Population issues have been conspicuously absent from the discussions on the environmental sustainability of our globalized economy in the run-up to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, which will take place in Brazil on June 20-22 under the auspices of the United Nations.
Fortunately, the new report People and the Planet by the Royal Society should help change this woefully shortsighted approach. The report demonstrates clearly and convincingly that demographic trends cannot be separated from consumption patterns, and that there is no chance to achieve a path of equitable and sustainable development without tackling population growth and consumption at the same time. In short, population and the environment cannot and should not be considered as two separate issues.
This strong and long overdue pitch to bring back the ‘P’ word into the environmental debate is most welcome. In recent decades, international attention has shifted from rapid population growth to other urgent issues, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, humanitarian crises, climate change, and good governance. But reproductive health and voluntary family planning programs are still very much needed, especially in high fertility countries, and they require political leadership and long-term financial commitment. Broader access to family planning services will be needed to accelerate the decline of high fertility rates, particularly in countries where unmet needs for contraception are high.
However, as the report highlights, policies to address population and the environment must go well beyond family planning. They should stress, first and foremost, the importance of inclusive development. Today, 1.3 billion people still live with only US$ 1.25 per day. The international community needs to lift them out of absolute poverty, which will require focused efforts in economic development, education, and health including family planning. For their part, developed and emerging countries must first stabilize and thereafter reduce their levels of material consumption. This can be achieved through greater efficiency in the use of resources as well as an array of practical measures to reduce waste, invest in sustainable resources, technologies, and infrastructures, and systematically decouple economic activity from its environmental impact.
Other policy levers should be explored as well. One should harness the potential for urbanization to reduce material consumption, remove barriers to achieve high-quality education for all at both primary and secondary levels, implement comprehensive wealth measures (i.e., reform the system of national accounts and improve natural assets accounting), and develop new socio-economic systems that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth. More research is also needed into the interactions between demographic change, consumption, and environmental impact.
I hope the ideas presented in People and the Planet will usher an entirely new way of thinking about population issues and sustainable development and that it will be taken into account at the upcoming Rio+20 Conference. Population policies and programs should no longer be viewed as necessary and relevant in their own right. On the contrary, such policies should be integrated with broader and comprehensive interventions that address economic equality, health and education needs, and technological advances. The ultimate goal should be to improve the life of all human beings as a necessary condition to protect our environment and safeguard the sustainability of our way of living.