Including population growth in sustainability discussions, case study: Egypt

By Jenna Dodson

Sustainable development has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs1. Using this definition, the United Nations developed a sustainable development framework centered around three pillars: economic, environmental, and social. Population is included in the social pillar of the framework, but population size, growth, and other demographic variables influence all three pillars. A recent study highlights this and attempts to quantify the interrelationship between population growth and the environment, and both its direct and indirect effects on the potential for achieving sustainable development in Egypt2.

Egypt is the second most populous African country and its population has more than tripled in the last 60 years to reach 93.7 million people in 2015. With a predicted growth rate of 1.4%, the population is estimated to reach 153 million by 20503. This rapid population growth has put increased pressure on limited natural resources, due to the increased production required for coping with the basic needs and creation of jobs for the population. Notwithstanding, the unemployment rate is 11.6%4 and almost half of the labor force are outdoor workers, thus increasing workforce vulnerability to the effects of environmental degradation.

In “The relationship between population and the environment and its impact on sustainable development in Egypt using a multi-equation model” Ghanem investigates how population growth impacts the three pillars of sustainability. He chose variables representative of the environmental, social and economic dimensions of the framework. Carbon dioxide emissions, annual deaths due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and labor productivity were identified to reflect Egypt’s current development situation. Carbon dioxide emissions was used as a proxy for air pollutants and mortality rates due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases were used as an indicator for poor health due to air pollution. Results show that population growth in Egypt negatively affects the state’s ability to achieve sustainable development via its negative impact on the environment.

Kairo and air pollution
Air pollution in Cairo, Egypt

In line with previous empirical studies5–7, a positive, more than proportional relationship was found between population growth and carbon dioxide emissions, such that a 1% increase in population will increase emissions by 2.4%. An increase in emissions by 1% is associated with an increase in deaths due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases by 2.5%, and levels of poor health lead to a decrease in labor productivity by more than one and a half percentage point (-1.58%). It is important to note that GDP and population growth had an almost equivalent impact on emissions, and labor productivity is also influenced by social factors, such as an increasing dependence on unskilled workers. However, this study is important as it is one of few studies to highlight the ways population growth directly and indirectly affects all pillars of sustainable development.

The role of population growth is often left out of sustainable development discussions. However, there is much to be gained from slowing population growth, including a more resilient infrastructure for health and economic development8. Even the 2015 UN report of population estimates and projections concludes, “…population growth in the poorest countries will make it harder for those governments to eradicate poverty and inequality… [and] improve the provision of basic services3.” Indeed, slowing population growth could reduce poverty through improvement and expansion of health, schooling, and economic opportunities as well as decreased demand for scarce resources9, particularly for the poorest, most vulnerable populations. It is imperative that population be included in the discussion and incorporated into the frameworks for sustainable development.


  1. World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. (1987).
  2. Ghanem, S. K. The relationship between population and the environment and its impact on sustainable development in Egypt using a multi-equation model. Environ. Dev. Sustain. 20, 305–342 (2018).
  3. United Nations. World Population Prospects (2015).
  4. The World Bank. Unemployment. (accessed, 20 April 2018).
  5. Jorgenson, A. K. & Clark, B. The Relationship between National-Level Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Population Size: An Assessment of Regional and Temporal Variation, 1960-2005. PLoS One 8, (2013).
  6. Poumanyvong, P. & Kaneko, S. Does urbanization lead to less energy use and lower CO2 emissions? A cross-country analysis. Ecol. Econ. 70, 434–444 (2010).
  7. Shi, A. The impact of population pressure on global carbon dioxide emissions , 1975 – 1996: evidence from pooled cross-country data. Ecol. Econ. 44, 29–42 (2003).
  8. Starbird, E., Norton, M. & Marcus, R. Investing in Family Planning: Key to Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Glob. Heal. Sci. Pract. 1–20 (2016).
  9. Mutunga, C., Zulu, E. & Souza, R.-M. De. Population Dynamics, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development in Africa. (2012).

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