UNFPAState of World Population 2004
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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2004: Population and the Environment
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Population and the Environment

Population’s Impact on Resource Use
Poverty and Ecological Stress
Gender Dimensions of Environmental Change

Stress on the environment and the depletion of natural resources both reinforce and are exacerbated by gender inequality, poor health and poverty, the Cairo conference emphasized. Environmental stress is increasing, due to both “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” (including high resource consumption in wealthy countries and among better-off groups in all countries) and demographic factors such as rapid population growth, population distribution and migration.

Affirming that “meeting the basic human needs of growing populations is dependent on a healthy environment”, Chapter III of the ICPD Programme of Action(1) addressed the interrelationships among population, economic growth and protection of the environment, reiterating principles of Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio in 1992.


Efforts to slow down population growth, to reduce poverty, to achieve economic progress, to improve environmental protection, and to reduce unsustainable consumption and production patterns are mutually reinforcing. Slower population growth has in many countries increased those countries’ ability to attack poverty, protect and repair the environment, and build the base for future sustainable development.

—ICPD Programme of Action, para. 3.14

At both the Cairo conference and its five-year review, the global community affirmed that greater equality between men and women is an essential component of sustainable development, including environmental protection. Boosting the status of women is now accepted as a prerequisite for lowering fertility and ensuring sound management of natural resources. And awareness is increasing of the need to address environmental crises, demographic realities, gender inequity and rising consumption amid persistent poverty in a holistic manner.

At both the Cairo conference and its five-year review, the global community affirmed that greater equality between men and women is an essential component of sustainable development, including environmental protection. Boosting the status of women is now accepted as a prerequisite for lowering fertility and ensuring sound management of natural resources. And awareness is increasing of the need to address environmental crises, demographic realities, gender inequity and rising consumption amid persistent poverty in a holistic manner.

The 2003 UNFPA global survey found that countries have made progress in addressing population issues within the context of poverty, environment, and decentralized planning processes. One hundred and twenty-two countries reported developing plans or strategies on population-environment linkages. Forty countries have developed specific policies, and 22 have put in place laws or legislation on population dynamics and the environment.

Still, the stakes are high, as human activity continues to alter the planet on an unprecedented scale. More people are using more resources with more intensity and leaving a bigger “footprint” on the earth than ever before.


Over the past century and especially over the past 40 years, people have effected vast changes in the global environment. Those most directly affected by environmental challenges, from water pollution to climate change, are also the poorest—and least able to change livelihoods or lifestyles to cope with, or combat, ecological decline. Some snapshots:

  • Farmers, ranchers, loggers, and developers have cleared about half the world’s original forest cover, and another 30 per cent is degraded or fragmented.
  • Over the last half century, land degradation has reduced cropland by an estimated 13 per cent and pasture by 4 per cent. In many countries, population growth has raced ahead of food production in recent years. Some 800 million people are chronically malnourished and 2 billion lack food security.
  • Three quarters of the world’s fish stocks are now fished at or beyond sustainable limits. Industrial fleets have fished out at least 90 per cent of large ocean predators —including tuna, marlin and swordfish—in the last 50 years.
  • Since the 1950s, global demand for water has tripled. Groundwater quantity and quality are declining due to over-pumping, runoff from fertilizers and pesticides, and leaking of industrial waste. Half a billion people live in countries defined as waterstressed or water-scarce; by 2025, that figure is expected to surge to between 2.4 billion and 3.4 billion.
  • Climate change. As a result of fossil fuel consumption, carbon dioxide levels today are 18 per cent higher than in 1960 and an estimated 31 per cent higher than at the onset of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. Accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, is tied to rising and extreme change in temperatures, and more severe storms.
  • Sea level has risen an estimated 10-20 centimetres, largely as a result of melting ice masses and the expansion of oceans linked to regional and global warming. Small island nations and low-lying cities and farming areas face severe flooding or inundation.
See Sources

Population’s Impact on Resource Use

Numbers alone do not capture the impact of the interactions between human populations and the environment. The size and weight of the environmental footprint each person plants on Earth is determined by the ways people use resources, which affects the quantities they consume. For instance, a vegetarian who primarily uses a bicycle has a much smaller impact than someone who eats meat and drives a sport utility vehicle.

