Population and the environment: the global challenge

Population and the environment: the global challenge

As we humans exploit nature to meet present needs, are we destroying resources needed for the future?

As the century begins, natural resources are under increasing pressure, threatening public health and development. Water shortages, soil exhaustion, loss of forests, air and water pollution, and degradation of coastlines afflict many areas. As the world's population grows, improving living standards without destroying the environment is a global challenge.

Most developed economies currently consume resources much faster than they can regenerate. Most developing countries with rapid population growth face the urgent need to improve living standards. As we humans exploit nature to meet present needs, are we destroying resources needed for the future?

In the past decade in every environmental sector, conditions have either failed to improve, or they are worsening:

  • Public health. Unclean water, along with poor sanitation, kills over 12 million people each year, most in developing countries. Air pollution kills nearly 3 million more. Heavy metals and other contaminants also cause widespread health problems.
  • Food supply. Will there be enough food to go around? In 64 of 105 developing countries studied by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the population has been growing faster than food supplies. Population pressures have degraded some 2 billion hectares of arable land—an area the size of Canada and the US.
  • Freshwater. The supply of freshwater is finite, but demand is soaring as population grows and use per capita rises. By 2025, when world population is projected to be 8 billion,48 countries containing 3 billion people will face shortages.
  • Coastlines and oceans. Half of all coastal ecosystems are pressured by high population densities and urban development. A tide of pollution is rising in the world's seas. Ocean fisheries are being overexploited, and fish catches are down.
  • Forests. Nearly half of the world's original forest cover has been lost, and each year another 16 million hectares are cut, bulldozed, or burned. Forests provide over US$400 billion to the world economy annually and are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems. Yet, current demand for forest products may exceed the limit of sustainable consumption by 25%.
  • Biodiversity. The earth's biological diversity is crucial to the continued vitality of agriculture and medicine—and perhaps even to life on earth itself. Yet human activities are pushing many thousands of plant and animal species into extinction. Two of every three species is estimated to be in decline.
  • Global climate change. The earth's surface is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions, largely from burning fossil fuels. If the global temperature rises as projected, sea levels would rise by several meters, causing widespread flooding. Global warming also could cause droughts and disrupt agriculture.

How people preserve or abuse the environment could largely determine whether living standards improve or deteriorate. Growing human numbers, urban expansion, and resource exploitation do not bode well for the future. Without practicing sustainable development, humanity faces a deteriorating environment and may even invite ecological disaster.

  • Taking action. Many steps toward sustainability can be taken today. These include using energy more efficiently; managing cities better; phasing out subsidies that encourage waste; managing water resources and protecting freshwater sources; harvesting forest products rather than destroying forests; preserving arable land and increasing food production through a second Green Revolution; managing coastal zones and ocean fisheries; protecting biodiversity hotspots; and adopting an international convention on climate change.
  • Stabilizing population. While population growth has slowed, the absolute number of people continues to increase—by about 1 billion every 13 years. Slowing population growth would help improve living standards and would buy time to protect natural resources. In the long run, to sustain higher living standards, world population size must stabilize.

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