Population Matters is a UK-based campaigning charity, working to achieve a sustainable global population through ethical means, to protect the natural environment and improve people’s lives. We promote positive, practical solutions which respect human rights and freedom of choice.
The principle underlying our responses in this consultation is that growing human populations, nationally and globally, are critical factors in preventing achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular the goals relating to our growing environmental crisis. Unsustainable population is a concern both where population growth is currently very high, and in wealthier countries such as the UK where our per capita global environmental impact is high and the negative effects on our domestic environment can be significant. Population growth is, of course, far from the only factor contributing to our environmental crisis, and addressing unsustainable patterns and levels of consumption is also a key priority, among others. Nevertheless, action to address population is an essential part of a holistic and effective environmental strategy, and any strategy intended to achieve the SDGs.
Fortunately, the challenge of unsustainable populations can be met through positive means which empower people and improve their lives. These are lifting people out of poverty, providing high quality universal education, empowering women and girls, ensuring people can access and are free to use modern family planning, and encouraging the choice to have smaller families. The first four of these are already embedded within the Sustainable Development Goals: SDG 1 (No poverty); SDG 3 (Good health and wellbeing); SDG 4 (Quality education) and SDG 5 (Gender equality).
We cite some of the key evidence in support of our analysis in our answers below.
Co-ordination of UK environmental policy:
How can policy be better integrated to address biodiversity, climate change and sustainable development?
A holistic approach is essential to meet all these goals. As a first step the UK must integrate its socio-economic and environmental policies. Nationally, as well as in our relationships with other countries and in multilateral environmental agreements, the Sustainable Development Goals provide an essential framework. Each goal has already been integrated into each government Single Department Plan. Currently missing in these plans, however, is a recognition of the role human population growth. As our evidence will show throughout this submission, it is an essential policy ingredient for integrating environmental progress with sustainable development.
The relevance of human population to SDGs 13, 14 and 15 is clear and supported by abundant evidence[i].
In regard to biodiversity, for example, the two most authoritative recent assessments of biodiversity loss both recognise human population growth, alongside consumption and other factors, as a key indirect driver of the major threats to biodiversity worldwide. These are the 2019 Global Assessment by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biological Diversity and Ecosystem Services, and WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020[ii]. Critically, the former is clear that action to address population is essential, stating “changes to the direct drivers of nature deterioration cannot be achieved without transformative change that simultaneously addresses the indirect drivers.” [emphasis added].
In regard to climate change, the IPCC identifies the contribution of population growth to current CO2 levels[iii], and the threat of high population growth[iv] to the achievement of the Paris Agreement targets. To give a telling domestic example of the importance of population, according to Population Matters calculations, based on Joint Nature conservation committee (JNCC) data, population growth between 2005 and 2017 contributed more to UK CO2 emissions than all our trees sequestrated in the same period[v]. While gross disparities in per capita emissions exist between and within countries, total CO2 emissions are a function of average per capita and total population. Furthermore, where population pressures contribute to such environmental problems as deforestation, they also impair sequestration. (We address the climate change benefits of population action in more detail in answer to a subsequent question.)
Looking at the UK picture, our status as a rich nation is critically important. As a nation, we have unsustainable levels of per capita consumption – the average UK resident produces 50 times more CO2 than a person from Niger[vi] and according to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone on Earth lived like the average Briton, we would need three planets to meet humanity's natural resource demand without destroying nature[vii]. Our efforts to bring levels down are progressing very slowly. Between 2008 and 2017 material footprint per capita in the UK has dropped by just 2.6 million tonnes, from 13.7 million tonnes to 11.1 million[viii].
While the government’s Green Future 25 year Plan makes a general, single reference to a “lighter footprint”, at no point does it identify action to address the level of our consumption, effectively working on the principle that process, administrative and technological changes can adequately meet the urgent need to significantly reduce our impact. When not just IPBES, but almost every major and authoritative analysis of our global environmental crisis calls for “transformative” action, this is neither credible, or good enough.
Action to address per capita consumption is essential, and its absence represents a critical hole in the government’s environmental strategy. But a consumption strategy must be married to action to address population, because growing population acts as a multiplier of per capita consumption, and can negate progress made as a result of per capita reductions.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimate the UK’s population at 66.7 million people and project it to pass the 70 million mark in 2031[ix]. By 2050, the UK is expected to become the most populous nation in Europe, despite its relatively small land area. As the population continues to grow, more land is required, biodiversity will continue to suffer and pressures on resources and ecosystem services (notably water, see below) will only continue to increase. According to the State of Nature report, key pressures on domestic biodiversity include climate change, urbanisation and water extraction, all exacerbated by population growth [x].