The ecological footprint of an average person in a high-income country is about six times bigger than that of someone in a low-income country, and many more times bigger than in the least-developed countries. The combined footprints of people in a region determine the prospects for saving or permanently losing the biological diversity found there.

Many economists and environmentalists use an equation that ties together population, consumption and technology to describe their relative impacts (I=PAT: Impact=Population x Affluence x Technology).

As birth rates fall, consumption levels and patterns (affluence), coupled with technology, will take on new importance in determining the state of the global environment. But population will remain the critical factor where lack of access to reproductive health services and family planning, shortfalls in education for girls and women, poverty and women’s limited power relative to men continue to fuel high fertility.

GLOBAL CONSUMERS AND PERSISTENT POVERTY. A rapidly growing global consumer class, now around 1.7 billion people, accounts for the vast majority of meat eating, paper use, car driving, and energy use on the planet, as well as the resulting impact of these activities on its natural resources. This class is not limited to industrialized countries; as populations surge in developing countries and as the world economy becomes increasingly globalized, more and more people have the means to acquire a greater diversity of products and services than ever before.(2)

Meanwhile, 2.8 billion people—two in five—still struggle to survive on less than $2 a day. In 2000, 1.1 billion people did not have reasonable access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion people worldwide lived without basic sanitation. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world led to 1.7 million deaths in 2000.(3)

DIFFERENTIAL IMPACTS. Where population growth and high levels of consumption coincide, as they do in some industrial nations, the impact of growth is significant. For instance, even though the United States’ population is only a fourth as large as India’s, its environmental footprint is over three times bigger—it releases 15.7 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year compared with India’s 4.9 million tons.(4) Hence the impact of the current 3 million annual population increase in the United States is greater than that of India’s 16 million increase.

Environmental impact can continue to grow even as population growth levels off. In China, population growth has slowed dramatically, but consumption of oil and coal and the resulting pollution continues to rise. While the Chinese Government is promoting greater fuel efficiency for cars (see Box 6), it is not promoting increased use of public transportation, biking and walking, or efficient urban planning so people would not have to drive.

Besides reducing overall resource use, governments can reduce the environmental impacts of increased consumption by promoting appropriate technology that uses resources more efficiently.(5) Industrial countries can help the developing world by assisting with the dissemination and adoption of cleaner technologies.(6)

Other demographic trends intersect with consumption in surprising ways. As a result of rising incomes, urbanization, and smaller families, the average number of people living under one roof declined between 1970 and 2000—from 5.1 to 4.4 in developing countries and from 3.2 to 2.5 in industrial countries—while the total number of households increased. Each new house requires land and materials. And with fewer people in each household, savings from shared use of energy and appliances are lost. A one-person household in the United States, for example, uses 17 per cent more energy per capita than a two-person household.

Even in some European nations and in Japan, where population growth has stopped, changing household dynamics are important drivers of increased consumption.(7)


A number of initiatives suggest countries are taking seriously the challenge of reducing harmful production and consumption patterns. For example, China last year began to regulate its rapidly growing auto industry, requiring new family vehicles sold in major cities to meet air pollution standards as strict as those in the United States and Western Europe. Starting this year, new fuel economy standards for cars will be significantly more stringent than those in the United States.

The transfer of energy-efficient technology is also growing. China has become the world’s largest manufacturer of efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, in part through joint ventures with lighting firms in Japan, the Netherlands and elsewhere. India has become a major manufacturer of advance wind turbines using technology obtained through joint ventures and licensing agreements with Danish, Dutch, and German firms. See Sources

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