The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions, May 15, 2006

Population hearings open in UK parliament

By Cynthia Dailard

Parliamentary Hearings have opened in London into how population growth is effecting the UN Millennium Development Goals. This is widely seen as significant in view of the fact that neither Population nor Reproductive Health were listed in the seven goals set out by the United Nations at the turn of the century. Indeed population has been an almost taboo subject in international discussions since 1994 when the Cairo Conference on Population and Development put the emphasis on reproductive health and rights.

Planet 21 is one of 55 agencies and individuals making submissions.The hearings are being held by the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health and will continue until July, with verbal statements and questions to experts from UK and around the world.

Among those who are due to speak are Klaus Toepfer, former Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA, Steven Sinding, Director General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Francis Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice, Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, and senior spokespeople from WHO, the World Bank and the IMF.

Other speakers will include representatives from both China and Africa and leading academics, including Michael Lipton, from Sussex University, John Cleland from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Malcolm Potts from Berkeley in California.

The seven MGD goals relate to poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality and empowerment of women, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases and environmental sustainabilty.

This last goal, and how population growth relates to environmental sustainability, is the subject of Planet 21's submission by John Rowley, which is reproduced in full below. All the written submissions are available on the parliamentary group's website, given below.

Population growth and environmental sustainability:


The United Nations defines environmental sustainability as “using natural resources wisely and protecting the complex ecosystems on which our survival depends.”

The question at hand is how far has population growth made that aim more difficult – and how far will slowing and stabilising future growth make it easier to achieve? It is not a simple question to answer because there are many other interacting factors at work, including social, environmental and technological changes – and because the question needs to be answered in local and regional terms as well as global ones.

Commenting on Goal 7, the UN Millennium Development Report 2005 says bluntly: “sustainability will not be achieved with current patterns of resource consumption and use. Land is becoming degraded at an alarming rate. Plant and animal species are being lost in record numbers. The climate is changing, bringing with it threats of rising sea levels and worsening droughts and floods. Fisheries and other marine resources are being overexploited.”

But in the same document few references are made to how population growth is at least partly responsible for driving these disastrous changes. The required action is framed in very general terms, calling for ‘policies that integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes’ and which ‘pay greater attention to the plight of the poor and [which involve] an unprecedented level of global co-operation’. There are no references to population policies as such.

The fact that resources are consumed and used by people, and that the numbers doing the consuming matter, is not given more than passing attention. The few references to population are, however, significant. Referring to the fact that 1.1 billion people are still using water ‘from unimproved sources [often carried in buckets from polluted ponds and streams]’ including 42 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, it comments that the obstacles to progress ‘are especially daunting given the high population growth rates’ in that region.

Moreover, it states that ‘close to 2.4 billion people worldwide will still be without improved sanitation in 2015, that is almost as many as there are today [because the numbers continue to grow at a very fast rate in many countries]’.

Again, it points out that 100 million people are added to the urban communities of the developing world each year, which are growing three times faster than rural areas – or by three per cent a year. As a result “Nearly one in three city dwellers – almost 1 billion people – live in slums in conditions characterised by overcrowding, little employment or security of tenure, poor water, sanitation and health services, and widespread insecurity…”

There has, it seems, been a reluctance to grapple with such population factors in a systematic way ever since the UN Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994. This global meeting usefully redefined the problem in terms of sexual and reproductive health and the status of women, but rather overlooked the environmental imperatives of population stabilisation, both globally and, more particularly, in the least developed parts of Africa and South Asia. The important question of migration was left on one side to be dealt with at a future conference that has not yet materialised.

This submission will attempt to highlight some of these omissions, especially in the world’s poorest countries.


In his challenging book, Collapse (Penguin UK, 2006, £9.99), Jared Diamond summarises the central dilemma inherent in discussions of population in relation to environmental sustainability at a time at a time of rapid economic development, especially in Asia:

“What really counts is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment… the resources consumed, and the wastes put out by each person”, he writes. This is a matter that varies greatly between rich and poor countries “with on average each citizen of the US, Western Europe and Japan consuming 32 times more resources such as fossil fuels, and putting out 32 times more wastes, than do inhabitants of the Third World.

“The overwhelmingly most important human population problem for the world as a whole”, he concludes, is not the high rate of population increase in countries such as Kenya or Rwanda, important though these are to such countries, but the increase in the total human impact on the planet as living standards rise around the world, and migrants to the industrialised world adopt high consumption life styles.

“There are many ‘optimists’ who say that the world could support double its human population, and who consider only the increase in human numbers and not the average increase in per capita impact. But I have not met anyone who seriously argues that the world could support 12 times its current impact, though an increase of that factor would result from all Third World inhabitants adopting first World living standards.”

If China alone were to achieve a First World living standard while the rest of the world stood still, he estimates that the impact on the planet’s environmental resources would double.

It is a concern widely echoed by other commentators including the WWF, whose annual Living Planet 2002 report concluded that the human population would need two planets within 50 years if natural resources continue to be exploited at the current rate (see chart). Already, said the 2004 report, humans are consuming 20 per cent more natural resources than the earth can produce, resulting in declines in terrestrial, freshwater and marine species by an average of 40 per cent between 1970 and 2000.

