By Jane O’Sullivan
Why would an organisation dedicated to protecting natural areas and to saving wild animals turn its back on arguably the biggest threat? WWF used to highlight human population growth, but not anymore.
Populations of wild animals have declined, on average, by 60% since 1970. This alarming statistic was announced in WWF’s 2018 Living Planet Report (LPR). The Living Planet Index collates the work of a vast collaboration, monitoring 16,704 populations representing 4,005 species of vertebrates – birds, fish, mammals, amphibians – across land, sea and fresh water bodies around the planet. 2018 marks the twenty-year anniversary of this tragic vigil.
The report concludes that “We need to aim higher, and do better, to protect and restore our life support systems – to bend the curve of biodiversity loss.” It notes, “given pressing needs to simultaneously avoid dangerous climate change, feed the world’s growing population and restore biodiversity, cross-cutting solutions are crucial.”
Yet, the one solution that is most “cross-cutting”, namely minimising further growth in the human population, is not only neglected but actively played down in this year’s report. This contrasts with earlier editions of the LPR, which were explicit about the role of population growth in both environmental and sustainable development challenges – although falling short of highlighting actions to reduce it. Why this retreat into population denialism?
Part of the problem has been LPR’s long infatuation with the Global Footprint Network’s ecological footprint analyses. While ecological footprint is a valuable concept in many contexts, it has relatively little to do with drivers of biodiversity loss.
As the LPR states, habitat loss (or degradation) and direct exploitation (hunting and fishing) are by far the greatest drivers of wildlife loss. While recognising that climate change is a growing threat, up to now it accounts for less than 10% of the incidence of threats, comparable with invasive species and pollution. In contrast, ecological footprint gives greatest emphasis to greenhouse gas emissions, does not differentiate between sustainable or destructive forest and crop production, and takes no account of pollutants other than carbon dioxide (except where they reduce biocapacity measurably).
Curiously, it also under-represents grazing land, allocating it only a quarter of the footprint given to cropland, despite it occupying more than twice as much land in reality. This presumably reflects the lower biomass harvested from grazing land, but this is hardly relevant to those forest and savannah species displaced by pasture development. And pasture development, with smallholder cropping, continue to dominate deforestation. So the main threats to wildlife, namely habitat loss and hunting, are barely represented in ecological footprint.
This is partly reflected in the regional breakdown of the Living Planet Index. Earlier LPRs showed the index by country income group, showing the disconnect between where large footprints occur and where biodiversity loss is occurring. It notes, “The trend in low income countries is potentially catastrophic, not just for biodiversity but also for the people living there.”
From LPR 2014 Summary:
The 2018 report lacks this comparison. It further seeks to deflect responsibility from local drivers, saying “The immediate causes of land degradation are typically local – the inappropriate management of the land resource – but the underlying drivers are often regional or global.” This is not my experience of frontier territories, from the Amazon to Papua New Guinea, where land clearing mainly serves the need for more livelihoods for the growing local population, whether through subsistence or commercial agriculture. The LPR places responsibility on consumers of globally-traded products from deforested land, but without that cash-crop income, might there be even greater pressure to clear land? There are exceptions, such as the large-scale development of oil palm in South East Asia and soy in Brazil, but in general global markets stimulate investment in intensification, while it is the landless who drive extensification, poaching and overharvesting of the commons.
Even the report’s presentation of ecological footprint has shifted to downplay population growth. Back in 2012, the LPR listed ecological footprint drivers as: population growth, consumption of goods and services per person, and footprint intensity – mirroring the “I=PAT” equation factors of population, affluence and technology. This year, drivers are listed as: consumption, production, markets, finance and governance. While “consumption” could be taken to mean the product of population and per capita consumption, all the focus is on consumer choices.
The 2012 and 2014 reports showed that the expanding overshoot since 1970 was not due rising per capita consumption globally, but to declining biocapacity per person because of population growth, despite rising total biocapacity thanks to agricultural improvement. They note “the increase in the Earth’s productivity has not been enough to compensate for the demands of the growing global population”.
From LPR 2012:
From LPR 2014 Summary:
However, by 2016, these mentions of population growth were gone. The emphasis was on “systems thinking”, while omitting the systemic impacts of population growth. It refers to “the upward trend in consumption footprints” without mentioning that it is the number of consumers that is rising more than per capita footprints (which, in many places, have fallen, although not in emerging economies). Even its long section on food system sustainability avoids attributing any impacts to population growth.
Earlier LPRs featured an impactful chart relating Human Development Index and per capita footprint, emphasising the challenge of sustainable development, to achieve high quality of life within planetary boundaries. Back in 2010, it showed how population growth was driving down biocapacity per capita, squeezing the prospects for sustainable human development into increasingly unattainable territory. But more recent versions of the chart show only the current biocapacity per person, de-emphasising the role of population growth in this challenge. By 2016, the chart was gone, along with all mention of trends in per capita footprint and biocapacity.
From LPR 2010:
But the 2018 LPR goes from neglect to active denial, stating (p 22), “It is economic development and the growth of the world’s middle classes, not population rise per se, that is dramatically influencing the rate of change of Earth’s life support system.” This false dichotomy denies that it is actually both together.
The Living Planet Index is an invaluable project, without which we could not appreciate the systemic nature of wildlife declines. But WWF’s Living Planet Reports have become less and less about reporting and explaining the index, and more and more about highlighting developed-world overconsumption. Overconsumption certainly needs to be tackled, but should not be used to deflect attention from other threats to biodiversity. By denying the impacts of population growth, it simultaneously undermines development prospects for regions with high birth rates, and their prospects for preserving their local biodiversity and ecosystem services. Increasingly, development reversals and instability are being linked to population growth, and hunger is again on the rise.
It was not always so. A decade ago, WWF championed “Population Health and Environment” (PHE) projects which combined community engagement in environmental conservation with alternative livelihood initiatives, health services and family planning promotion. But despite good reviews and community enthusiasm, they discontinued these projects. Was this part of the same systemic retreat from population growth?
Population denialism is widespread among environmental organisations. But WWF ranked lowest of all in a 2014 survey by Population Matters of UK’s environmental NGOs’ willingness to engage with the issue. In the 1970s, most environmentalists confidently expressed population concerns, but particularly from the 1990s, the population factor has been either neglected or played down. A recent study of the Swedish environmental magazine Sveriges Natur found that the frequency of articles about population growth peaked in the 1970s and fell off dramatically from the 1990s. Not only was population growth rarely mentioned, but when mentioned it was more likely to be dismissed.
Encouragingly, a number of recent environmental publications have addressed human population growth. The Alliance of World Scientists made the link very clear in their World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice in 2017, including among its recommended actions, “further reducing fertility rates by ensuring that women and men have access to education and voluntary family-planning services, especially where such resources are still lacking”. The Club of Rome has revisited “The Limits to Growth” through new modelling asking whether the Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved within planetary boundaries. Their successful scenario included “investments in education for all, gender equality and family planning” to end population growth rapidly.
A recent review of the Convention on Biodiversity’s Aichi Targets argued that “many key drivers of biodiversity loss are either poorly evaluated or entirely lacking indicators,” with those relating to human population constituting a major gap. This is exactly the sort of issue which the Living Planet Report should be taking up, in its pitch to “Aim Higher.” Instead, we are encouraged to “look the other way”.