Top scientists call for new UN sustainable development goal on population

A group of distinguished scientists have called for rapid action to reverse unsustainable population growth as threats to global ecological boundaries become more apparent. The evidence was set out at an online conference organised by Scientists Warning Europe to mark this year’s World Population Day.

by Brian McGavin 

With the human ecological footprint already 170 per cent of Earth’s renewable bio-capacity, the world cannot cope with another two billion people by 2050. The secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterras, has warned, ‘humanity is waging war on nature’. This is suicidal. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century and the subject of Scientists Warning Europe’s World Population Day conference this July 11.

Globally, most of the projected population growth in coming decades will happen in the poorest countries, deepening their poverty and making them vulnerable to hunger and further conflict. Infrastructure and job creation can’t keep pace with the growth. High consumption countries must act too. A return to ‘business as usual’ cannot continue, as discussed by four speakers at this year’s conference.

Dr William Rees, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia and originator of global ecological footprint accounting said: “The world is in eco-overshoot, in which consumption and waste production by too many people greatly exceeds the regenerative and waste assimilation capacities of the planet.

“We should be aghast that growth-oriented mainstream economic models contain no useful information about the dynamics of ecosystems or even social systems with which the economy interacts in the real world.  Sometimes our social constructs are little more than shared illusions.”

We are facing a much-reduced energy future without fossil fuels. Modern ‘renewables’ cannot substitute quantitatively –we have to use less. Humans are the major consumer species in all the world’s major ecosystems. We can’t decouple from nature. The human enterprise must contract. We face chaotic collapse or one chance for a more intelligent, well-planned orderly transition.”

Just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set goals on how much and by when we need to reduce our climate emissions, we need to develop a strategy and timeframe for achieving a sustainable population. Perhaps 1 to 2 billion at a reasonable standard of living is realistic in the long-term.”

Dr Chris Tucker, chairman of the American Geographical Society said: “It is critical that the world scientific community achieve a consensus with world leaders and a dialog with citizens on how many people the Earth can support, if we are to navigate our climate and ecological crisis.”  

Dr Tucker suggests that before 2030 we need to have reached a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.5 per woman. (It is currently just over 2.4. Replacement fertility is 2.1, but our population momentum is such that lower TFRs are needed to reach sustainable equilibrium).

Professor Phoebe Barnard of University of Washington and University of Cape Town observed that “The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2015 – 2030 are a wish list of aspirations with sustainability sprinkled in. Most of the SDGs are critically linked to underlying population impact, but this has been consistently side-lined by world leaders and business leaders.”

What kind of leadership got us to the predicament we’re in today?  And what kind of leadership and economic system is needed to sustain us into the future?  We are out of time for bickering, finger-pointing accusations. It’s time for collaborative efforts on population, consumption, and planetary boundaries. Women’s voices from around the world have not been sufficiently heard.”    

Since the mid-1990s overpopulation denialism has sapped political will from programs that served women’s health and reproductive rights,” said Dr Jane O’Sullivan, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, who challenged many myths that are used to dismiss concerns about population growth. “Ageing populations don’t mean fewer workers, they mean fewer are unemployed. A contracting population offers many benefits for healthier, happier, more equal and more environmentally sustainable societies.”

She added: “Voluntary family planning programs were the most effective interventions ever implemented for promoting economic development and empowering women. Poor countries simply can’t get ahead while population growth remains high. There is no case of rapid fertility decline without robust family planning programs.”


Scientists Warning Europe evolved out of the outreach platform run by environmental campaigner Stuart Scott, to promote the 2017 and 2019 Scientists Warnings. He then set up as a legacy project. You can visit Scientists Warnings Europe at their website.

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2 thoughts on “Top scientists call for new UN sustainable development goal on population

  1. All the moralistic hand-wringing in the world will not change human behavior on a personal level, but the obvious increases in sickness and death, like the 620,000 dead in the US over the past year from COVID-19, is putting the issue of human overpopulation front and center, even though the MSM and even TOP conveniently ignore the obvious: too many humans using too many natural resources and producing too much pollution, as well as all the “diseases of civilization” caused by “population density stress”.

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