Population Matters

Global biodiversity and population

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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Population and resource security

Population growth and increasing affluence will increase the pressure on limited resourcesWater scarcity, energy challenges and food security are three increasingly-recognized global challenges. Resource security, however, remains largely unaddressed, in part because the majority of minerals and metals are not currently scarce and the importance of these resources is not as obviously visible.

Projected population growth and increasing affluence will, however, cause demand for resources to grow. This will cause greater competition, which means that those countries largely dependent on imports for their resources, such as the UK, may end up in a particularly vulnerable position.

This briefing will look at resource demand, security and scarcity. It will be argued that, while there are many ways in which resource security can be improved in theory, these are often not viable.

One reason is that different challenges have conflicting solutions. Land could be used to extract minerals and metals, but the same land could also be used by farmers to increase output, or by the building sector to develop residential properties.

At the same time, there are conflicting scarcity problems that appear more urgent than impending metal and mineral scarcity. Water scarcity will be a serious problem, and the increasing demand for energy will difficult to meet.

The challenge can only be solved by reducing demand for resources of all kindsWhen considering widely discussed solutions for these global challenges, it becomes obvious that much trust is placed in technology. Technology, however, relies heavily on the availability of metals and minerals, and all of these solutions would consequently influence resource security adversely.

What this shows, more than anything, is that the complicated and intertwined nature of the challenges the world faces can in the long term only be solved by actively reducing demand for resources of all kinds.

This means that we ought to reduce per capita demand, but more importantly, that population stabilisation policies are of paramount importance. This is particularly the case given the currently very low per capita consumption of much of the world’s population.

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Population Matters AGM and Conference 2016

The Population Matters Annual General Meeting and Conference 2016 will take place in central London on Saturday 8 October, 2016.

The event is open to all members, and attendance is free. Members for whom we have an email address will be sent an online booking form that will help to reduce administration.

You can join Population Matters at any time before the event.

Professor Diana Coole will be asking: ‘What’s the problem with population stabilisation?’

The morning — with tea/coffee from 10.30am, and then commencing at 11.00am — is the business section, comprising corporate reporting and approvals requirements, together with the presentation of Awards. You can choose to attend this morning session or not.

The afternoon session comprises presentations and discussions. It will commence with a talk from Professor Diana Coole (Birkbeck, University of London) entitled: ‘What’s the problem with population stabilisation?’

Following questions, there will be a presentation marking our 25th anniversary, and some short presentations on our activities and plans.

This will be followed by discussion sessions, with audience participation, on specific topics chosen by members.

These will finish by 5pm, following which those who wish to will be cordially invited to repair to the upstairs bar.

A draft agenda can be found here.

We very much welcome and appreciate our members’ input at the AGM, and look forward to seeing you on 8 October!

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Population and Ethics colloquium

‘Population and Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Birth and Death’

Cumberland Lodge, Monday, 26 September 2016 — 9:00am to 9:00pm

Undoubtedly, many of the most pressing challenges of our age relate to changes in human population.

Yet these questions receive little attention from academics, and public debate is often led by unconsidered opinion and ideological divides about the ethics of birth and death.

Many of the most pressing challenges of our age relate to changes in human populationThis presents opportunities for interdisciplinary researchers to break new ground and make significant contributions to contemporary policy decisions.

A one-day colloquium taking place at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor, UK, this September will bring together scholars who can combine ethical analysis and scientific rigour to address these challenges head on, and to forge new lines of academic inquiry.

Researchers from philosophy and the social sciences, as well as practitioners and policy makers, will share their knowledge and concerns, learn from one another, and forge collaborative relationships.

This will not simply be a conference for the paper givers, but an opportunity for open and honest debate of challenging issues and fundamental questions.

Key themes of the colloquium will include:

  • The morality of birth: why do people decide to have children, and what role can, and should, morality play in such decisions?
  • The changing shape of society: how are large-scale demographic changes, such as growing life expectancy and shrinking family sizes, changing the dynamics of our lives, and how should society respond to this?
  • Human populations and the environment: how do growing human populations interact with other species and what challenges does this raise for our planet?
  • Optimum demographics: what role does population play in economic and social development, and is there such a thing as an optimum population?
Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta
Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta

The colloquium will close with a keynote public lecture entitled ‘Population Ethics and Earth’s Carrying Capacity’, from Population Matters patron Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Emeritus Professor, Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge.

Day attendance at the colloquium is free, and prospective attendees can register online at www.eventbrite.co.uk. Overnight accommodation can be arranged at extra cost, if required.

For enquiries about the event, please contact populationethics@cumberlandlodge.ac.uk.

More information: http://www.cumberlandlodge.ac.uk/populationethics

This article first appeared on the Cumberland Lodge website.

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Population growth hinders Sustainable Development Goals

london_crowd copyWhile the fact that the UK played a leading role in the formulation of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is welcome, the UK Government has done little to establish how to implement the Goals since they came into force on 1 January 2016.

On 8 June, the International Development Committee (IDC) launched its report on the UK implementation of the SDGs.

Following this, the Environmental Audit Committee has launched an inquiry into their domestic implementation.

Our submission to this inquiry aims to draw attention to the fact that, regardless of which route is chosen to implement all SDGs successfully by 2030, population growth will make achieving this goal more difficult and more expensive.

The reason for this is simple: the SDGs must be delivered for each individual in society. The more people there are, the more will have to happen to achieve that.

The UK already faces serious population-related challenges, and these cannot be ignored.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals
The Sustainable Development Goals.
(Image source: UN)

Many challenges — housing scarcity, strain on education and health care facilities, and child poverty, for example — must be overcome in order to call the implementation of the SDGs a success. Yet, population growth will exacerbate these challenges.

Consequently, we believe that population growth should no longer be approached as a fixed premise.

This means that the Government should start promoting policies that aim at population stabilisation.

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WINGS for a better life

Fabiola and her son. (Photo credit: www.wingsguate.org)
Fabiola and her son. (Photo credit: WINGS)

Like many 21-year-old women in Guatemala, Fabiola was unaware of the existence and possibilities of birth control. Consequently, she had given birth to her first child at the tender age of 18.

A second child had followed a year later, and not long thereafter a third had been added to the family.

While Fabiola loves motherhood and her children, she is worried about the future.

“I can’t afford to provide my children with everything I’d like to give them, and when they get sick, I can’t sleep because I’m worried about their well-being.”

Having grown up in a family of seven children, Fabiola always had to help her mother to keep the household running. She was in charge of the house and took care of her siblings, even though she was a child herself at the time.

Despite a strong fear that her community would judge her for using birth control, Fabiola knew that she did not want a similar future for her sons.

WINGS enables women to take control of their own fertility
(Photo credit: WINGS)

WINGS, an organisation supported by Population Matters’ initiative ‘PopOffsets’, encourages women to use long-acting reversible contraceptives. They were there for Fabiola when she needed help and guidance in choosing the right anticonception method for her and her family.

After discussing all the options available to her, Fabiola picked a subdermal hormonal implant that will give her five years of protection.

Grateful for the support, she noted that she can now dedicate her time to raising her children without having to worry about extra mouths to feed. As she does not have enough money to pay for the implant, the project managed to help her free of charge.

We are delighted to see that funding of small-scale family planning projects has the power to transform lives for the better. What seems like a small change for some, is a huge step for others.

PopOffsets helps to support the work of WINGS and many other similar initiativesCurrently, more than 225 million women worldwide wish to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern family planning methods. Initiatives like PopOffsets can do much to reduce that number.

This is why we invite you to visit the project’s web-page, and to consider supporting it.

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