Population Matters for Sustainable Development (3-3)
In 2011 the world population surpassed the 7 billion mark and it will continue to grow. To improve the wellbeing of a large and growing world population, while ensuring the sustainable use of essential but limited natural resources, is one of the greatest challenges we face today. This report prepared by UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) for the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development (Brazil 20-22 June, 2012) highlight the importance of this link.
Meeting people’s needs calls for a more balanced distribution of economic resources, but it also depends on higher levels of economic output.
Today, for example, food insecurity is still largely a question of access – the capacity of people to purchase food on the market places – but food security is also rapidly becoming a question of availability – the capacity of the agricultural sector to produce food in sufficient quantities (Herrmann, 2009). According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world agricultural output will need to grow by no less than 70 per cent to feed a world population of 9 billion which will most likely be reached before 2050.
Poverty reduction, employment creation and food security depend on rising economic output – in agriculture and outside agriculture – and rising economic output will further increase pressures on all natural resources. More and more countries are suffering from a rapid degradation of land, a high rate of deforestation, and water shortages. Climate change further contributes to an increasing intensity and frequency of natural disasters, changes in precipitation and droughts. The poor, who most directly depend on the natural resources, are most vulnerable to these changes and least able to cope with these changes at the same time. And it is often the women and children that are most negatively affected. Discrimination of women, older persons, indigenous communities and migrant workers can further exacerbate these challenges.
It is true that globally, in terms of impacts, the patterns of production and consumption prove to be more important than the number of people in achieving a world that sustains present and future generations.
However, rising expectations and poverty reduction efforts will put additional pressure on the planet, unless we can find more efficient, “greener” ways to provide all people with decent lives. Our future depends on rapidly lowering greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact more generally. The transition to the green economy requires fiscal incentives and disincentives, as well as environmental laws and regulations, which encourage the internalization of environmental costs, and place a more realistic price on essential and finite natural resources. Environmental impact can also be reduced through more rigorous product standards (rule out standby functions of appliances, reduce packaging of products, eliminate plastic bags in supermarkets, set emission targets for vehicles, set insulation standards for buildings, etc.) and more conscientious consumer behavior (shut off appliances that are not in use, turn off car engines on curbsides, use public transport when possible, prevent excessive cooling and heating of buildings. Together, these measures must promote the development of alternative, renewable and clean energy sources, and encourage the use and development of resource-efficient technologies.
Finally, a more balanced distribution of economic resources – which is a growing challenge in an increasingly unequal world – could reduce poverty with a less than proportionate increase in economic output. In this sense, greater social equity, together with slower population growth, can also reduce environmental pressures.
The growth of the world population masks considerable differences between countries. Over the past decades the heterogeneity amongst countries and within countries has increased considerably as regards population growth. Whereas populations are stabilizing or declining in many developed countries, and population growth is decelerating in many of the middle-income countries, population growth remains high in the world’s least developed countries.
However, it is somewhat lower in the least developed countries in Asia – particularly because of falling fertility levels in Bangladesh, the most populous country in this group – than it is in the least developed countries in Africa.
Owing to high population growth, the least developed countries have a large and rapidly expanding youth population. Today, about 60 per cent of their population is under the age of 25, and by 2050 the population in this age group will expand by an additional 60 per cent. The large and growing youth population of the LDCs is one of their most significant productive resources. As young people enter working age, they enter the period of their lives when they contribute most to economic development, provided that they benefit from good health, adequate education and employment.
However, an expanding youth population makes it difficult for countries to maintain or increase per-capita spending on young people – for example, on health and education – and it requires economic development that creates employment opportunities for them. Over the next forty years, the population of the least developed countries is projected to double, their working-age population will increase by about 15 million persons per year, and their labor force will expand by about 33 thousand persons per day. These trends pose particular challenges, considering that about 50 per cent of the current population lives in extreme poverty and 80 per cent of the labor force is only vulnerably employed. Unemployment is particularly high amongst the younger generations, and many recent graduates find only low-paying and precarious employment in the informal economy.
To create full employment, raise household incomes and combat poverty, the least developed countries require higher and more sustained economic growth. But higher economic growth will also increase environmental pressures within the current development regime. This is particularly true where economic growth is based on extractive and carbon-intensive industries but also where agricultural production further erodes natural resources. The world’s least developed countries are more strongly affected by environmental degradation than most other developing countries (and this, along with high population growth, affects their prospects for development.
Between 2000 and 2008, real economic growth in the least developed countries was almost as high as in other developing countries, 6.6 per cent per annum on average, but adjusted for environmental effects and population growth, the real rate of economic growth was almost half of what it was in other developing countries, namely 2.5 per cent per annum. The combination of environmental effects and high population growth undermine the capacity of the LDCs to catch up with the income levels of the more advanced developing countries on a sustainable basis.
Addressing both challenges, therefore, is an important policy concern.
Human activity has already affected every country, every species and every eco-system of the planet. We have even altered the world’s climate. The impoverished populations in poor countries, who contribute the least to climate change, are most negatively affected by its effects. But they also suffer from an unsustainable pattern of agricultural production and forestry management, which also contributes to water depletion and soil degradation and gradually undermines their livelihoods.
To date, many developing countries in particular are less concerned with greenhouse gas emissions (either because they contribute relatively little or because the effects are not immediately visible), but all, including the poorest, are seriously concerned with the depletion and degradation of natural resources.
Small Island developing States, for example, are emphasizing the importance of ocean resources, and a large number of other countries are concerned with land degradation, water depletion and desertification.
The transition to the green economy – which must include efforts to encourage more sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and forestry, in addition to low-carbon industries – is therefore important for countries at all stages of development. Failure to promote green economies, and more sustainable consumption and
production, means that the world cannot cater for a growing population without devastating effects on the natural environment, which would ultimately undermine the very basis of economic and social development. The green economy is therefore not a contradiction to, but rather a necessity for, sustainable poverty reduction as well.
By Alula Berhe Kidani, 15/08/2012