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Will sustainability survive global population growth?

With the world population now at eight billion people and counting, countries have to balance economic growth with climate targets. Decarbonisation has a major role to play in meeting this challenge.

According to the UN, around 10.4 billion people will populate the planet in 2100. While the number will likely peak after centuries of constant growth, accommodating the additional three billion humans poses a massive challenge for the international community.

While population growth has essentially stopped in developed countries, low-income and lower-middle-income countries continue to record high birth rates, increasing the need for food, housing, and transportation. Additionally, many nations aspire to more westernised living standards and consumerism, making green growth even more difficult.

With their extravagant lifestyles, developed countries are still the biggest polluters. Therefore, taking a growing population of less-developed countries to the same standard of living would be unmanageable given the lack of resources and the potential environmental impact.

Becoming carbon-free is crucial

John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division of the UN’s Economic and Social Affairs Department, explains that population control is not a feasible tool to regulate the impact of demographic changes: “There are few acceptable approaches that would lead to a fundamental change in the trajectory of the human population. The change must come in terms of the per capita impacts of our behaviour.”

Wilmoth says that decarbonisation will be essential in finding an equilibrium between growth and sustainable development. “This will not be easy, but some technological solutions can work. An electrical system powered by non-fossil fuel energy can run much of the economy, but it will take a long time to make that transition.”

The UN demographics expert points out that previous mistakes, such as industrialised nations’ almost total reliance on fossil fuels, should not be repeated by ascending lower-income countries. He says that developed nations could support them by moving rapidly or immediately towards more modern technologies that would allow them to grow on a greener path from the beginning.

India’s and Turkey’s car industries, for example, are currently attempting to leapfrog directly into electric vehicles, which offer more sustainable transportation and have the potential for economic success.

But more sustainable growth must be more than just a top-down effort. Wilmoth says, “It is a huge task before humanity to decarbonise our economy to avoid the worst risks of climate change. People will also have to change their habits and adapt to the effects of global warming. No part of society can do it on its own—not government, private sector, or civil society.”

Corporations would be wise to lead the way on those discussions and find ways to marry their interests with the interests of a sustainable world.

Jennifer Sciubba, Author of '8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World'

Getting corporations on board

Jennifer Sciubba, one of the leading experts on demographic security and a fellow at the Wilson Center, calls for a holistic approach to combat the effects of population growth: “The places in the world where the population is growing the least, or in many cases shrinking, are the ones with a far bigger carbon footprint.“ Hence, people in the most developed countries would need to separate thinking about sustainability and population growth.

On the other hand, lower-income countries would need social programmes that can slow population growth and sustainable development that can yield dividends for the people.

“Corporations have to be a part of that; they’re the ones who have to lead the way,” she says. “If governments ever catch hold—and I’m not sure they will—of the idea that we must take sustainability seriously, they will try to lead the way. And they might lead the ways that are opposite to corporate interest.”

While the measure of success is still unending growth, the ageing and shrinking population could make us rethink current standards. Sciubba, who authored the book 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World, adds, “Corporations would be wise to lead the way on those discussions and find ways to marry their interests with the interests of a sustainable world.”

She fiercely advocates for a development model beyond environmental sustainability: “I want companies to think about the social effects of their technologies. Leapfrogging, for example, could positively impact the environment but erase employment opportunities through automation. The meaningful and gainful employment of large youth cohorts can help avoid those youths being involved in the conflict.”

Because of that, corporations would have to bridge the gap between environmental and social sustainability. As Sciubba points out: “If you think about the social implications of a technology or a product, you position yourself much better in the long run.”

Written by
Oliver Imhof
Contributing Writer at Spoon Agency