Population Matters

Air pollution and population density

Air pollution and population density

Air pollution causes 3.7 million premature deaths each yearAir pollution causes 3.7 million premature deaths each year, with pollution increasing by an average of 60 per cent for each doubling of a city’s population.

London exceeded its annual air pollution limits within two weeks this year, and the UK now faces up to £300 million per year in fines from the European Union for each year that the government has failed to act on reducing harmful air pollutants to acceptable levels.

The most dangerous of these pollutants are nitrogen oxides and microscopic particulates, which cause respiratory problems and sometimes heart attacks. Particulates alone are blamed for 29,000 deaths in the UK annually. Diesel automobiles, which make up nearly half of the UK market, are the biggest contributors of these pollutants at street level.

Air quality is becoming a serious problem in the developing world, where regulations and household access to technologies such as cleaner-burning fuels often have not kept pace with rapid urban population growth. In fact, 88 per cent of global deaths attributable to air pollution occur in low- to middle-income countries, making air pollution the fifth leading cause of death in the developing world.

Inspired by recent legal action against the UK government for its inaction on air pollution, we have published a briefing reviewing the issue and its connection with population. We find that population is an amplifier at the root of this problem, but air pollution is one environmental issue where technology is sufficient to overcome dramatic population growth and clean things up.

A shrinking population could make pollution less of an issue in the future, but immediately we need government to invest in new technologies and regulations.

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How population growth affects UK transport

London trafficAcross the UK, roads are congested and trains are overcrowded. As the population has grown, demand for transport has increased. In order to keep up with demand and maintain the current quality of life, the government has continuously increased its spending on the sector. In spite of this, the situation has become worse.

In this briefing, Population Matters considers the impact of the increasing demand for transport on the UK’s population. It argues that the expansion of the existing transport system not only costs the Treasury more money, but also adversely impacts the well-being of passengers and residents and causes great environmental damage.

Increasing investments in transport facilities drive fares up, while travellers are less likely to travel comfortably. Noise and air pollution affect the health of residents and reduce the value of their properties. Moreover, nearby wildlife suffers greatly.

Traffic jamWhile technological progress offers hope that future transportation will be cleaner and more efficient, the problem of overcrowding can only be solved if population stabilisation policies are actively promoted. Hence, we argue that the government should include them in its transport improvement strategy.

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Smaller families help reduce UK child poverty

Choosing a smaller family size can help parents keep their children out of povertyThe current UK government is facing a child poverty crisis. More than a quarter of children in the UK grow up in a deprived environment.

Not only does this have serious consequences for children, it also causes problems for society. While the government is committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020, it is predicted that 700,000 more children will end up in poverty by then.

In our briefing on ending child poverty in the UK, we argue that the government should target the fundamental causes of child poverty if it is to achieve its child poverty reduction goals. Rising living costs and falling incomes should be considered. Given this, we argue that parents can contribute to the eradication of child poverty by choosing to have fewer children: this would reduce their living costs and improve their employability. The government should therefore actively promote smaller families.

Smaller families are advantageous for parents, children and society alike

Smaller families are advantageous for parents, children and society alike. Parents experience higher levels of well-being and are able to spend more quality time with their families. Children perform better in education and are more likely to be socially and financially stable. Most importantly, smaller families would offer the government the chance to create a sustainable society in which child poverty can be eradicated.

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The UK’s high population growth areas

Many UK local authorities already face significant difficulties linked to population growth

UK population levels are expected to grow to 70 million by 2027, and many local authorities are already facing significant difficulties linked to population growth. This not only means that local authorities need more and more money to service their ever-expanding populations, it can also cause dissatisfaction among their residents.

Population Matters has published a briefing outlining the difficulties faced by the local authorities with the highest population growth rates in the UK. High population growth has a negative impact on housing, infrastructure, education and healthcare. While these impacts are felt everywhere, local authorities that face the highest population growth rates experience them more severely.

In the short term, it may be possible to cope with these problems through extra government support, but it is impossible to do so indefinitely. With population size expected to grow significantly and consistently in most regions of the UK, the problems faced by high-growth authorities such as Tower Hamlets and Lambeth will spread.

