10 Nov 2020
The impact of human activity on our ecosystems and climate is undeniable, and concerns about this often centre around how many people our planet can support. While a growing population has impacts, it's actually overconsumption, with hugely unequal distribution of resources, that's the main driver of environmental damage and climate breakdown.
Population and consumption: the facts
- There's no credible scientific estimate of an optimum population. The Royal Society has said "no reliable scientific estimates of sustainable human population size exist, and that such estimates would be provisional and technology dependent." In other words, solving the climate and ecological crisis is less about the numbers of people and more about what's consumed. Only focusing on population growth is neither the most effective nor the most just approach.
- Growth of consumption outpaces population growth. The 2019 UN World Population Prospects report stated that the global fertility rate has fallen from 3.2 births per woman in 1990 to 2.5 in 2019 and is projected to decline further to 2.2 in 2050. The rate of population growth is now less than 1.1%. But energy consumption grew by almost 3% in 2018, which was "a bonanza year" for natural gas, according to fossil fuel giant BP. Over the last 100 years the global population has quadrupled but consumption of fossil fuels has increased 12-fold.1 Research by Leeds University suggests that a population of 10 billion could be provided with enough energy for a decent standard of living within environmental limits. Feeding 10 billion will be more difficult without action to reduce meat consumption very significantly - in the last 50 years population has doubled but meat consumption has trebled.2
- Poorer countries where population growth is concentrated have very low consumption levels. The UN says the largest increases in population between 2019 and 2050 will take place in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Indonesia, Egypt and the United States of America. For all these countries except the United States, per capita consumption is very low (for example, per capita fossil fuel consumption in the USA is 20 times greater than in Pakistan). Oxfam research showed that the richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity.
- The issue of population growth sometimes overshadows the true sources of environmental harm. Unfortunately, some of the calls to prioritise action on population growth have a racist undercurrent and aim to deflect attention from the environmental harm caused by high consumption, predominately white, countries. Poorer countries with majority black and brown populations are on the frontline of this environmental harm, despite contributing least to it. This is why the Black Lives Matter cause is also a climate justice issue and why Friends of the Earth supports the movement.
At Friends of the Earth we're working towards a fairer, greener future for everyone. We know the best way of achieving this includes investing in green infrastructure such as renewable energy and clean transportation worldwide and ensuring a fairer distribution of resources globally. But alongside this it is also necessary to make reductions in global consumption (for example, much less use of fossil fuels, reduced meat and dairy consumption). Ensuring wellbeing for all will require a fairer share of the resources that can be sustainably used. Right now, the world is using too many resources and the majority of these are being consumed by a fraction of the population, mostly in wealthy northern countries.
A sustainable society is more than just fairer shares of resources – it's also about sharing power more equally and ensuring human rights for all. The reality is that the most impacted around the world by environmental harm are women who have not only done the least to cause the current crisis but are also most disadvantaged in terms of power. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Women are also more likely to die or be harmed because of extreme weather or natural disasters, in part due to patriarchal practices (such as not teaching girls how to swim).
Friends of the Earth calls for gender equality worldwide, including for women and girls to receive equal access to education and reproductive healthcare, which are fundamental human rights.
We're in a climate and ecological emergency, and we must make rapid changes to our resource consumption and carbon emissions, particularly fossil fuels. We also need the fair redistribution of resources so that we can transition to a greener future for all people. Governments must:
- Make consumption more sustainable and equal. We must take responsibility for the impacts of our national consumption, and work to reduce and redistribute resources globally. By transitioning away from fossil fuels, investing in innovations to use resources much more efficiently, and eating low meat and dairy diets we can dramatically reduce the impact we have on the planet and ensure there are enough resources for everyone.
- Invest in equal education and rights for all. All people should have access to a primary and secondary education, reproductive health rights, the right to have their voice heard in decision-making and the right to live freely.
- End gender and racial inequality. Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate breakdown and other environmental harms, as are people of colour, we must invest in ending the inequality faced by millions across the world.
- Focus on human rights. We must transition to a greener future in a fair and just way. Those who have contributed the least to climate breakdown should not be expected to pay the biggest cost. Everybody should have the right to live within a healthy environment.
- 1Calculated from fossil fuel consumption figures: https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels (accessed July 15th 2020).
- 2Calculated from meat production figures, https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production#global-meat-production (accessed July 15th 2020)