Population Matters

MPs vote against universal sex education in UK schools

MPs vote against universal sex education in UK schools

An attempt by MPs to make Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) compulsory in all UK schools has failed after being voted down in a parliamentary committee. 

In addition to information on the biology of sex, SRE provides information and guidance in areas such as consent, relationships, abuse, and LGBT issues. Under current legislation, however, it is mandatory only in schools managed by local authorities.

Despite hints from Education Secretary Justine Greening that she was willing to reform existing law, Conservative MPs on a committee considering an amendment voted against any change. According to junior education minister Edward Timpson the proposal was incomplete and its potential repercussions meant it needed further consideration.

The parliamentary decision not to make SRE compulsory goes against the view of teachers, parents and pupils.

70% of 11-15 year-olds in England believe all children should have school lessons on sex and relationships and 75% think that making SRE compulsory would make them safer according to Barnardos.

Currently, only state schools offer compulsory Sex Education lessons from age 11. Parents can chose to withdraw their child from parts of it. Sex Education classes focus on the biological aspects of sex. As a result of the vote, independent, fee-paying schools and schools which are state-funded but not managed by local authorities (such as academies) are still free not to teach SRE. Many do choose to do so but standards are not monitored.

MP Stella Creasy, who introduced the amendment, remarked that millions of children are not getting the information they need.

The UK still has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. In 2015, 9.9 out of 1,000 abortions were under 18s. Research has established that high-quality SRE helps to prevent teenage pregnancy.

Population Matters is a member of the Sex Education Forum, a coalition of organisations which have been pressing for compulsory, universal SRE in UK schools. In September, the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee called for mandatory SRE in its report on widespread sexual harassment of female students in schools.

Support our campaign to make Sex and Relationships Education mandatory in schools.

Mandatory sex education

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PM research shows traffic congestion costs to soar

New analysis released by Population Matters estimates England will face total annual costs of £23.8 billion by 2030 as a result of road and rail congestion caused by surging population. This would mark a 58.7 per cent increase over the £15bn figure for 2015, costing the economy an extra £8.8 billion annually.

The original research commissioned by Population Matters, and featured in an exclusive report in The Times newspaper today, uses statistical data and analytical reports from the UK’s Department for Transport and the latest population projections by the Office of National Statistics to calculate the effect on road and rail traffic. It shows that England’s projected population growth of 10 per cent by 2030 will have a far bigger impact on road and rail congestion than the percentage increase alone suggests.

Among the conclusions of the research are that by 2030:

  • the cost of traffic congestion per household could increase by 40 per cent, translating to a total of £2,100 per year
  • average lateness as a result of rail traffic could increase nationally by 48.2 per cent, and by 103.4 per cent in London
  • road users could waste more than 12 hours per year more – a total of 136 hours – than in 2015 on average, because of traffic congestion
  • number of cars on England’s roads could increase by 20 per cent to 31 million.

The Times‘ environment editor Ben Webster published an exclusive report based on our research, entitled Population boom ‘could bring nation to standstill’

To accompany its report, The Times also published an article by Population Matters patron Chris Packham reacting to the figures and highlighting how human population growth is affecting the natural world in the UK and across the world. In the piece, Chris writes:

“Our natural world is in competition with the unnatural world we create — and it is losing badly. This destructive competition will continue as long as human numbers are growing.

“In the UK we already have the choice of how many children we have. If we want them to enjoy the natural world — to have a thriving, supportive natural world they will need to survive — we have to recognise that the more of them we have, the more difficult it will be for them to do that. We all need breathing room: animals, plants, human beings. We shouldn’t have to compete for it, and we don’t have to.”

(Note: The Times operates behind a paywall and the articles will only be fully visible to subscribers. You can read Chris Packham’s article on our website here.)


Further information about the research and its findings can be found here.

Because rail and road statistics for the entire United Kingdom are compiled separately across devolved administrations, the research focuses on population growth in England but its principle conclusion – that population growth can have far greater effects on congestion than  numbers suggest – applies across the UK. To produce the most effective projections using available data and statistical techniques, the road traffic analysis reflects urban and national “strategic” roads only: the effects of minor road congestion will add additional time and cost. The calculations are based on a number of calculations and assumptions and the results provided are not predictions.

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Award for Population Matters ‘Zombie’ film

Our Zombie Overpopulation video has won a gold prize at the EVCOM Clarion Awards, which recognise ‘good purpose’ communications by charities, companies and public sector organisations. Released just over a year ago, the video, which takes a sideways look at the impacts of population growth, has been viewed almost 9,000 times on YouTube. 

