There is No Sustainable Development Without A Sustainable Population

Feb 14th, 2012 | By | Category: Other Resources, Rio+20 Earth Summit

By Suzanne York,, February 14, 2012

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Is it possible to talk about sustainable development without talking about population, in a world of 7 billion people and growing?

Apparently the policymakers involved with the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) conference (Rio+20) think so, from the dearth of the words “population growth” appearing in official documents. This, despite the fact that the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, in Principle 8, acknowledges that To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.”

Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development that also came out of Rio in 1992, stated “The growth of world population and production combined with unsustainable consumption patterns places increasingly severe stress on the life-supporting capacities of our planet.” And, “Population policy should also recognize the role played by human beings in environmental and development concerns. “ It went so far as to say that increased awareness of this issue is needed among decision makers. Later UN conferences, such as the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, dealt with population growth and sustainable development. Not much has happened at that level since then.

And while the rate of population growth has slowed in many areas around the world, it is still increasing, with 80 million people added every year. There could be a total of 9.4 billion by 2050. Or there could only be 8 billion, if the world takes action.

Of the seven critical issues for Rio, listed on the UNCSD website, population isn’t one of them. The theme of Rio+20 is the “Green Economy” and the focus will be on ecosystem services and green technologies (and the unstated theme of how much money can be made in these two areas).

The draft document for Rio+20, released this January and titled “The Future We Want”, barely mentions the issue of population. The one paragraph which does talk about it accurately states the situation the world is facing:

We are deeply concerned that around 1.4 billion people still live in extreme poverty and one sixth of the world’s population is undernourished, pandemics and epidemics are omnipresent threats. Unsustainable development has increased the stress on the earth’s limited natural resources and on the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Our planet supports seven billion people expected to reach nine billion by 2050.

Point 107 of the draft document addresses sustainable development goals, including sustainable consumption and production patterns as well as priority areas such as oceans; food security and sustainable agriculture; sustainable energy for all; water access and efficiency; sustainable cities; green jobs, decent work and social inclusion; and disaster risk reduction and resilience.

Since population growth affects all of this, it must be on the Rio agenda. Access to water, noted in point 107, is a human right, but the concern is how to balance this with increasing water scarcity. Somalia, Yemen, Niger, Mali all have populations projected to double but are already experiencing periods of water scarcity and droughts affecting food security. The UN itself has warned that 65 per cent of human kind could be living in water-stressed and water-scarce countries by 2025.

In the face of resource scarcity, how do sustainable cities become created? Since the 1992 Earth Summit, urban populations have increased by close to two billion and now for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas. The UN’s own statistics cite that by 2050, the world’s population is projected to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion, with roughly 70 percent of people residing in urban areas.

Kim Lovell, with the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program, said that “Rio provides a rare opportunity to have a global conversation about sustainable development solutions that protect human rights, improve community and environmental health, and preserve resources for future generations. Slowing population growth by ensuring access to voluntary family planning and education for women and girls is essential in this pursuit.”

Furthermore, Lovell notes “When women are educated and have the ability to plan their family size, they tend to have smaller, healthier families – and with solutions like these that improve lives and lessen pressure on scarce resources, what better venue than Rio to engage stakeholders at all levels to take local, national, and global action?”

Efforts have been made to highlight population and environment issues. In September 2011, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) called the failure to address population in Rio+20 a step backwards and said that failure to cover it would undermine efforts to promote sustainable development.

And last November, an International Conference on Family Planning took place in Dakar, Senegal. One of the conference topics was on connecting the issues of population growth, family planning and environmental impacts to environmentalists.

Roger-Mark de Souza, vice president of research and director of the Climate Program at Population Action International, participated in the Dakar conference. “It’s completely logical,” he recently said, “to connect family planning and natural resource management efforts in their communities.”

The future that the world wants is one based on healthy families, communities and ecosystems. It doesn’t want only lip service. The hour is getting late and if we are to truly bring about these positive outcomes, then population must be on the table. Viable solutions would address voluntary family planning, women’s rights, and conservation, as well as poverty alleviation, reduction of inequality and unsustainable levels of consumption. The world cannot afford another global conference with modest or weak results.

What you can do to get population on the agenda?

  • Over the next few months the draft outcome text will be negotiated, prior to a final document at Rio+20. Per the UNCSD, unless you are affiliated with an accredited organization, or you are part of a national government delegation, UN rules do not allow an individual to participate in official meetings in one’s own personal capacity.
  • However, the website states that UN accreditation is not a prerequisite; there are a number of ways by which you can inform the Rio+20 process, including submitting case studies, registering partnerships, and participating in the national preparatory processes. See the UN Frequently Asked Questions page for details.
  • Comment on the next UCSD intersessional meeting (26-27 March 2012, New York) – see the list of civil society groups already involved in the UN process, or get your group accredited.
  • Contact groups such as Women’s Environment & Development Organization or join their online community Women on the Road to Rio+20; see also some youth-focused organizations already involved Rio+twenties, and Road to Rio Plus 20.
  • Contact your congressional representative and urge them to have the more than fifteen U.S. federal agencies that are preparing for Rio+20 put population and related issues on the official agenda.
  • Go to Rio de Janeiro and join in civil society activities, such as The People’s Summit, a parallel event to Rio+20 being held Jun. 15- 23, 2012.


Suzanne York is a writer with Institute for Population Studies (IPS) / and will be going to Rio to participate and write about events at the Earth Summit.

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