Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals depends on reducing birth rates faster

With ten years left to go, the international community must break its silence and tackle population growth directly if the UN’s SDGs are ever to be realised. Creating a better world, with security and opportunity for all, cannot occur in a context of continued rapid population growth.

by Robin Maynard

The UN headquarters in New York is a platform for countries to discuss plans for a common future and bring new ideas to the table. Hopefully the role of population will be one such idea. Photo by Ingela Isaksson

To celebrate World Population Day the environmental advocacy group Population Matters, which I serve as director, has published a new report on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

Hitting the Targets: The case for ethical and empowering population policies to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

Written by Nina Jatana and Alistair Currie, it finds that our rapidly growing numbers help trap the globe’s poorest residents in poverty. A growing and unsustainable global population means overexploitation of natural resources, environmental destruction and unsustainable demand for land, food, water and energy. These problems threaten whole societies, but especially their most vulnerable members.

The UN’s recently published 2020 Sustainable Development Progress Report acknowledges that only three out of the 21 SDG targets for 2020 have been met. Hitting the Targets demonstrates that human population growth is a critical barrier to achieving the SDGs, whilst showing how ethical, empowering population policies can fundamentally improve the trajectory toward the goals and accelerate the pace of change. The report addresses the impact of population growth in the Global South, where it undermines the alleviation of poverty and hunger, and in the Global North, where population levels allied with per capita consumption overwhelm global environmental and justice goals.

If all the SDGs were met, not only would a greater proportion of people enjoy better lives, but population growth itself would be reduced, a conclusion reinforced in a widely reported Lancet study published last month. While the study’s findings are controversial, its claim that achieving the SDG targets related to education and contraception alone would result in a global population in 2100 of 6.3 billion – more than a billion fewer people than today – is striking and hopeful. The mutually reinforcing benefits of achieving a sustainable population and investing in those SDGs that empower people to choose smaller family sizes – reproductive health and choice, gender equality, an end to poverty, education – are clear.

Photo by Yogendra Singh

As our report’s findings show, we will not succeed in building a better world through targets focussing exclusively on percentages and proportions. In key areas, population growth is outpacing the modest gains already made:

  • Poverty: The World Bank forecasts that the three countries which between them have a third of the world’s poor – Nigeria, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo – will not grow their economies faster than their populations.
  • Hunger: Although the prevalence of hunger has not changed, according to the UN, hunger itself has “grown in step with the global population”.
  • Girls’ education: In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of girls out of secondary school has increased by 7 million due to the region’s population growth.
  • Growth in slum dwellers: the number of people living in slums has grown: from 792 million in 2000, to over 1 billion in 2016.
  • Female genital mutilation: whilst the proportion of women and girls subjected to FGM has decreased overall, the actual number of women and girls subjected to it is greater due to population growth.

Population Matters is asking policymakers to acknowledge the critical role of population growth in slowing the achievement of the SDGs and to take the following positive actions:

  • Embed the voluntary ethical and empowering solutions for achieving a sustainable population in the Post-2030 Framework (which will replace the SDGs in guiding global development).
  • Defend and invest in the population-related solutions already mentioned within SDGs 1, 3, 4 and 5.
  • Promote the value and importance of smaller family size, in wealthy and poor countries alike, in meeting the SDGs.
  • Ensure the value of ethical and empowering population action is recognised across all bodies and mechanisms focused on achieving the SDGs – including multilateral environmental agreements.

Our report highlights the factor of unsustainable population growth in slowing or preventing the achievement of the SDGs. This critical factor is neglected in international policy discussions around the SDGs and too often ignored in efforts to implement them. But if we want to end poverty, this neglect needs to end. After all, the evidence is clear that population matters.


TOP and Population Matters UK have earlier collaborated in trying to influence the UN to clarify the role of population growth in its Agenda 2030 (of which the SDGs are part). See our proposal here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 thoughts on “Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals depends on reducing birth rates faster

  1. I couldn’t agree more. We need to cut the number of humans and to try to ensure that those having children can afford to feed, clothe and educate them, or we have more generations of unhappy people who never climb out of poverty, let alone reach their potential. This will help to set people free and reduce the burden on the planet and its suffering, abused animals. Surely, we could start by encouraging the soap operas to run stories where couple are NOT being encouraged to reproduce – it would be a start!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.