Zombie video earthThe video was created to appeal to young people and features zombies blundering around destroying their environment in a comic, mock-documentary style. It is narrated by Anthony Head, star of the cult TV programme Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and mixes live action, remarkable special effects and hard information about human population growth.

Zombie Overpopulation concludes with a simple message: “Don’t be a zombie. Use your brain. we all have a choice about how many babies to have and how much we consume.”

Our congratulations to Media Trust who helped us to produce the film and collected the award.

You can view the film below or on YouTube. Please share it with your friends and family this Halloween. This film is frightening in more ways than one.

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WWF: we are facing the next global mass extinction

The 2016 Living Planet report published by WWF today pulls no punches in describing the devastation to our natural world caused by human activity. The report calculates that by 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970.

In 1970, the global human population was half what it is now.

By 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970.2020 is the target date set by the United Nations for halting biodiversity loss — something the report’s authors believe is highly unlikely to be achieved. Instead, they conclude that the average two per cent drop in animal numbers each year is unlikely to slow.

One of their most shocking conclusions is that the current rate of extinctions is 100 times what would be considered normal without the impact of human activity.

Dr Mike Barrett. head of science and policy at WWF, said: “For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife.”

The report highlights particular problems faced by freshwater species in lakes and rivers, with a shocking decline in numbers of 81 per cent. It attributes the decline to “the way water is used and taken out of fresh water systems, and also the fragmentation of freshwater systems through dam building.”

Human pressure on water resources is expected to worsen considerably due to population growth, with, according to the UN, two billion people likely to face absolute water scarcity by 2025.

Dr Barrett continued: “It’s pretty clear under ‘business as usual’ we will see continued declines in these wildlife populations. But I think now we’ve reached a point where there isn’t really any excuse to let this carry on. We know what the causes are and we know the scale of the impact that humans are having on nature and on wildlife populations — it really is now down to us to act.”

The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities is pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.Commenting on the report, Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation, was more explicit in identifying the cause: “The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities in every corner of the globe, including now the most remote parts of Africa, is clearly pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.”

The report itself, however, treats population growth largely as an inevitability which must be taken into account, rather than as a problem which can be solved. Its close and systematic look at the underlying drivers of the crisis — including consumption, food production and distribution, global economic dynamics and much more — is extremely valuable, but its failure to recognise the importance of managing population growth is a deep and disappointing failure.

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Why we must support the world’s 10-year-old girls

Population Matters attended the launch of the 2016 annual report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in London on Thursday 20 October. Entitled ‘10’, the report focuses on the situation of 10-year-old girls across the world, identifying the age as one from which a path of opportunity, creativity and productivity can follow or one where ‘family, community and institutions may block her safe and healthy transition through adolescence into adulthood.’

There are now 60 million 10-year-old girls, 89 per cent of whom live in less developed regions of the worldThere are now 60 million 10-year-old girls, 89 per cent of whom live in less developed regions of the world.

According to the report, more than half of all 10-year-olds live in countries with high levels of gender inequality and girls remain less likely than boys to be enrolled in school. Countries with the highest proportions of 10-year-olds are also likely to have higher levels of child labour.

UNFPA stresses the importance of recognising the distinctive needs of girls, for whom discrimination, sexual exploitation and the possibility of motherhood while they are themselves still children exacerbate many of the other problems they may face.

UNFPA calls for policies to support girls as they approach this crucial stage in their lives, including proper legal recognition, access to proper health care and education — which plays a direct role in empowering girls to marry and bear children later in life than they would otherwise do.

The report also makes a clear case for the provision of appropriate sex and relationships education (SRE). At the London launch event, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive Director of UNFPA, spoke of the challenges of persuading some governments to accept the need for SRE, but also of how such opposition could be overcome. He noted that the very words ‘sex education’ can appear threatening in some cultures and simply labelling SRE as ‘life skills education’ can help shift attitudes.

The UNFPA report states: 'Investing in girls makes good financial sense. Conversely, failing to invest in them is nothing less than planned poverty.'UNFPA’s mission is to deliver ‘a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.’ Its report repeatedly maintains that maximising opportunities for girls approaching puberty is not just good for them but benefits society as a whole. Education and the freedom to join the paid workforce turn them from dependents into producers, contributing to the economy and the wellbeing of their communities.

