UK is 70 per cent over-populated, report claims

Posted: 22 May 2008

If the UK had to provide for itself from its own resources, it could support a population of only 17 million - 43 million less than its latest official population figure* according to research by a UK pressure group.

Even if the UK dramatically improved its sustainability with a 60 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050 - the target set by the present Government - UK "overpopulation" would grow from 43 to 50 million, the Optimum Population Trusts finds. This is because projected population growth of 17 million, taking the country's population to 77 million by 2050, would cancel out the sustainability benefits of carbon savings.

Based on analysis of biological capacity and ecological footprinting data, the report suggests that in 2003, the last year for which comprehensive data are available, total world population was 6.3 billion but the sustainable figure was 5.1 billion. Global overpopulation was thus 1.2 billion.

However, as standards of living rise across the Earth and human footprints grow, the number of people the planet can support will diminish. The paper suggests that although the UN forecasts a world population rising to 9.2 billion by 2050, the Earth's long-term sustainable population is in the 2-3 billion range.

Ecological footprint

For the UK, a sustainable population is estimated at between 17 and 27 million - less than half the current total and between a third and a fifth of the 85 million who will be living in the country in the last quarter of this century, according to the most recent Government projections.

The size of the discrepancy between the UK's actual population and the number of people it could support sustainably is a result of its affluence combined with a high population density, the paper says. The wealth and population density of the UK mean that its ecological footprint is 3.5 times greater than its biocapacity. If the whole world consumed and generated waste like the UK, it would require 3.5 (an additional 2.5) planets to sustain the human race.

To live sustainably, the current UK population of 60 million would have to reduce its average individual footprint by more than 70 per cent. This would mean Britons living a lifestyle similar to citizens of countries such as China, Paraguay, Algeria, Botswana and the Dominican Republic.

Even a zero-carbon Britain would have a maximum sustainable population of 40 million if it refused to change its lifestyle and its non-carbon footprint therefore remained unaltered. "In reality," the paper argues, "a 'zero-carbon' UK could never reach sustainability without population reduction: the lifestyle reductions demanded would be too great."

The world was living within its ecological means until the 1980s, when it went into overshoot, the study says. Population growth is now the main cause of increasing overshoot, which will be running at almost 100 per cent by 2050: humanity will then be using up, annually, the equivalent of nearly two Earths. Currently, overshoot is 25 per cent, which means humanity requires one and a quarter Earths for its needs.

The paper argues that the strain placed on the global ecosystem by such demands means that the UN's forecasts of a world population of over nine billion by 2050 are unlikely to be realised. Instead, resource wars and starvation "threaten the worst population crash in the history of humankind."

It adds: "There is an urgent need for national strategies on sustainable population not only in the UK but in all countries. Politicians need to demonstrate courage and leadership on this issue: they must persuade their nations to accept the necessity of smaller families and provide the means for people to reduce their family size."

Relentless development

In a separate briefing paper on the UK's growing population, OPT says the UK is one of the most crowded areas in the world, whose numbers have increased sixfold since 1800 and by more tha a fifth since 1950.

"The environmental impacts of this growth are already clear" says OPT, "in both the relentless development pressures on our finite supply of land and natural resources and the impacts of UK consumption on other parts of the world."

The UK's population grew by 367,339 in 2006, equivalent to a city the size of Cardiff, the capital of Wales. The rate of growth of about 0.6 per cent is will take the population to 71 million by 2031 - an increase of nearly 10 million. And continuing growth at the current rate, would take UK numbers to 100 million before the end of the century. OPT says.

England alone is home to more than 50 million people, making it the fourth-most densely populated country in the world - if small city and island-states are excluded - with 998 inhabitants per square mile, even more crowded than Japan.

Already overcrowded

Many people living in the UK recognise the dangers, says OPT. Seven out of 10 people believe, questioned by a YouGov poll in April 2006 believe that Britain is already overcrowded. In an Ipsos-Mori poll carried out in August 2006, 33 per cent of respondents identified population growth as the most serious threat to the future wellbeing of Britain, second only to terrorism and ahead of climate change. The amount of land available to each inhabitant of the UK - to provide for ecological needs and to absorb wastes - has shrunk to nearly a tenth of that available in 1750, says the report. The UK is slightly smaller than the US state of Oregon, with a surface area of 24 million hectares of land and inland water. This allows less than half a hectare (or about one acre) each - an environmental space that is shrinking every year.

There are several reasons for this growth. Although, the UK's fertility rate (measuring the average number of children born to each woman in her lifetime) fell consistently until 2001, and is now below replacement level, the total number of births has increased each year since then. Increasing life expectancy has also reduced the number of deaths.

Britons are having children later in life and dying later - affecting the number of deaths each year. (Boys born in 2006 can expect to live to the age of 88 years and girls to 91.) But the main cause of growing numbers, is high net inward migration, reaching 191,000 in 2006 compared with natural increase of 176,339

The government, meanwhile, has made no explicit statement about the country's projected population growth, though its policy on inward migration is to maintain current levels.

Slow decline

OPT argues tht an environmentally sustainable population for the UK may be lower than 30 million if it is to be largely self-sufficient in clean energy, if continuing damage to local and global environments is to stop, and if its citizens are to enjoy an acceptable quality of life. "This research is in part based on the techniques of ecological footprinting, but the key factors determining the need for population reduction in the UK and worldwide are climate change and energy requirements" it says.

It recommends that the UK population should be allowed to stabilise and decrease by not less than 0.25 per cent a year to an environmentally sustainable level, by bringing immigration into numerical balance with emigration, by making greater efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies, and by encouraging couples to "Stop at Two" children.

The sustainability of human populations: How many people can live on Earth? by Dr. Martin Desvaux was publioshed on February 18, 2008. This and other OPT reports by Rosamund McDougall may be seen in full on their website at