Key Messages: Rio+20 and Beyond

People are the central concern of sustainable development. Therefore efforts to promote more sustainable development pathways must take account of people – their numbers, location and age, as well as their living conditions, ambitions and opportunities. Key international declarations -- such as the programmes of action emerging from the Rio Earth Summit (1992), and  the ICPD  (Cairo, 1994) -- emphasized that human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. This human-centred focus was further elaborated on at the UN Millennium Summit (New York, 2000), and was reflected in the Millennium Development Goals, which have guided development policies since then. The human-centred focus on development means concentrating on poverty reduction, an increase in living standards and improvements in human well-being, including marked progress in health, education and gender equality.

Population dynamics are strongly and inseparably linked to sustainable development. The world population has now passed the 7 billion mark and, according to recent projections, it will continue to grow for decades to come. Population growth raises the stakes in our joint efforts to reduce poverty, create employment, ensure food, water and energy security and safeguard the natural environment.

Population growth paired with higher consumption means more pressures on all natural resources. More than 1 billion people suffer from poverty and food insecurity throughout the world. To lift these people out of poverty and to ensure a decent quality of life for succeeding generations requires major development efforts. To feed a world population of 9 billion, which will likely be reached before the middle of this century, an overall increase in agricultural output of about 70 per cent will be needed, according to FAO.  But countries will not only need to increase production of agricultural goods, they will also need to increase production of many other goods and services. People will require clothing, housing, water and sanitation and infrastructure; they will also demand health care and education. The objective of fighting poverty, raising living standards and improving well-being will depend on higher consumption, production and economic output. Its pursuit will increase pressure on all natural resources, including the climate, land, forests and water – unless we succeed in making decisive policy changes and encouraging more sustainable development pathways.

The challenges are immense, particularly in the least developed countries. The poorest countries have the highest rates of  population growth rates. They are also home to the largest share of people who live in extreme poverty, suffer food insecurity and lack productive and remunerative employment. By 2050, the population of these countries will double, and their labour force will continue to expand by about 33,000 young people each day. The world’s poorest countries have contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are disporportionately affected by climate change. Climate change is reinforcing exposure to natural hazards, including shifts in precipitation and an increase in desertification, impacting agriculture. Pressures on agricultural land, forests and water resources are not only attributable to climate change, but also to patterns of consumption and production in the poorest countries themselves. Many of these countries rely heavily on the exploitation of their natural resources to spur economic growth – notably extractive industries, large-scale agriculture and timber production — and many of the poorest households also rely heavily on wood and other natural resources for their daily needs. UNFPA has drawn attention to the world’s least developed countries’ suffering from the most rapid environmental degradation and depletion, measured as a share of gross national income, and has warned that this development threatens a sustainable catch-up with more advanced countries.

The ICPD Programme of Action identifies policy priorities for sustainable development paths.  This landmark document emphasizes the need to reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of consumption and production – which is the central focus of green economic growth – while pursueing rights-based approaches to address population dynamics.

The population and development objectives and actions of the present Programme of Action will collectively address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustained economic growth in the context of sustainable development (Preamble 1.9).

Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”(IPrinciple 2).

[...] The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations ( Principle 3) .

To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate policies, including population-related policies [...] (Principle 6).

Implementation of effective population policies in the context of sustainable development, including reproductive health and family-planning programmes, require new forms of participation by various actors at all levels in the policy-making process” (Chapter 3.27.)

[...] slower population growth has in many countries bought more time to adjust to future population increases. This has increased those countries' ability to attack poverty, protect and repair the environment, and build the base for future sustainable development. [...] stabilization levels of fertility can have a considerable positive impact on quality of life” (Chapter 3.14.).

Demography is not destiny. Given that the number of potential future parents has reached an all-time high, population growth is inevitable. However, the future size of the world population depends crucially on policies being implemented today.  For the world population to reach 9 billion around 2050 and stabilize around 10 billion by 2100 and  (the medium estimates of the UN Population Division), average world fertility must reach replacement level by 2035-2040 and remain below replacement level for the rest of the century.  Projections show that with just half a child more, on average, the world’s population could grow to 11 billion by 2050 and nearly 16 billion by 2100. Every decade of delay in reaching replacement-level fertility implies continued, significant population growth for decades to come.

Demographic change also provides opportunities for sustainable development. Migration can ease pressures on natural resources and enable people to adapt to changes in economic and environmental conditions. Urban population growth – which is accelerated by rapid rural-urban migration in many of the poorest countries – can also contribute positively to sustainable development. As populations increase, it makes economic and environmental sense for people to move closer together in urban areas. There, populations tend to consume less energy, adjusted for income, than in rural areas. Energy savings are particularly large in the housing and transportation sector; and in urban areas, governments can deliver essential infrastructure and services at lower costs per capita than in rural areas. By anticipating and planning for urbanization, countries can face challenges and seize opportunities linked to urban population growth.

A full, credible agenda on sustainable development must address population dynamics and interrelated challenges of reproductive health, family planning, women’s empowerment and youth. Although the general public, policy makers and scientists recognize the strong links between population issues and sustainable development, these connections have been largely ignored in recent years. Rio+20 should build on past conferences and emphasize the importance of population issues for sustainable development. It should also emphasize concrete population-related policies to promote more sustainable development pathways. Governments can address population dynamics through concrete, effective policies that strengthen basic human rights and freedoms. Such policies include, but are not limited to, the following:

Governments are urged to achieve the Millennium Development Goals on health, education and the empowerment of women. Ensuring universal access to health-care services, including sexual and reproductive health and family planning, and expanding education beyond the primary level contribute not only to reducing infant, child and maternal mortality and to controlling the spread of communicable diseases, but also to empowering women, lowering fertility and promoting human development and well-being.

Governments should endeavour to address the consequences of population dynamics before they unfold via forward-looking and pro-active planning based on the collection of reliable data on population trends, sound demographic analysis and the consideration of both population projections and different future scenarios of population change. Such information is essential for setting overall national goals as well as for the formulation of effective rural and urban and sectoral development strategies.