Government policies to stabilise population growth are urgently needed in the UK

The government should see these population-related issues as an indication of what will happen in other areas of the UK if population growth continues unabated. They must realise that policies to stabilise population growth are urgently needed to prevent this from happening.

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The feminist case for smaller families

Research suggests that having fewer children is good for women's well-being as well as for the environment

Not only is the choice to have fewer children good for the environment, it can also help to reduce maternal mortality, reduce female poverty and improve women’s empowerment.

This is the conclusion of a briefing published by Population Matters, which puts the feminist case for having fewer or no children.

The briefing finds that reducing the number of children has positive consequences for women’s health, education and finances, as well as helping to make society more gender equitable.

Having smaller families means women spend less time pregnant or raising children and are thus less likely to suffer death or disability from pregnancy or childbirth and more likely to have free time, which can be used to complete or further education, work outside of the home and participate in public life.

The overall well-being of women and girls improves as the average number of children they have falls

By choosing to have smaller families, women can pursue better work and career opportunities, are less likely to live in poverty and can afford to spend more time and resources on their own welfare and/or the welfare of family that they already have.

For these reasons and more, the International Centre for Research on Women has found that the overall well-being of women and girls improves as the average number of children they have falls.

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The impact of robotics on future societies

Humans and technology go hand in hand

Humans and technology go hand in hand. The discovery of fire has affected the history of mankind drastically. Not only has it allowed humans to exercise more control over their living environment, it also functioned as a catalyst in the development of humanity.

Inventions such as the eyeglass and the printing press allowed for significant productivity increases. The development of vaccines and antibiotics enabled humans to extend their productive lives significantly from the 18th century onwards. Electricity, the invention of plastic, the steam engine and many more machines and robots have drastically improved efficiency and productivity in the past few centuries.

Our new briefing looks at likely scientific developments the world will face in the future, and discusses the impact these could have on our societies. Technology offers us considerable advantages, but it also has the capacity to cause negative impacts. Whilst robotics may help humans in a wide range of areas, and new technologies could lead to a lower demand for certain resources, innovation could also allow humans to exploit the earth more efficiently or indirectly result in increased unemployment.

This briefing argues that a future in which technological advancements are utilised widely offers great advantages to ageing and falling populations, because robotics could fill the gaps this creates in the workforce and help humans where necessary. At the same time, falling populations would allow for the development of sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Robotics could fill gaps in the workforce

Population growth will intensify the crises that the world already faces, and people in crisis do not have time to wait for the development of sustainable technologies. This will force technicians to focus on the development of technologies that solve a crisis quickly, but these are often damaging to the environment. It would, at the same time, force humans to compete with robotics in the job market — a competition humans are increasingly likely to lose.

In conclusion, it seems clear that only smaller populations can lead to a sustainable future.

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The social benefits of a falling population

A falling population can bring lower housing costs, easier access to services, more green spaces and less crowding

Many commentators bemoan the prospect of a falling population. Yet there are also those who have explored the social benefits of a falling population, with Germany and Japan providing two particularly interesting case studies.

Our new briefing identifies several key social benefits to a falling population: lower housing cost, easier access to services, more green spaces and less crowding. Recent reports have highlighted the lower cost of the German housing market, the easier access to services in Japan and the innovative use of green spaces in German cities such as Leipzig.

In general, the short-term benefits of a falling population include the likelihood of lower housing cost, improved quality of the local environment and a redistribution of resources toward improving public services. Our briefing draws comparisons with the UK, where infrastructure provision has lagged badly behind population growth.

Throughout the world, falling levels of population have led to important social benefits. Lower fertility rates have been closely associated with greater rights and opportunities for women, as they are able to defer childbirth and to increase the spacing of the births of their children. Through assessing relevant commentaries, our briefing concludes that both Germany and Japan will experience many benefits due to their falling populations.