It bluntly states: ‘Investing in girls makes good financial sense. Conversely, failing to invest in them is nothing less than planned poverty.’

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Global biodiversity and population

Biodiversity is the sum of all plants, animals and microorganisms as well as their phenotypic and genotypic variation, along with the ecosystems of which they are a part. Biodiversity is the fundamental regulator of climate, energy, food, nutrients and water.

As the human footprint on the earth has expanded, the earth’s biodiversity has continuously declined.

The Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (2005) states: “Changes in biodiversity due to human activity have been more rapid in the last 50 years than at any time in human history.”

The Kemp's ridley sea turtle: just one example of a species that is critically endangered due to human activity
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle: just one example of a species that is now critically endangered due to hunting, habitat loss, pollution and entanglement in shrimping nets

It highlights that there is a 40 per cent decline in average species abundance, a 50 per cent decline in inland water species, and a 30 per cent decline in the population of marine and terrestrial species.

In this briefing, we report on, and discuss, the recent changes in the global biodiversity associated with the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem, the importance of genetic biodiversity, and the role of human population growth on these biodiversity systems.

The rapid reduction of tropical forests has threatened hundreds of plant and animal species with extinction.

The loss in aquatic biodiversity has resulted in a 40 per cent decline in the population of amphibians and a 20 per cent decline in freshwater fish. Housing and commercial construction along river banks has eroded the soil, polluted the water and fragmented the aquatic habitat.

Due to such anthropogenic alterations in the environment, there is a loss, not only of species but also of their genetic component that is crucial for diversity and has important uses for mankind.

Population Matters asserts that the relentless increase in the human population is primarily responsible for this decline in biodiversity, through the increased need for food and space, and higher per-capita consumption.

We conclude that, if human population continues to grow at the same rate, the depletion of biodiversity will continue unabated.

Population Matters believes that action to promote a reduction in, and reversal of, human population growth is necessary for us to maintain biodiversity in order to secure a sustainable future.

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State of Nature report overlooks population growth impact

On September 14th, more than 50 nature conservation and research organisations published the 2016 State of Nature report. The report found evidence of significant losses in biodiversity in the UK, but overlooked the impact of population growth.

High brown fritillary butterfly
The high brown fritillary is possibly the most threatened butterfly in the UK, due to habitat destruction

The report found that 56 per cent of species declined in number between 1970 and 2013, with 40 per cent showing strong or moderate declines. The UK has experienced significantly more biodiversity loss than the global average, and is now ranked as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

The report was not universally negative: 44 per cent of species increased in number, and it was found that well-planned conservation projects can “turn around the fortunes of wildlife.”

Many factors were held to be responsible for changes in species number, but the report primarily attributed blame to intensive agricultural practices. The effect of climate change was also significant, but negative impacts were balanced by the northward expansion of species that previously could not cope with northern temperatures. Future climate change, however, is expected to cause significant reductions in northern species.

Wood pigeon
Wood pigeon numbers have significantly risen in recent decades

Despite being an impressive collaborative project, we were disappointed that population growth in the UK was never mentioned in the report.

The latest ONS figures estimate that the UK population exceeded 65 million last year, and is expected to grow by almost 10 million in the next 25 years. The report makes no reference to the fact that the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss are exacerbated by population growth.

Population growth means more food is required to feed the population from the same amount of land. Inevitably, this means more intensive farming methods are needed to keep up with this increase in demand.

National Farmers Union (NFU) vice-president Guy Smith recognised this in his response to the report, saying: “There is now a high degree of academic consensus that the world will also need to increase food production significantly to meet the needs of a growing population.”

Trying to make farming less intensive without stabilising population will necessarily mean that the UK has to import more food, which, as Mr Smith also pointed out, is often produced in even more environmentally damaging ways abroad.

A greater population also requires more energy, much of which will continue to come from fossil fuels. This accelerates biodiversity losses from climate change. Urbanisation was also listed as a major cause of species loss, yet urbanisation will certainly increase as more people are born into, and migrate to, cities.

All this means that population growth should be on the conservation agenda, otherwise a holistic approach is impossible. We are very disappointed that an otherwise very well researched report has made such a regrettable oversight. We will continue to advocate strongly for including population on the environmental agenda — so much depends on it.

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Envisioning a sustainable society

A sustainable society is one that ensures the health and vitality of human life for present as well as future generations.

The sustainable society recognizes that there is one primary environment — the physical environment — within which all other environments function.

