ABOUT HALF THE EARTH’s biological production capacity has already been diverted to human use. Life-supporting ecosystems are affected everywhere by the planet’s 7 billion people, which is projected to reach at least 9.2 billion by 2050. The links between population and environmental quality are complex and varied. Understanding them requires knowledge of consumption rates that differ between rich and poor, new and old technologies, resource extraction and restoration, and the dynamics of population growth and migration.
Stabilizing the planet’s population is a critical factor in creating a sustainable environment. Humans are depleting natural resources, degrading soil and water, and creating waste at an alarming rate, even as new technology raises crop yields, conserves resources and cleans up pollution. While rich nations with low population growth are mainly accountable for the unsustainable use of the planet’s resources, developing countries, with lower overall consumption, contribute a growing share of total CO2 emissions.
Slowing the rate of population growth may give countries time to take measures to meet people’s needs, while protecting the environment through various means.
Preventing unwanted births through family planning, and guaranteeing individuals and couples the right to reproductive health, can help slow population growth rates and moderate environmental impact.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
- World population is rising by about 78 million people per year, and is projected to grow from 7 billion people to 9.2 billion by 2050—over three times the population of 50 years ago.
- BUT if birth rates remain unchanged, the UN estimates that world population will be 11.9 billion by 2050.
- Since the 1960s, fertility in developing countries has been reduced from an average of six births per woman to three, thanks primarily to the use of contraceptives. However, in 56 countries, the poorest women still average six births, compared to 3.2 for the wealthiest.
- The wealthiest countries, with less than 20% of Earth’s population and the slowest population growth, account for 86% of natural resource consumption—much of it wasteful—and produce the majority of the pollution and carbon dioxide.
- At the other extreme, the depletion of natural resources is occurring most rapidly in the poorest countries, where fertility rates are highest. The poorest 20% of countries account for only 1.3% of consumption; but their urgent drive for economic growth often leads to lax regulations of destructive and polluting industries.
- Increasing demand for water is directly related to population growth—extra water is needed to grow more food. Lack of access to water is already putting pressure on about a third of the world’s population. Climate change will make the problem worse in many places.
BENEFITS OF ACTION
- Preventing unwanted pregnancies in developing countries through family planning might be one of the most cost-effective ways to preserve the environment. In developing countries with high fertility, having fewer, healthier children can reduce the economic burden and environmental demands of poor families.
- Choice about fertility is a step towards equality for women. It empowers them to take part in family and community decisions, and it enhances their opportunities for education.
- Family planning programs have a record of success in reducing unintended pregnancies and slowing population growth. In Thailand and Iran, for instance, well-managed, fully voluntary programs have led to significant change.
WHAT MUST BE DONE?
Providing full access to voluntary reproductive health services, which are relatively inexpensive, would be far less costly in the long run than the environmental consequences of rapid population growth from the failure to meet the urgent need for reproductive health care. Family planning is now seriously underfunded by donors and developing countries. To meet the unmet need for contraceptives, global population assistance should now exceed US$1.2 billion per year for family planning and increase to $1.6 billion by 2015. Current assistance is $550 million—less than half of today’s needed amount.
UNFPA believes the following will help:
- A broad coalition of vocal support from influential groups at the global, national and local levels.
- Adequate and consistent funding to provide universal access to contraception.
- Media campaigns focusing on the benefits of smaller families.
- A wide range of safe and effective contraceptive methods available in health facilities and through social marketing and outreach services.
- National and local debate on the rights of men and women in relation to their bodies, health, education and access to economic and social resources.
The UNFPA works to ensure universal access to reproductive health and the right of all people to be able to decide on the number and timing of their children. UNFPA works with governments, civil society and other UN agencies, and leads in forecasting needs, providing and coordinating the distribution of reproductive health commodities, mobilizing support and building each country’s logistics capacity. It works with family planning in 140 countries around the world, providing contraceptives to health posts and hospitals that serve millions of men and women.