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Skills shortages in the UK workforce

UK employers are experiencing great difficulty recruiting skilled personnel

While the UK has seen its number of available workforce vacancies grow by almost half in two years, employers are experiencing great difficulty recruiting skilled personnel. Not only are skills shortages apparent, but also skills gaps are occurring. At the same time, many employees are overqualified for their current positions. Because skills are a key driver of both productivity and competitive advantage, it is concerning that employees in other developed countries are outperforming those in the UK on the measure of skill.

There have never been a greater number of highly-educated individuals in the UK. This would suggest that a skills surplus should be apparent, rather than a shortage; yet this is not the case. The question, then, is whether the required skills really do not exist, or whether current circumstances make it difficult to recognise and efficiently use existing skills.

There have never been a greater number of highly-educated individuals in the UK

Our briefing suggests that both of these factors are involved. On the one hand, the idea that university is the superior further education track ignores the fact that certain skills are best acquired through apprenticeships. On the other hand, practical barriers, such as inconvenient working hours, mean many employees cannot progress to the jobs that suit their skills best. Skills exist, but they are not being used in the most efficient way.

We conclude that the government should focus on its current population to meet its workforce needs, and refrain from looking abroad. Importing workers adds more people to an already-overpopulated country, and results in part of the current population remaining unemployed or underemployed.

The further empowerment of women would create a bigger pool of skilled workers

For example, the further empowerment of women would create a bigger pool of skilled workers; older workers could be helped to stay in employment; collaboration between businesses and education would create a better balance between skill supply and demand; and the promotion of apprenticeships as a valuable alternative to university qualifications would allow for the development of a wider variety of skills.

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Population growth exacerbates flood risk

The UK has seen unprecedented rainfall and flooding in the 21st century

The UK has seen unprecedented rainfall and flooding in the 21st century; the autumn of 2000 was reported as the wettest in England and Wales since rainfall records began for these regions in 1766. Meanwhile, one in ten new housing developments is being constructed on a flood plain, despite warnings from the Environment Agency.

This winter’s flooding caused more than £5 billion in damage, uprooting thousands of families across the UK. Flooding can be even more severe for people in the developing world, where exposure is correlated with poverty. In 2010, Pakistan was hit with a costly series of floods, resulting in the deaths of almost 2,000 people. With millions of homes, schools and livestock destroyed, the total number of people affected amounted to more than 18 million. Between 2011 and 2014, significant loss of life due to flooding was reported in Australia, Brazil, South East Asia, Russia, Mexico and Eastern Europe.

Pressure on city infrastructure is making floods more likely and more costly

Inspired by recent pressure for the UK government to reassess its flood prevention policies, we have published a briefing reviewing the evidence that population growth presents a critical challenge for flood protection. We conclude that pressure on city infrastructure is making floods more likely and more costly, while climate change, driven by overconsumption, is expected to bring about further increases in flooding through intensified rainfall and sea level rise over the coming decades.

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Managing ageing for a sustainable society

Older couple enjoying life

The prospect of an ageing society is a matter of public concern by governments and businesses alike. Prospects of a smaller younger generation tend to cause UK officials to issue dire forecasts of rising costs for the treasury, and a lack of personnel for the workforce. It is hard for society to dismiss such fears, especially given predictions of increasing longevity and contracting birth rates.

These pessimistic expectations, however, fail to acknowledge that this demographic challenge is in fact a golden opportunity to transform an overpopulated society into a sustainable one. To help achieve this, individuals will need to find productive ways to use the extra years of their lifespan.

Our briefing on managing ageing suggests that focusing on the empowerment of women, the elimination of involuntary unemployment and an attitude change regarding retirement age will drastically ameliorate the projected human resource issues. At the same time, longer careers will lead to a GDP increase that will help to lessen the pressures on the treasury. The government’s spending patterns will change, and while expenses will undoubtedly rise in certain areas, they will just as surely drop in others.

Older people are a valuable and essential part of our society

We conclude that we should break free from the idea that each generation of elderly people is inevitably identical to its preceding one. Times have changed, and so have circumstances. There is no fixed path, and the flexibility to alter and adapt will allow us to manage our ageing society successfully.

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