Just as with consumption, the present and future impact of population growth requires a coordinated and integrated policy approach by government. A Sustainable Population Strategy, would move UK policy from an essentially passive approach to population growth to an active one, identifying how policy levers can be used to meet sustainability targets, including those related to environmental protection. In so doing, it could also remove migration policy from short-term and political influences, and embed it within a framework for achieving national and international SDG goals. Such a strategy should:
Policy options include:
A sustainable population strategy connects the dots between climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainable development. It requires a coordinated and integrated policy approach by government to address the role education, female youth empowerment and social behaviour change can play that will lead to better lives for all.
We call on the government to:
The latter sections of this submission address more directly the role of UK policy in supporting the international sustainability and biodiversity goals.
How can biodiversity and ecosystems help achieve the air, soil and water quality objectives in the 25 Year Environment Plan?
Population growth both impairs the capacity of biodiversity and ecosystems to contribute to these goals, and exacerbates the problems that the objectives are intended to address.
The clearest example is in regard to water supply: more people need more water. The UK population is expected to increase by more than 6 million people by 2041[xii], with the fastest growth occurring in areas that are already the most water-stressed, mainly in London and the South East[xiii]. This growth is placing unsustainable pressures on the UK’s sewage structures which in turn affect the freshwater ecosystems so many species depend on. In the country’s 2019 biodiversity action plan the issue is clear, “The waste water treatment network across the UK is continuously being upgraded to ensure adequate capacity, however sustained population growth in particular regions of the UK places pressure on these areas.[xiv]”
The head of the Environment Agency has described water supply as “entering the jaws of death” over the next 20 years[xv]. The 25 Year plan’s only two solutions to addressing how we use water include: “Reforming our approach to water abstraction”, and “Increasing water supply and incentivising greater water efficiency and less personal use.[xvi]”
In addition to other essential measures, the government should:
How well is the UK addressing biodiversity loss in its Overseas Territories and in international development partnerships with other countries?
International development partnerships
The Green Future 25 Year Plan makes welcome commitments to “help developing nations protect and improve the environment”[xvii]. This is to be achieved almost entirely utilising interventions focussed directly on environmental issues, through various aid and trade mechanisms and multilateral environmental agreements.
A key ingredient is the UK’s role in supporting the efforts of developing countries to meet their Paris Climate targets, through the International Climate Finance (ICF) fund. In 2016 the UK committed to take responsibility for investing £5.8bn worth of ICF funds into projects in developing countries until 2021. Projects range from helping communities to halt deforestation; securing Marine Protected Areas in Overseas Territories; and implementing climate resilience and adaptation programmes for young girls and women. These approaches are welcome, essential and positive. In this context too, however, the UK must join the dots, and recognise the value of a holistic approach in which aid can achieve environmental goals through addressing indirect drivers of environmental damage.
The SDGs again provide a framework for such a holistic approach. For instance, while global environmental destruction is most often a consequence of affluence, poverty is also a significant driver of environmental damage, especially locally, such as deforestation, soil erosion and depopulation of animals and plants through overexploitation of bushmeat and fish. Poverty is also closely associated with higher fertility rates and population growth, as are lack of gender equality, poor education, and inadequate healthcare provision, including especially access to family planning – all addressed within the SDGs. Tackling these ostensibly anthropocentric problems is essential to protecting the global environment, as well as improving people’s lives.
A critical example applies to climate change. Project Drawdown, a major and rolling international study commenced in 2017 identifies practical policy measures that could be taken to minimise greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. It analyses more than 80 policy options, such as plant-based diets, solar farms and electric vehicles[xviii]. The original study identified family planning and educating girls as among the top 10 workable solutions to combat climate change. Its 2019 revision placed investment in health and education, because of their population effects, the second most powerful lever to reduce climate change after reducing food waste – at 85.42 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent reduced and sequestered by 2050, of more value than all onshore and offshore wind power combined[xix].
Currently, 270 million women have an unmet need for family planning. Without significantly enhanced funding and effectiveness in provision, population growth will see that figure increasing to 272m by 2030[xx]. The Trump Administration’s implementation and extension of the “Global Gag Rule” (outlawing US overseas aid funding to organisations involved in provision of abortion) also poses a threat to family planning provision where the unmet need is greatest[xxi].
The UK government has a long been a key player in international development and has a proud record in recent years. It is also one of the world’s largest funders of women’s empowerment and family planning aid – especially relevant given the significant shortfall in funding available to meet the goal of zero unmet need for family planning in 2030, the cost of which is currently estimated at $68bn[xxii].
