The world’s population has been growing at an unprecedented rate. Over the last 50 years, our numbers on this planet have tripled, and we are expected to become, according to UN estimates, a nine billion human family by 2050. As the Essex Sustainability Institute hosts a conference this week to explore the challenges, its director Professor Steffen Boehm asks how well prepared we are for such a boom.
The increase of the human population has been mostly due to exponential growth rates in developing countries, while in the developed and highly industrialised world, people have been getting older. The UN forecasts population numbers will peak at about 9 billion, implying many of us will ‘go grey’. In poorer nations too, lower fertility rates and increased life expectancy from improvements in health care will lead to a rapidly ageing population.
Whatever the population numbers will be, the resources we have available on our planet are shared very unequally. For example, despite plenty of food being available – bearing in mind that about half the food we produce is wasted – almost one billion people go hungry. It is also the poorest of the poor who struggle to have access to healthcare, safe drinking water and other basic facilities.
The population boom, mixed together with an economic system that encourages over-consumption, are already testing the limits of our planetary ecosystems. If we all lived the unsustainable lives of the average North American (or Australian, or Dubai resident), we would need to have about 4 to 5 planets available to sustain life on earth.
In 2009, research by Johan Rockström and his team at the Stockholm Resilience Centre quantified nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive. Two of these boundaries, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle, we are already overshooting by far. We are getting very close to overshooting a third, climate change. What this research suggests is that our current planetary development path is not resilient, nor sustainable. Most probably it will lead to abrupt and irreversible environmental changes as well as unforeseen tipping points to which we, as a human race, will struggle to respond.
Humanity, then, is facing a big challenge, probably the biggest it has ever faced: to accommodate the needs of nine billion people and to do this within the safe limits of our planetary boundaries. Concretely, this ‘nine billion challenge’ breaks down into six interconnected themes, amongst others, which will test the resilience, innovation and sustainability of the human race.
Challenge 1: Food
By 2050 we need to be able to feed nine billion people. If the demand for food continues to grow at current rates, we potentially need to produce 60 per cent more food than we currently do. Food security is hence on everybody’s mind. Many governmental and corporate actors hope to meet the challenge through ‘sustainable intensification,’ emphasising plant innovations such as genetic modification. But many NGOs and peasant movements, particularly in the developing world, favour a food sovereignty approach, supporting small scale family agriculture.
Challenge 2: Energy and resource depletion
World demand for energy is increasing exponentially, but natural resources are diminishing and those that are available are increasingly difficult to extract, especially in the case of minerals and fossil fuels. Some argue that we have already reached a peak oil scenario, and many other resources are on short supply too. We have to dig and drill ever deeper, go beyond known frontiers and use extreme measures to extract oil, gas, coal, gold, uranium, copper, bauxite and rare earth, to name but a few of the vital resources we need to sustain our current lifestyles.
Challenge 3: Climate Change
Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reiterated the urgent need for us to limit increases in surface warming to two degrees, as anything beyond would lead to disastrous consequences, not only for humans, but for biodiversity and ecosystems. Yet there has not been significant progress on reaching global agreement on how to limit greenhouse gas emissions since the landmark Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Meanwhile, emissions are rapidly growing worldwide.
Challenge 4: Water
In many parts of the world, fresh water resources are already under severe strain. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said many semi-arid areas such as the Mediterranean Basin and the western United States are likely to suffer a decrease in water resources. Climate change will alter rainfall patterns, and we will have to expect increasingly severe storms, droughts, heat waves and floods. Fresh water supplies are also under threat due to increased industrial activity and resource extraction, and an increasing population will demand more fresh water, exceeding our water resources.
Challenge 5: Poverty and development
While developing countries recognise the sustainability and resilience challenges the world faces, they also demand the right to develop and to lift millions of their people out of poverty. Yet if the current industrialised countries serve as exemplary goalposts for developing countries, then we will soon hit the planetary boundaries mentioned above.
Challenge 6: Conflicts
The Nine Billion challenge presents itself as a perfect storm. To master it will require humanity to deal with multiple threats at the same time. Even the most optimistic analyst realises conflicts, crises and security risks will be part of the agenda as humanity struggles to rise and adapt. While we might not yet see direct links between water and food scarcity, climate change and conflicts, some argue that the violent struggle over resources – think the Arab Spring – is already fully under way. This does not come as a surprise to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, who highlighted in 2004 the connections between environmental degradation, resource scarcity and conflict. While she was talking about Africa, it is also clear that the already highly developed countries will not give up their privileges without a fight.
The Nine Billion challenge has immense, planetary implications. It raises many questions about the sustainability and resilience of our way of life. The way we engage with and respond to this challenge could lead to catastrophic conflict, environmental degradation and decline in human well-being. Or it might be the springboard for a more sustainable human future which takes place within the boundaries of our planet.
This Friday, November 22, the Essex Sustainability Institute will host Nine Billion, an interdisciplinary conference to o explore the challenges, scenarios and potential solutions posed by the predicted growth of the world’s population, in partnership with Writtle College.