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To the Environmental Audit Committee, House of Commons

The Sustainable Development Strategy: illusion or reality?

Response from the OPTIMUM POPULATION TRUST, May 2004


We do not believe that a sustainable development strategy for the UK can be conceived or achieved without incorporating an environmentally sustainable population policy. The population of the UK has grown 20 per cent since 1950 and is now growing faster in real terms than at any time since the 1960s*. In view of the effects of continuous population growth on the environment of the UK, we submit that there should be no delay in introducing a policy to stabilise and gradually reduce its population. The outline policy we recommend incorporates a greater effort to reduce unintended pregnancies, particularly among teenagers; social and financial support for the raising of families of up to replacement size; and strict curbs on inward migration to bring it in balance with outward migration or to a level that does not incur further population growth.

Note: the environmental effects of population distribution are complex and different from the effects of overall growth, so they are not dealt with here. We do not believe, however, that problems of population distribution or density within the UK can be addressed without an acknowledgment that solutions would be consistently undermined by continuous growth of overall numbers. *Correction to text of original report.


A: The definition of ‘Sustainable Development’

  • The Government has stated that the Brundtland definition “is excessively narrow and puts undue emphasis on environmental concerns… [It] lies at the environmental end of the spectrum of views on sustainable development. At the other end, there are equally sound definitions that favour a fundamentally economic definition.”
  • Does the definition of ‘sustainable development’ matter?

    OPT response A.1

    We submit that the definition of sustainable development does matter. The current definition ("ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come") is appropriate, but the interpretation of this definition has been weighted too heavily in favour of conventional economic goals, without a corresponding and scientifically based recognition of the long-term economic effects of continuous environmental degradation. The interpretation and implementation of the definition need to be reconsidered if its aim is to be achieved, particularly concerning the conflict between high levels of GDP growth and environmental sustainability. There is also the fundamentally important error of omitting the effects of continuous population growth. The natural environment is the basis of the most fundamental elements of an economy - such as food, clean water, healthy soil, and a stable climate - and an economy cannot remain healthy if this relationship is ignored.

  • The Sustainable Development Strategy (the Strategy) requires all 4 key objectives to be met at the same time. Is this realistic? Is political support for this concept based upon its ambiguity? Does it fail to place enough weight on the need to make trade-offs between different objectives and the relative importance to be attached to them in that event?
  • OPT response A.2

    We submit that Key Objective (4) "The maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth" is incompatible with Key Objectives (2) "Effective protection of the environment" and (3) "Prudent use of natural resources". We suggest that Objective (4) should be amended to "The maintenance of high per capita quality of life and employment." This needs to be based on revised indicators of quality of life which can incorporate measures of environmentally benign per capita GDP growth. Total GDP can be increased simply by increasing population, which (other factors being equal) increases resource depletion and environmental degradation. To this end sustainable development indicators need to be amended to show the effects of demographic increase on resource depletion and environmental degradation.

    B: Has the Strategy acted as a driver or does it occupy a limbo existence which has little impact on departments' real priorities?

  • What specific impacts can be attributed to the Strategy since its introduction in 1999?
  • How effectively has the Strategy linked to, or acted as the driver for, lower level strategies – whether topic specific strategies, such as the Climate Change Strategy and the Air Quality Strategy, or strategies of devolved administrations, regional and local government?
  • How much impact has the Strategy had on mainstreaming the environment in terms of objectives and targets set for individual departments in Public Service Agreements and in departmental strategies and business plans?
  • Can a UK Strategy ever amount to more than a set of principles or aspirations, particularly in the context of devolved government? Is it needed, given the fact that – where progress is being made – it seems to be topic-specific and driven from the bottom? If it is needed, should it focus much more specifically on a small number of key themes and targets?
  • OPT response B.1

    We submit that the Strategy has helped to mainstream environmental issues, and that a small number of key themes and targets is vital. We submit one key target that should be added: a Sustainable Population Target , requiring a policy to stabilise and gradually reduce UK population to a lower and more environmentally sustainable level, and incorporating target ranges set for the end of every decade at least up to . These target ranges can be set and regularly reviewed according to best estimates of projected per capita resource depletion, environmental degradation and other factors. There is no substantive economic case for a larger population - the high quality of life in low-population countries such as Norway and Sweden is an example, and the economic problems of dealing with an ageing or reducing population are dealt with in OPT appendices (to be separately submitted). Our initial suggested target is to achieve a reduction to 52.5 million by 2050. Note: we use the term environmental degradation to cover two levels of degradation. The first (Superficial Environmental Degradation) is degradation that affects easily perceived quality of life, such as the number of parks in a city or the spoiling of a rural area by excessive development. The second (Fundamental Environmental Degradation) refers to deep-seated changes such as climate change impacts and energy substitution problems, where we believe the environmental degradation risks to be large enough and the speed of deterioration rapid enough to make population policies an immediate necessity.