The current socio-economic model of developed countries is becoming increasingly unsustainable for our individual well-being, society and ecosystem. The current trends are that the people of industrialised nations consume more than their needs and, in the process, are depleting the natural resources necessary for a sustainable society.

A sustainable society ensures the health and vitality of human life for present as well as future generations
A sustainable society ensures the health and vitality of human life for present as well as future generations

In this briefing, we discuss the characteristics of a sustainable society, the ways to achieve sustainability (and the existing challenges), major constituents of a sustainable society, and relevant examples.

We assert that the dominant anthropocentric approach has been responsible for the current unsustainable lifestyle, through overconsumption and continuous deterioration of natural resources.

The steady increase in population growth across the world is a causal impediment to progress towards achieving sustainability.

The briefing highlights the urgent need to stabilise the population, and the importance of the pace of stabilisation to ensure the availability of natural resources to mankind.

It is noted that cities not only pose a challenge to sustainability but also offer opportunities to overcome these challenges, through sustainable urban agriculture, better public transport, affordable housing and poverty alleviation.

The relevant issues of social justice, organic farming and use of renewable energy in the context of sustainability are also discussed.

We conclude by emphasising the need to realise, minimise and neutralise our use of natural resources, in order to restore the balance between humanity and the natural ecosystem, and thus attain a sustainable society.

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Planetary boundaries and population

We live in the Anthropocene era, in which humans are the single largest modifier of planet Earth.

The consequences of there being seven billion of us on the planet are more than the Earth’s natural biophysical and geological systems can process.

The concept of ‘planetary boundaries’ is one of defining a ‘safe operating space’ for human societies to develop and thrive, based on the functioning and resilience of the Earth.

We live in the Anthropocene era, in which humans are the single largest modifier of planet Earth
The consequences of there being seven billion of us on the planet are more than the Earth’s natural biophysical and geological systems can process

Based on the human-induced alterations in the natural environment, nine planetary boundaries have been identified, each with defined threshold limits. Crossing these boundaries will result in deleterious consequences for all species on Earth, and damage the possibility of achieving a sustainable future.

In this briefing, we explore the approach, concept and limits of planetary boundaries, and discuss the influence of population growth on these boundaries.

The nine planetary boundaries are based on three scientific principles:

  • the level of usage of non-renewable fossil resources
  • the level of usage of the biosphere, and exploitation of natural ecosystems
  • the level of Earth’s capacity to absorb and dissipate human waste flows

Climate change and the integrity of the biosphere are the two most important limits, because they influence the threshold limits of the remaining boundaries.

According to recent estimates, we have already crossed four of the nine planetary boundaries, highlighting the current scale of human-induced alterations in the environment.

If these changes are not reversed, and if the current scale of depletion of natural resources continues, we will jeopardise our future by driving innumerable species to extinction.

Stabilising population growth is essential to avoid crossing the limits of the nine planetary boundariesPopulation Matters asserts that stabilising population growth is essential if we are to avoid crossing the defined threshold limits of the nine planetary boundaries.

The concept of Planetary Boundaries is thus an effective tool to aid decision-makers by defining the safe operating space for humanity and a sustainable future.

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New ‘Sustainability Insights’ collection

We have recently updated our set of intermediate-level papers on issues related to population and sustainability.

Insights into population sustainability issuesOur new and improved collection of ‘Sustainability Insights’ papers appears in the ‘Resources’ section of our website, providing more information than our introductory section, ‘The Issue’, whilst still being accessible to readers who do not yet possess a detailed knowledge of the topics.

The index page of our Sustainability Insights collection is linked from the Resources menu on our home page, at www.populationmatters.org/resources/sustainability-insights, in order to help readers understand how the various pieces of the population sustainability jigsaw fit together.

We hope this will also encourage dialogue between experts in the various subjects involved.

The Sustainability Insights Collection

Ageing populations
Biocapacity and ecological footprint
Carrying capacity
Climate change
Contraception and lack of reproductive health
Current population trends
Ecosystems and biodiversity
Human population history
New economics (coming shortly…)
Personal contribution to sustainability
Rights and responsibilities
Space and amenities
Sustainability and the Ehrlich equation
Sustainable consumption (affluence)
Sustainable technology
Sustainable technology: cornflake example
What things are made of
Women’s rights

The Sustainability Insights collection is a “work in progress”; we aim to add to the list of topics as the collection expands and evolves.

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