Family planning surge could make population difference

Posted: 30 March 2009

Author: Jeremy Hamand

Food, energy and water shortages will get worse in the near future, unless a major boost is given to family planning programmes and rich countries cut back on their energy and food consumption, delegates to a conference in London on 26 March were told.

"It is time to end the taboo on recognising population growth as a major component of environmental problems," said Roger Martin, Chair of the Optimum Population Trust, opening the meeting on Environmentally Sustainable Populations.

Many people, he pointed out, apply the concept of 'sustainable population' to every species except their own. Climate change, growing food shortages, the projected peaking of oil and gas supplies and the growth of international migration have focused renewed attention on population growth - after a long period of agnosticism on the subject.

Footprint

Based on ecological footprint and biological capacity data which have become available over the last decade, OPT estimates the world's sustainable population currently at five billion and the UK's at 18 million (the UK's actual current population is 61 million).

World footprint
World footprint
Credit: Global Footprint Network
However, these figures are predicated on present levels and patterns of consumption. Greener lifestyles in the UK could push up its sustainable population; by contrast, if the world as a whole grows richer and consumes more, this will reduce the planet's carrying capacity.

If present trends continue, by 2050, when the UN projects world population will be 9.1 billion, there will be an estimated five billion more people than the Earth can support - and current growth rates have serious implications for climate change:

  • Continuing population growth is multiplying the impacts of climate change and will be ecologically unsustainable.

  • In a world of weather extremes, where land is being lost due to rising temperatures, desertification, floods and rising sea levels, the world will not be able to feed, water and sustain even its current 6.8 billion population.

  • As people are forced off their land by climate change, mass migration movements may be joined by up to 200m environmental refugees. The poorest peoples will be most affected.
Explaining the concept of demographic transition, Prof Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics pointed out that it may be the most important event to occur in human affairs in the past 250 years. During the period 1750-2050, the size of the human population will probably have increased nine-fold.

Demographic transition He said that the demographic transtion had been a good thing, reducing mortality and making childbearing more efficient. But rapid population growth was now accepted to have had a negative impact on economic growth in the developing countries, and an upward influence on CO2 emissions.

A group of women hold their newborns at a family planning clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
A group of women hold their newborns at a family planning clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
Family planning must have higher priority. Clinic in Kampala, Uganda.© Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
He concluded the transition has been a period of considerable destablisation - at both the household and national levels - and that the provision of safe, effective and affordable contraception is the best way of minimising this destabilisation - and of 'making poverty history'.

Judith Stephenson, Professor of Sexuial and Reproductive Health at University College London, said that international donors had taken their eye off the ball of family planning, wrongly assuming that the 'job was done'. But unmet need is still high in many developing countries, with 38 per cent of women in the developing world still not using family planning.

Emeritus Professor John Guillebaud showed that the technology was available, and that there were many examples of successful family planning programmes which had reduced rapid population growth, as well as improving family health.

Limits to growth

In a related development, a major report published on 30 March by the UK government's sustainable development adviser argues that the pursuit of economic growth is one of the root causes of the current financial crisis, as well contributing to a growing environmental crisis and undermining well-being in developed countries.

The Sustainable Development Commission report Prosperity Without Growth? says that the current global recession should be the occasion to forge a new economic system equipped to avoid the shocks and negative impacts associated with our reliance on growth. Ahead of the G20 Summit in London, the report calls on leaders to adopt a 12-step plan to make the transition to a fair, sustainable, low-carbon economy.

Report author Professor Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission said: "For millions in developing countries, growth is clearly still vital to deliver basic standards of living and well-being. But, in developed countries including the UK, far from increasing prosperity, our debt-driven consumption has created an unstable system which has put jobs and livelihoods at risk, as well as damaging us psychologically and socially."