Lee-Roy Chetty
Lee-Roy Chetty

Global population dynamics and its implications for sustainable development

In 2011 the planet’s population exceeded the threshold of 7-billion people. Based on data from the most recent United Nations (UN) population projections, the world’s population will swell to over 9-billion by the year 2050. As a result of these population growth forecasts, between now and the year 2050, approximately as many people will be added to the planet as inhabited the earth as recently as 1950.

Whether the world’s population will indeed grow to over 9-billion by mid-century and level off at about 10-billion by the end of the century, or potentially grow to over 10-billion by mid-century and to about 16-billion by the end of the century will depend on policies that countries and government’s around the world pursue and implement today.

Within a global context, life expectancy has been increasing and fertility rates have being falling in most of the developing world, with some exceptions, particularly among the least developed countries. However, even if fertility were to fall immediately to replacement level, populations would continue to grow exponentially for some time to come.

This trend can be explained by the concept of population momentum, or inertia in population growth. In other words, because of high fertility in the past, many countries now have a relatively large number of women in reproductive age, and even if each woman has a relatively small number of children, countries will continue to have a growing population for years to come.

Individual choices and opportunities add up to population dynamics, and population dynamics are best addressed by enlarging, not restricting, individual choices and opportunities. Human-centered and rights-based policies, including access to sexual and reproductive health care, education beyond the primary level and with a focus on young girls, and the empowerment of women, has the potential to make significant progress in managing population growth rates.

Efforts to these ends are also implicitly and inextricably linked to matters of human rights, and would also contribute to an improved quality of life for many people around the world. They would help to reduce teenage pregnancies and lower infant, child and maternal mortality; help to lower fertility, slow population growth and encourage more sustainable development.

In the developed world, the ability to plan families is taken for granted, but well over 200-million women in the developing world continue to lack access to family planning. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health care and family planning for women of all ages is an essential and integral aspect of their empowerment. The decisions of how many children to have and when to have them are two of the most fundamental and consequential decisions of anybody’s life. It affects people’s health and access to education, and can influence their participation in economic, social and political life, their earnings and their living standards and overall social mobility.

In addition, increased population growth also increases environmental pressures on our planet. Out of the 7-billion people that currently inhabit the world, more than 1-billion continue to live in extreme poverty. About as many suffer from food insecurity and live in informal settlements and millions are unable to find productive and remunerative employment. Meeting these most vulnerable people’s needs would require a more balanced distribution of economic resources, but it also depends on higher levels of economic output.

As an example, food insecurity is still largely a question of access – the capacity of people to purchase food on the market places. However, food security is also rapidly becoming a question of availability. In other words, the capacity of the agricultural sector to produce food in sufficient quantities to meet demand. According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world agricultural output will need to grow by approximately 70% to feed a projected world population of 9-billion people.

Issues such as poverty reduction, employment creation and food security depend critically on rising economic output, in agriculture and outside agriculture. Rising economic output as a result, will further increase pressures on all natural resources on our planet. Increasingly, more countries are suffering from a rapid degradation of land, a high rate of deforestation, and water shortages. Climate change further contributes to an increasing intensity and frequency of natural disasters, changes in precipitation and droughts. The poor, who most directly depend on the natural resources, are most vulnerable to these changes and least able to cope with these changes at the same time.

Continued rising expectations and poverty reduction efforts will put additional pressure on the planet, unless a more efficient, “greener” way to provide all people with decent lives are researched and implemented.

The transition to the green economy requires fiscal incentives and dis-incentives, as well as environmental laws and regulations, which encourage the internalisation of environmental costs, and place a more realistic price on essential and finite natural resources. Environmental impact can also be reduced through more rigorous product standards as well as better conscientious consumer behavior. Together, these measures must promote the development of alternative, renewable and clean energy sources, and encourage the use and development of resource-efficient technologies.

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