As the EAC will know, considerable and justified concern has been expressed about the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth office, and what that means for future aid policy. It is imperative, firstly, that the UK continues to both generously fund, and be a powerful advocate for, family planning aid, and that the importance of investment in aid which meets in particular SDGs 1,3, 4 and 5 is recognised as vital to achieving environmental goals.
The government should:
What outcomes and protections should the UK Government be pushing for at the forthcoming UN negotiations on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15?
Almost all of the CBD’s 20 Aichi Targets will be missed as they reach maturity in 2020. At present, only one third of countries are on track to achieve their national biodiversity targets[xxiv]. This is, in part, because population growth is not recognised or prioritised as a policy lever in many Country-level National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plans, even where human population is a significant factor. This in turn is because population is not addressed in the existing targets. Significantly, there are as yet no references to population growth or fertility in the current zero draft of the post-2020 framework, which therefore risks failing to provide guidance and a framework for ethical and empowering measures to reduce fertility rates as actions within NBSAPs.
Many conservation bodies around the world are already integrating such approaches in their work (see notes[xxv]), and embedding these principles within the post-2020 framework will encourage and enable states to do so. Whilst of value everywhere, these measures are particularly effective in less developed countries where population pressure on biodiversity can be acute, and particularly valuable because they help states to meet their national targets utilising mechanisms that also help speed up progress towards many other Sustainable Development Goals.
Given all this and the abundant evidence of critical importance of population as a driver of biodiversity loss, it is therefore imperative that the post-2020 CBD framework includes mechanisms to ethically and sustainably ensure rapid progress towards local and global human population levels that are sustainable and compatible with its goals.
The government should, therefore:
Economics and biodiversity:
A balanced model implies some level of equitable resource use. For poorer countries where larger families are more likely and poverty more acute, economic growth must be supported (while ensuring it is as sustainable as possible). However, a high number of young dependents (an inevitable consequence of high population growth) makes economic prosperity almost impossible to achieve. Furthermore, as prosperity and consumption increase, so does environmental impact. To achieve sustainability goals, the negative impact of increased prosperity among those who have a right to it must be balanced by reduced impact from those already prosperous, and reduced population growth everywhere to minimise the total number of consumers.
For developed nations the pursuit of economic growth is in direct conflict with reducing environmental impact. According to researchers[xxvi], decoupling, ie economic growth without corresponding environmental impact, must occur seven times faster than existing rates in high income countries over the previous 43 years. The researchers suggest that in reality achieving the decouple rates set out in the SDGs and meeting the Paris climate target of 2 percent, requires developed nations to in effect scale down economic growth to 0.45% per year[xxvii].
It is clear that rich countries need at minimum to rethink their approach to growth to enable them to meet international environmental targets, whilst also fostering social and human development. The options that must be considered include not just significant reductions in the pace of growth, but also no growth and degrowth. Such an economic paradigm shift is deeply politically challenging, but the responsibility on governments and policymakers to evaluate these options is clear.
Central to such a shift is the recognition that economic models that do not recognise the value and role of nature and ecosystems services are simply no longer viable. In this context, it is very welcome that the Treasury commissioned Sir Partha Dasgupta’s Independent Economic Review of Biodiversity, whose Interim Report was published earlier this year.
Brief summary of the Review:
The Review sets out what a global economic model would look like if it included nature as an economic asset. In summary, his model places a value on biodiversity because of its provision of ecosystem’s services or nature’s contributions to people. It frames the continual depletion of resources and the subsequent degradation of nature down to be a consequence of the lack of value attributed to the services it provides. Instead, nature is seen as a ‘free for all’ resource which can be depleted until there is nothing left.
Perhaps most importantly his analysis includes population growth and consumption, two key drivers of biodiversity loss routinely omitted from conventional analysis. Dasgupta calls for:
It is essential that the government gives full and proper consideration to the Review’s analysis and recommendations when the final report is published. In that context, it is also important to note considerable political sensitivity regarding the discussion of population. This must not be allowed to stand in the way of a proper evaluation of the report, or its implementation into policy. There is a critical role for the EAC in ensuring that it does so.
We ask the Government to:
What does the UK Government need to do to maximise human prosperity – in terms of health, economic, and social wellbeing—within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet? What alternative models and measures of economic welfare can feasibly help achieve this?
