The impact of population growth on sustainable development

ByDaniil Filipenco

The impact of population growth on sustainable development

A growing population can place stress on the environment, transportation, and the provision of natural resources like water, food, and energy in situations when governments fail to think strategically or are late to implement adequate adaptative reforms. The ineffective management of natural resources can result in their scarcity and environmental damage, both of which are detrimental to initiatives aimed at encouraging sustainable development.

At the same time, if appropriate policies are adopted, an increasing population can also spur economic expansion and result in a larger labor force which is advantageous for sustainable development. And yet it is crucial to ensure that environmental conservation and the safeguarding of natural resources go hand in hand with economic progress.

Population growth forecasts

On November 15, 2022, the global population reached a milestone of 8 billion people. However, according to experts, this number is expected to increase even further, hitting 8.5 billion in just 8 years – in 2030, then 9.7 billion 20 years later before finally exceeding 10 billion by the end of the century.

It is expected that population growth will mainly occur in low- and lower-middle-income nations.

With some of the highest birth rates worldwide and declining mortality, Africa has seen an almost tenfold growth in its population, having now reached over 1.4 billion people, but this is expected to approach 2.5 billion people by 2050, according to UN projections.

The positive and negative effects of population growth on sustainable development

In a nutshell, global population growth can have both positive and negative effects. For instance, an expanding population can result in higher costs and potential obstacles to sustainable development but, at the same time, it can increase demand for goods and services which can boost economic growth.

The negative effects:

  • Resource shortages – population growth puts pressure on the planet’s limited resources, including food, energy, and water.
  • Environmental issues – pollution, deforestation, and other factors can degrade ecosystems and biodiversity.
  • Urbanization – the overcrowding in various megapolises worldwide leads to more slums and waste, as well as putting stress on infrastructure.
  • Healthcare – a higher demand for healthcare services that may be hard to meet.
  • Climate change – increasing consumption (especially in high-income nations) and the outcomes associated with this contribute to an increasing level of greenhouse gas emissions.

The positive effects:

  • Larger workforce – spurs economic expansion and promotes sustainable development.
  • Innovation and economic growth – a larger market means a higher increase in demand for products and services, which in turn spurs innovation and contributes to economic growth.
  • Diversity – an increasing population may bring together people from various racial, ethnic, and cultural origins, fostering greater diversity and a greater exchange of opinions.
  • Talent – population growth increases the pool of educated and qualified people who can assist sustainable development by helping businesses and industries to thrive.
  • Cooperation – the growing population requires a greater need for global cooperation and coordination on critical topics including resource management, environmental protection, and economic growth.

The impact of high-income countries on sustainable development

According to the UN report on the impact of population growth on sustainable development, contrary to popular belief, high-income nations tend to have lower rates of population growth and an extremely high amount of per capita resource use, including energy, water, and raw materials. This may put a strain on the world’s limited resources and harm other nations’ efforts to achieve sustainable development.

Fig.1. Annual total and per-capita CO2 emissions, 1950-2020, and distribution of global population and CO2 emissions, 2020, by income group

Source: UNDESA

A growing population results in rising emissions and, combined with the industrial revolution and modern consumption patterns, these three issues are at the heart of the massive levels of CO2 and methane emissions that are causing climate change. It is important to note, however, that the nations with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions at this point in time are not those with low average incomes and rapidly expanding populations, but rather those with high average incomes and populations that are currently growing gradually or not at all, or, to put this simply – wealthy nations.

Since high-income nations rank among the major contributors to global warming, some low-income nations could face serious issues that are linked to sustainable development and these countries are already at risk since most have limited adaptability and resilience to the effects of climate change.

Growing population leads to increased demand for resources

One of the consequences of population expansion is the rise in food demand which puts pressure on land, water, and energy. In addition, it leads to more chemical fertilizers and pesticides being used which ultimately leads to soil deterioration.

In regions where people depend on subsistence farming (when farmers cultivate crops for their own consumption and that of their families), more land must be cleared for crops due to the lack or absence of irrigation, seed, and soil improvement. As a result, deforestation impacts biodiversity and soil health and affects the balance of carbon on the planet.

Population growth and its impact on agriculture can also lead to habitat loss and can have a negative effect on biodiversity. Sustainable agricultural techniques can help to preserve biodiversity by using less hazardous chemicals and fostering ecosystem-supporting methods.

As consumption patterns change, so do people’s diets. With a rise in average incomes, the change in the food that people eat has been shifting towards the consumption of more calories and a wider variety of resource-intensive foods (beef, dairy, poultry, pork, eggs). Such changes have a detrimental effect on the environment causing a rising level of greenhouse gas emissions, a loss of biodiversity, and contamination of the water and soil due to poor environmental mitigation.

If governments want to put an end to hunger and deal with the problem of food insecurity, they could consider devising a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes boosting agricultural output through a sustainable approach, rather than an intensive strategy, and reducing food loss and waste, as well as improving the infrastructure and supply chains of food systems.

Growing population put pressure on healthcare

Ensuring that women have the freedom to choose when and how many children to have can significantly boost well-being and help to break cycles of poverty among generations. In the underdeveloped world, there are about 218 million women with inadequate contraceptive needs.

According to the UN, if more people have access to excellent reproductive health services, this could help to manage fertility rates and accelerate social and economic growth. This mainly concerns lower-income countries.

Reproductive health is also in line with a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably SDG 3 on health and well-being, SDG 5 on gender equality, and SDG 17 on partnerships for the goals.

Final word

The continuously growing population could lead to the depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation, and overcrowding. It is evident that if everyone continues to consume at levels comparable to those of today’s developed nations, with the technologies available today, the world will be unable to sustainably maintain the existing population. At the same time, however, population growth can increase economic growth and technological innovation.

Considering the positive and negative outcomes, maintaining the balance between population growth and sustainable development calls for careful planning, investment in sustainable technology, and international cooperation.