reliant on the earth’s resources to live, the scale of their activity, and their impact on the earth’s ecosystems. Resource-intensive consumption by wealthy populations (mostly but not only in developed and newly developed nations) place heavy demand on resources, placed on natural resources by people (mostly in developed and newly developed nations) beyond the resource’s capacity to replenish itself, and, in the pollutants generated from unsustainable resource use.

A good example of the population-environmental linkages is with climate change. There is solid new evidence from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado showing that when population numbers rise, so do energy consumption, and the resulting per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that cause climate change. With the realization that world population is indeed growing more rapidly than expected, we know that on a parallel track so too will CO2 emissions and climate change.

Here, the UN report reinforces how critically important it is to address both “family planning” and “environmental resource consumption” simultaneously.  One on hand, industrialized nations must curb their unsustainable per-capita energy consumption. On the other hand, experts tell us that when women have the power to plan their families, populations grow more slowly, as do greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of providing these needed family planning services worldwide is minimal compared with other development and emissions reductions strategies – roughly $3.7 billion per year.  The solution isn’t in either population or consumption, but both, simultaneously.

With our global population reaching 7 billion this year, and knowing that the number is on a “growth” rather than stabilization track, we are presented with an opportunity to take stock, and understand what it really means (i.e. where the growth is occurring, or how developed vs. developing nations contribute more to environmental impacts per capita).  Even in everyday occurrences we are seeing evidence of the many forms that the population-environmental links can take, for example, in the densely populated coastal ecosystems where people are already under threat from increased incidence of climate change-induced severe weather (New Orleans/US), flooding (Mississippi/US), and sea level rise (Bangladesh).  It is all around us, we just have to take notice and take action.

The new UN report sets the scene for all the hoopla around the world reaching 7 billion people, giving us a sense of urgency and credibility for addressing the issues.  The big take away here is “choice”.  We all have the capacity to make strategic choices that can affect population stabilization and environmental sustainability.  Here are some key concepts as we make those choices:

  • Youth are key target audiences as they are entering three decades as primary decision makers on both family planning and resource consumption matters for themselves and their families.
  • Women-centered approaches are central because women are both disproportionately affected by environmental impacts (i.e. climate change-induced drought is uniquely affecting women in developing nations who have to walk even further for water or have to farm under increasingly drought-ravaged conditions), and are uniquely able to deliver solutions. The Kenya-based Green Belt Movement is a stellar example of highly effective women-centered solutions to key development and conservation issues.
  • A comprehensive, holistic approach involving women and girls is important, including universal access to reproductive health and family planning in addition to real, permanent social, economic, educational and political opportunities for girls and women, so they can be in positions to make decisions freely.
  • Let’s not forget the unique role and responsibilities the US plays in this scenario - both in checking our own high per-capita consumption, and as constituents, in urging our US government leaders to support and finance: voluntary universal access to good quality reproductive health services; programs that support girls education and women’s social, economic and political opportunities worldwide; and, environmentally sustainable practices in our own country, from the local to national levels.

We have more evidence than ever about our changing planet’s population and environmental status, now let’s take the opportunity to act on it.


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