The latest biodiversity strategy from the EU Commission makes some good suggestions for increasing protection for Europe’s dwindling biodiversity. While new, ambitious targets for protected areas and ecological restoration are welcome, the document fails to point out the central role population size will play in whether they are achieved. Through allowing the EU’s human population to decrease, or even promoting it by setting explicit lower population goals, many problems could be alleviated and proposed solutions could become more effective.
By Pernilla Hansson
On the 20th of May, the EU Commission released their latest strategy for protecting biodiversity. In it they acknowledge the benefits biodiversity provides humans, such as aiding food security, increasing mental wellbeing, and ensuring a well-functioning environment. However, as they state in their report, the EU is still some ways off of reaching their biodiversity protection goals, and this new strategy sets stricter targets to be achieved by 2030.
The area on land that is under protection in the EU is around 25%1, which is a commendable number, even if many of the protected areas are very small, degraded due to human use and misuse, and the surrounding sea is much less protected. However, the size and number of strictly protected areas, meaning areas where human economic uses and impacts are strictly limited, is inadequate: today only 3% of land and less than 1% of marine areas are strictly protected. This is one of the things the new strategy is trying to amend. The new goal for 2030 is that 30% of all lands and seas in the EU are to be protected, with a third of this (or 10% of the total) being strictly protected.
These new goals are ambitious, but justified, in terms of the overarching goal to end biodiversity loss in the EU. However, while the Commission discusses possible steps to reach them, they fail to note that human numbers will make a big difference in doing so. For example, the text mentions the issue of urban sprawl and how EU green spaces are being lost due to unsustainable development in many places, because of continuously rising urban populations. But there is no discussion of how public policy choices will increase or decrease this population pressure in the future, despite a good understanding of these matters and strong public interest in EU population policies.
The main drivers of EU biodiversity loss, according to the new strategy document, are changes in land use and sea use, over-exploitation, climate change, pollution, and invasive species. In every one of these cases, higher human numbers accelerate the drivers, while lower human numbers help alleviate them. Yet you wouldn’t know that from reviewing the proposals to deal with these drivers in the new strategy.
The global human population is predicted to continue increasing to 10 billion by 2050, yet already almost three quarters of the surface of the Earth has been altered2. We are only one species on this planet among many millions, yet we take up ever more space, to the detriment of our fellow earthlings. Decreasing our population would open up land for wilderness and allow wildlife to recover (see our recent blogs about rewilding efforts in Portugal, the Oder delta in Germany and Poland, and Croatia).
Several other targets mentioned in the report could also be aided by lowering the human population. One of these targets is that there should be no deterioration in conservation trends in protected areas. Once again this is a highly worthwhile goal, however, population and economic growth as well as urban sprawl threaten already existing protected areas. Without addressing the overarching issue of the human population, it seems unlikely that protected areas will achieve their full conservation potential. Of course, more resources for proper management of protected areas is also important. But we shouldn’t pretend that we can manage our way out of all environmental problems.
Europe continues to consume more resources per capita and contribute more to environmental degradation than many other regions of the world. According to its Ecological Footprint calculation for 2016, Europeans were using a staggering 2.8 times the ecological services provided by the European landscape. How can we expect to protect 30% of our land and seas for other species, if we are already consuming so much more than our fair share of the planet’s resources? Only by shifting the burden of this overconsumption onto other parts of the world, through massive resource imports, and through polluting the global commons of the atmosphere and the oceans.
The Commission suggests substantially lowering EU consumption rates, a bold and necessary proposal of which we wholeheartedly approve. But environmental impacts are the product of average consumption per capita multiplied by the number of people. While changing people’s average consumption patterns is a necessary yet difficult part of the equation, so is lowering Europe’s population size to one where we can comfortably live together with the other species native to our part of the planet.
Europe is in a unique demographic situation among the major regions of the world, with an aging population and average fertility rates below 2.0 child per woman in all countries. Going forward, this can provide significantly lower populations. However, future numbers very much depend on current demographic policies. It is vital that individual countries not panic over the perceived problem of aging and attempt to reverse this demographic decline, an ineffective and ultimately harmful approach. In high consuming countries such as in most of Europe, a small increase in population has a large impact on the environment, as compared to an equal increase in countries with lower average consumption. An aging and declining population has numerous benefits, not least in relieving human pressures on the environment.
The overarching vision for the EU’s environment and society, decided on in 2013, is that by 2050:
We live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and a healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.
Even if the goal seems far off and hard to attain, the setting of such a goal is commendable. Still, it is hard to see how it can be achieved without addressing the size of the human population. The sentence “Our low carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use” is notable in that it shows a continued desire for growth. Why grow? Why is it so desirable? Completely decoupling growth from resource use in reality is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. A continuously growing population will inevitably need more resources, if nothing more than to satisfy the basic needs of water, food, warmth and shelter. All the solutions proposed in the EU’s new biodiversity strategy, such as reducing consumption, increasing the size and number of protected areas, and decreasing resource use and pollution, can be greatly facilitated by lowering the EU’s population.
Failing to clarify the importance of population is an issue which is not restricted to the EU Commission. A 2019 report from the UN on global biodiversity decline contained only minimal reference to the need for curbing population growth and never suggested any sort of action that might address the issue. However, and highly encouragingly, many comments on the report pointed out the lack of discussion about overpopulation, suggesting an acceptance and readiness from the public to deal with the issue. In addition, reducing population growth has been emphasized in the recent World Scientist’s Warning of a Climate Emergency.
The 2030 biodiversity strategy describes the EU’s desire to be a role model for other countries, through leading by example and reversing biodiversity loss. The importance of biodiversity for human existence and wellbeing is more or less accepted, but there also needs to be a general acceptance of the benefits of ending population growth and of depopulation itself: smaller human populations. Let the EU be the role model, not just in creating protected lands, but in leading the way to the sustainably sized populations of the future.
- European Environment Agency (EEA). Protected areas: diverse, multipurpose, multiscale. In: Protected areas in Europe – an overview. 2012. p. 48-69.
- The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. 2019. 45 pp.
If you are an EU citizen and would like to have a say in future policies from the EU Commission, you can go to this page and give feedback on proposed policies. Note that the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy has already been decided on and is no longer open for contributions from the public.
Do you want to learn more about the solutions for overpopulation and actions towards sustainability? What actions we need to take on the individual, community, national and global levels? Check out the Overpopulation Project’s list of solutions!