    C: How effectively do the indicators reflect the UK’s ‘sustainability gap’?

  • Could the Government have made greater use of indicators to drive policy and set targets in departmental business plans and Public Service Agreements?
  • To what extent do the existing indicators, in particular the headline indicators, properly reflect the extent to which the UK is unsustainable? What additional or alternative indicators could address this gap?
  • OPT response C.1

    We submit that while the current range of indicators is extremely useful, the omission of demographic impact indicators is a serious flaw and results in incorrect measurements of sustainability. For example, indicators that relate decreasing water supplies, decreasing areas of unspoilt countryside, climate change-induced expansion of flood plains, or the amount of non-urbanised and ecologically healthy land available per capita to the population of the UK would demonstrate clearly the extent to which current development plans to accommodate ever-rising population are both environmentally and economically unsustainable.

    OPT response C.2

    We submit that Indicator K3 (Population growth) be abandoned, because it does not relate population size or growth to any environmental or other quality of life factor.

    OPT response C.3

    We submit that Indicator K3 be replaced by a new headline indicator H16 - a UK Population Density Indicator - which would show the declining amount of the UK's finite supply of land available per capita that has resulted from population growth of more than 2,000,000 since 1990. This approach has already been accepted in measuring economic growth per capita in Indicator H1. We suggest a 1990 baseline so that the new population density indicator could be related to Kyoto climate change obligations.

    OPT response C.4

    We submit that all indicators be examined to see if a per capita or real change interpretation can be added to demonstrate the effects of demographic trends and therefore introduce the concept of sustainable population levels. For example, Indicator N4 measures 'Electricity from renewable resources 1989 to 2002', showing an improvement in the percentage of electricity generated from renewables, but it does not show the percentage improvement that could have been achieved had the UK's population not grown by more than 2,000,000 during that period.

    D: How can the concept of sustainable consumption be integrated within the Strategy?

  • Should sustainable consumption and production be seen as only one constituent part of sustainable development (ie a lower level strategy which sits alongside others), or as another way of looking at sustainable development itself?
  • Sustainable consumption has so far been interpreted mainly in terms of sustainable production. is the role of government with regard to encouraging changes in consumption itself – eg by managing demand or facilitating choice? What difficulties does it face in doing so?
  • OPT response D.1

    We submit that long-term sustainable consumption and production levels - in view of the Fundamental Environmental Degradation factors referred to above - should be a key focus of the Strategy. There should be more emphasis, however, on demand management, including an end to population growth, which increases overall demand and environmental impacts at current technology and consumption levels. While there has been some decoupling of energy use from GDP growth, for example, real energy demand continues to be created by a rising population - demand management should involve consideration of the numbers of people creating that demand. We believe that the widest possible choice of methods of demand restraint should be available to individuals, for example, by using fiscal incentives and disincentives to influence energy consumption. We also submit, however, that without a reversal of pro-population growth policies, demand management is likely to prove politically unacceptable, since restraints on demand would have to be continuously tightened to allow for the additional demand created by continuous population growth.

    E: Organisational structures and costs

  • Do the present organisational structures and policy mechanisms within Government contribute to the effective implementation of the Strategy? What improvements could be made in this respect? Is there a case for rationalising the number of organisations involved in key sectors?
  • Is there a need for a more consistent approach to incorporating sustainable development as an overarching objective in all Government organisations? Or would the ambiguity of the term prove unhelpful?
  • Has a lack of sufficient Government financial support for programmes and policies hindered the implementation of the Strategy in any way?
  • OPT response E.1

    We submit that the Strategy needs to be overseen by a single minister with an inter-departmental co-ordinating role in order to be effective, and that a population policy should also be formulated and overseen by a single minister with full inter-departmental coordination. We believe the consequences of failure to fully integrate population into all decision-making, as recommended by the government-appointed Population Panel in 1973, and the passive acceptance of continuous population growth on a predict-and-provide basis, without limits, have been a major policy error. We submit that the environmental consequences of this failure are already apparent.

    Further evidence from the Optimum Population Trust

    Appendix 1: UK Population Figures is attached in web page format.

    Further appendices will be emailed separately to the Environmental Audit Committee as further explanation of the principles underlying this submission. These will be background briefings with relevant factual support and demonstrative extrapolations of current relationships between population growth and environmental impacts. Reference to the global context is covered in most of these briefings, which are also available from http://www.optimumpopulation.org.

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