“Rising demand for energy, food, and raw materials by 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians is already having ripple effects worldwide,” says Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. "Meanwhile, record-shattering consumption levels in the US and Europe leave little room for this projected Asian growth." He could have added that the 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians are projected to grow to 3 billion by 2050.

Worldwatch sees this both as a threat and an opportunity for such countries to take a different path towards development. But that will surely be more difficult if India grows, as projected, to some 1.8 billion people before stabilising.

In his book, Lester Brown questions whether the UN median projection of world population rising from 6.4 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050 can actually be possible. “Such an increase seems highly unlikely, considering the deterioration in life-support systems now underway in much of the world. Will we not reach 9.1 billion because we quickly eradicate global poverty and lower birth rates? Or because we fail to do so and death rates begin to rise, as they are already doing in many African countries? We thus face two urgent major challenges: restructuring the global economy and stabilising world population.”

But apart from this overall picture, what evidence is there that population growth is contributing to specific environmental problems, from the loss of biodiversity to climate change, and that stabilising it can be part of a solution that will help achieve the MDG goal of environmental sustainability? The following summary is necessarily brief and selective.


People and Forests:

Forests are expanding in much of the old industrialised world, but shrinking in most of the developing world with a huge loss of biodiversity. In the last four decades of the 20th century an area half the size of the United States was cleared of tropical forest while the developing world’s population doubled to 4.7 billion.

It is generally agreed that population growth is a primary underlying cause of forest decline, interacting with poverty, corruption, inequitable access to land, and wasteful consumption alongside growing demands for wood products. The dominant force in forest loss is probably the demand for farmland for subsistence farming, but pressure on forestland is also growing under the twin pressures for food and fuel, including soya for animal feed and biofuels as a replacement for oil.

Nearly 3 billion people use wood as a main source of energy and women and children are the chief victims of woodfuel scarcity. Social investments linking education, health, micro-credit and family planning with conservation programmes show promise and could ease these problems and help sustain the forests, while slowing population pressures.

People and water:

Global freshwater consumption grew six-fold in the last century; twice the rate of population growth, and demand continues to grow while climate change threatens to increase areas of low rainfall in Africa and elsewhere. Already a third of the world population lives in countries with moderate to high water stress. Under present consumption patterns two billion people will live in high stress areas by 2050.

Agriculture accounts for more than 70 per cent of water use, and demand is bound to grow as population and per capita consumption – including consumption of grain and meat, which requires large quantities of water to produce – increases. Demand for industrial and household use is expected to double by 2025, and to increase up to five-fold in China where cities are already competing with farmers for the available water. The situation is made more critical by pumping water from deeper and deeper drills and from shrinking aquifers. As Lester Brown has said we are living in a food bubble, based on water that cannot be replaced.

UK Defence Minister, Dr John Reid, echoed his fears in a speech at Chatham House on February 27 this year. According to a report in The Independent newspaper, he warned of the dangers of violent collision between rising world population and shrinking water resources, made more critical by climate change. “Such changes” he said, “make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely…The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see in Darfur. We should see this as a warning sign.”

Stabilising population sooner rather than later will help conserve water as a finite resource, and ease the danger that wars over water will spread around the world. It will also contribute to meeting the problems of access to clean water and sanitation, lack of which is mainly responsible for 3 million deaths each year from cholera and diarrhoea.

People, land and soil:

Human activities, linked to population pressures and unsustainable agricultural practices, have destroyed or severely degraded 11 per cent of the world’s arable land: an area the size of India and China combined. As a result, every year the world’s farmers must feed 77 million more people with 27 million fewer tons of topsoil.

The problem is especially serious in Africa where farm holdings have shrunk as the population has grown, and per capita yields have fallen by as much as 30 per cent over the last three decades. Some 65 per cent of the region’s agricultural land has been degraded. “As land use intensifies, fallow periods decline and cultivation spreads into marginal and ecologically fragile lands”, FAO explains.

It says that while Africa’s population grew by 3 per cent a year in the three decades to 1996, its annual food production increased by only 1.9 per cent. In these circumstances it projects that the number of malnourished children in Africa could grow from 29 to 41 million between 1980 and 2020 – a prospect not helped by the spread of HIV/Aids.

Africa, of course, is not alone in facing population-related pressures on the land. China has lost arable land equivalent to all the cropland in Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands combined.

High population growth and low yields have forced millions of small farmers to clear forests, overgraze and cultivate marginal lands, causing soil erosion and deepening rural poverty. This, along with skewed land holdings (especially in Latin America), unsustainable logging, ranching, mining and plantation farming has added to the problems of environmental sustainability.

In some cases, as in Machakos in Kenya, researchers claim that increased population can stimulate new farming methods. Others have pointed out, that in this particular case, the community was aided by its closeness to a large urban centre and by intensive outside support. Where such support systems and markets are not present in a typical rural setting, such examples are hard to find.