As regards models and measures, and as detailed above, in addition to its environmental consequences, the pursuit of GDP growth as an end-in-itself appears to have diminishing returns in terms of the overall improvement of broader measures of social welfare including improvements in health. The challenge of the current pandemic also offers an opportunity to transition to alternative measures of welfare and prosperity which also entail alternative economic models.
A number of alternative measures and indices of human welfare already exist including the ONS' Measuring National Well-being programme (for the UK as a whole), The Thriving Places Index (for UK local authorities), and the Happy Planet Index (for comparisons between countries). These measurements incorporate many different variables with a direct link to wellbeing, and as such provide a more granular and accurate picture of wellbeing than Gross Domestic Product.
In regard to maximising human prosperity, the SDGs were created to provide nations with a roadmap to maximise human prosperity in the context of our planet’s ecological limits. As the committee will be sadly aware, we are not currently on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Each goal has its own drivers and obstacles, and a network of interrelationships between them mean there are few simple answers and no magic bullets. It is clear, however, that failure to address unsustainable population is a direct obstacle to the achievement of many: addressing population through ethical, empowering means will accelerate the progress of change.
Unless the UK Government addresses the issues of projected population in the ways we have outlined in this submission, a balance between human prosperity, well-being, economic growth and ecological balance will remain a vision, not a reality.
Charity No: 1114109
 For more information, see Population Matters’ submission to the CBD consultation on Linkages between the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and 2030 agenda for sustainable development https://www.cbd.int/sbstta24/review.shtml
[i] Digest of selected key evidence in Population Matters briefing on human population and biodiversity https://populationmatters.org/sites/default/files /Biodiversity%20and%20Population%20-%20Population%20Matters%20Briefing%202019.pdf See also Crowded Planet Resource Library, a digest of academic papers related to the environmental impact of human population https://crowdedplanet.org/
[ii] WWF Living Planet Report 2020 https://f.hubspotusercontent20.net/hubfs/4783129/LPR/PDFs/ENGLISH-FULL.pdf
[iii] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Synthesis report 2014, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/
[iv] IPCC, 2019, Global Warming of 1.5°C https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf
[v] 250m tonnes CO2 (approx) emitted v 150m tonnes CO2 (approx) sequestrated. Per capita CO2 emissions figures from Knoema https://knoema.com/atlas/United-Kingdom/CO2-emissions-per-capita; population increase figures from Office for National Statistics, Overview of the UK population 2019 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/articles/overviewoftheukpopulation/august2019; figures of net removal of greenhouse gases by forests from JNCC; UK Biodiversity Indicators 2017 http://data.jncc.gov.uk/data/d69db841-3bea-4809-b384-5ce616e5d278/UKBI-2017.pdf Explanation of calculations available on request.
[vi] Niger CO2 emissions per capita, 2018, 0.1 metric tons (Source: https://knoema.com/atlas/Niger/CO2-emissions-per-capita); UK CO2 emissions per capita, 2018 . 5.59 metric tons https://knoema. com/search?query=UK+CO2+emissions+per+capita&pageIndex=&- scope=&term=&correct=&source=Header
[x] The State of Nature UK Report: 2019, https://jncc.gov.uk/news/uk-state-of-nature-2019-report/
[xii] Office for National Statistics, 2019, National population projections: 2018-based National Population Projections.
[xiv] JNCC. 2019. Sixth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. JNCC, Peterborough. http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-7731
[xvi] HM Government, 2018, A Green Future: our 25 year environment plan, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf
[xvii] HM Government, 2018, A Green Future: our 25 year environment plan https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf
[xx] Kantarova et al (2020) Estimating progress towards meeting women’s contraceptive needs in 185 countries PLOS Medicine https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003026
[xxi] Guttmacher Institute (2020) https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2020/04/unprecedented-expansion-global-gag-rule-trampling-rights-health-and-free-speech
[xxii] UNFPA, Nairobi summit on ICPD25 Report https://www.unfpa.org/publications/nairobi-summit-icpd25-report
[xxiii] SDG 1: No poverty; SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being; SDG 4: Quality Education & SDG 5: Gender equality
[xxv] The Population Health Environment model recognises the synergies and mutual benefits of improving the conditions of human communities in achieving local conservation goals, including through the provision of family planning services to reduce local human population pressures on biodiversity. Successful organisations include, Nature Uganda and the Cheetah Conservation Fund (Namibia).
[xxvii] Hickel (2018) Wiley Online Library, The contradiction of the sustainable development goals: Growth versus ecology on a finite planet https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/sd.1947
[xxviii] (UN Population Division, 2019b)
[xxix] (Bongaarts and Sinding, 2011)