The guest speaker at our very well attended June Meeting was Robin Maynard, Director of Population Matters, an organisation whose chief concern is the planet’s ever-growing population and its impact on the natural world and contribution to climate change.
There is much that results in a degradation of the planet but one factor which is frequently overlooked is human population and its inexorable growth. The Earth’s population hit 1 billion in 1803, increased dramatically from the mid-1800s and is currently 7.7 billion. Consequences include a corresponding increase in CO2 emissions, consumption of freshwater and fertiliser, marine fish capture and loss of tropical forest. We are currently using up the renewable resources of 1.7 Earths and, unless things change, we’ll need three Earths by 2050. The USA is the greatest consumer but the UK uses up more than half that of the USA. Per capita consumption is highest in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, followed by North America, Russia and Australia, then certain north European countries, including the UK. The developing world is generally much less though its inhabitants are often the victims of climate change.
In 2018 the International Panel on Climate Change concluded that ‘Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.’ According to Population Matters, “The expected population growth of 2.8 billion people between 2010 and 2050 drives the majority of expected growth in food demand, and that healthy diets from sustainable food systems are possible for up to 10 billion people but become increasingly unlikely past this population threshold.
Population Matters reveals that, of all the plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species that have gone extinct since AD 1500, 75% were harmed by overexploitation or agricultural activity or both. Other startling statistics are as follows: 10,000 years ago the weight of vertebrate animals on Earth was 1% human and 99% wild animals whereas today it is 32% human, 1% wild animals and 67% livestock.
United Nations projections for population growth and/or decline by 2100 vary between 11.2 and 16.6 billion. The positive news is that several countries have been successful in stablising their populations, i.e. an average of 2.1 children per family. They include South Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Colombia, which have all enacted effective family planning programmes. Educating girls, and boys too, is seen as vital.
Sir David Attenborough, whose recent television programme has done so much to raise awareness of climate change and species loss, expresses a view on population with honest simplicity, as follows: ‘All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder — and ultimately impossible — to solve with ever more people.’