People and cities:

By 2007, half the world will live in towns and cities. And by 2030 the urban population is projected to reach 5 billion – or 60 per cent of the world’s population. Nearly all the population growth in those 30 years is expected to take place in the cities of the less developed world, whose combined population is on course to more than double from 1.9 billion in 2000 to nearly 4 billion in 2030.

But in many of these urban centres, especially in the least developed countries, a high proportion of the residents live in miserable conditions. According to the UN Habitat’s report, The Challenge of the Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, nearly 1 billion people (or one in three of the world’s urban population) live in slums – a figure which may rise to 2 billion if serious action is not taken. 600,000 of these people, today, cannot meet their basic needs for shelter, water or health from their own resources.

The hopeful fact is that urban communities are generally in a better position to take part in self-help schemes to improve their homes, run credit schemes, set up toilets and so on than in most rural settlements. They may also be more motivated to plan smaller families, providing they have the means to do so.

Cities, specially large urban conglomerations, put enormous pressure on resources far beyond their borders and it is all the more imperative to slow their growth, before they become dangerously unmanageable.

People and climate change:

Just as past population increases influenced the composition of the earth’s atmosphere during the 20th century, the rate of population increase in this century will influence the earth’s climate for centuries to come.

While countries with the most rapid population growth have very low per capita carbon emissions (one American may, on average, emit 70 times as much as one Bangladeshi farmer), the developing world is fast becoming a major contributor to climate change. In China, for example, emissions of carbon grew from 1.5 to 2.8 metric tons per capita between 1980 and 1996, while its population grew from 984 million to 1.22 billion. (The potential for this to increase as China develops is clear from the fact that, on average, each individual in China emits only one-eighth of the CO2 emitted by each citizen of the United States). In 1996, China emitted 15 per cent of the global emissions, second only to the United States, and projections show India and China becoming the major contributors to climate change.

And if future trading agreements give all citizens an equal right to use the atmosphere, the overall size of the human population will become a critical variable, affecting each individual’s right to pollute.

People, coasts, oceans, mountains and rivers:

Similar connections can be made for many other vulnerable ecosystems. The pressure on coastal zones is immense. Just over half the world's population – around 3.2 billion people – occupies a coastal strip 200 kilometres wide (120 miles), representing only 10 per cent of the earth's land surface. Increasing human numbers and mounting development pressures are taking a heavy toll on coastal wetlands, mangroves, sea grasses, coral reefs and biodiversity in general.

Rapidly expanding populations and the growth of cities along coastlines has also contributed to a rising tide of pollution in nearly all of the world’s seas. Between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of all commercial fish are caught within 320 kilometres of land, and many within 50 kilometres. Thus pollution, mostly from land-based sources, is a contributing factor in falling catches.

Coastal urban areas dump increasing loads of toxic wastes into the sea. In fact, waters around many coastal cities are so thick with pollution that virtually no marine life can survive.

Deforestation and erosion in heavily populated mountain areas, is also threatening these precious ecosystems, which provide the water towers of the world, and the people who cluster in the river valleys below. Slowing population growth is only part of the answer to such problems, but integrating the social and health measures agreed at Cairo in 1994, with other conservation measures is an essential strategy in many cases. It will also ease the future prospect of environmental refugees growing ever more numerous. Already the UN University predicts that some 50 million will be on the move from damaged environments within five years.


In all the discussion about population and a sustainable future, it is sometimes forgotten how big a role rapid increases in human numbers continue to play in the least developed parts of the world, which are least able to meet their needs.

The population of the 50 least developed countries is projected to more than double, passing from 0.8 billion in 2005 to 1.7 billion in 2050, according to the 2005 World Population Prospects report from the United Nations. These are also the countries that are most affected by HIV/AIDS and which lose most of the half million women who die each year from childbirth-related causes. And many are suffering from environmental stress and a shortage of land.

According to Professor Antony Young of the University of East Anglia, who has 40 years of experience working in 30 developing countries, “Contrary to estimates by the FAO, most developing countries have no ‘spare land’ (land that is not yet under agriculture but which could be cultivated on a sustainable basis). As a result, the effects of population increase are counteracting advances in rural development.”

He instances the case of Malawi, whose population has grown from 3 million to 11 million over the past 40 years, and is projected to reach 47 million by 2050. Average farm size has dropped to less than half a hectare, soil fertility is much reduced and yields are low. There are simply no viable development options left to its Government or to the rural people themselves, he says.

“This is a typical example of the future for many developing countries, unless they include measures to check population increase in their development policy,” he said in a report in the Geographical Journal. “In order for the Millennium Development Goals to succeed in the reduction of hunger and poverty, the only long term solution is to adopt the recommendations of the UN 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development.”

The same could be said of countries such as Niger, on course to grow from 12 million to 52 million people by 2050, for Ethiopia, projected to grow from 72 million to 173 million or for rain-starved Yemen whose 20 million people are expected to grow to 71 million by mid-century and for Pakistan where fertility rates remain high, much irrigated land is stressed by salinization and where population is projected to grow from 159 million to 228 by 2025 and 295 by 2050. For these and many other poor countries it is quite wrong to assume that the population bomb has been defused.

To see the other submissions go to

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