On Thursday 11 January, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new 25-year Environmental Plan. Despite some recognition of the role of population growth in damaging the environment, no measures to tackle it are included.
Too vague, too slow
The new Environmental Plan aims to tackle critical issues such as air pollution, soil degradation, waste, loss of biodiversity, plastic pollution and climate change. It establishes a number of principles and mechanisms to make progress in these areas. One of its most eye-catching goals is “achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.”
The plan also outlines goals for the UK to play a significant role in addressing global environmental problems.
Concerns have already been expressed, however, that the legal enforcement and funding required to achieve the plan’s goals are lacking. Among others, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Labour Party have all called for a clearer timetable and more urgent action.
“There is scepticism about how far the environment department Defra will be able to carry out its plans,” explains BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin, “there are huge pressures on the natural world from urgently needed house-building; HS2 threatens scores of ancient woodlands; and the Department for Transport has a major road-building programme.”
The impact of a population growth
The plan recognises population growth as a factor in environmental problems, stating:
“The scale of human impact on the planet has never been greater than it is now. At a global level, the 20th century brought many technological benefits and changes to our way of life, but we have also experienced unprecedented expansion in population, consumption, energy use, waste and pollution, and the conversion of land to agriculture.”
In a foreword to the document, the Secretary of State for the Environment also writes:
“We need to replenish depleted soil, plant trees, support wetlands and peatlands, rid seas and rivers of rubbish, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cleanse the air of pollutants, develop cleaner,
sustainable energy and protect threatened species and habitats.”
In almost every case, population growth makes achieving these goals immeasurably more difficult, if not impossible. No plan to address population growth is offered in the document.
Population projections in the UK
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) anticipate a population of nearly 73m by 2041, a year before the plan’s end date. The rarely reported long term projection anticipates a population of 85 million in 2116 – 30 per cent more than the UK’s population today. It also expects the population to still be growing in a century’s time.
In a statement to the media when the projections were released, Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:
“(These) figures show that our environment, our infrastructure and our public services will face mounting and unbearable pressure for at least another century.”
Recognising the impact of population growth as the report does is a step forward, but its failure to address population represents a major obstacle in achieving its goals.
Population Matters has proposed a Sustainable Population Policy for the UK, which provides a strategic framework for implementing measures to bring population to sustainable levels. Adopting such an approach is an essential measure for achieving environmental sustainability in the UK and must be an integral part of any environmental plan. Learn more about the policy here.