In a couple of decades, the global population will rise to hit the 10 billion mark from its current 7 billion. The planet’s steady population growth in the last five decades has largely been brought about by the rise in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for many nations and advancement in medicine meaning that mortality rates are reducing, people are living healthier lives and the general life expectancy has increased.
Unfortunately, the increase in population has come at a cost to the planet. According to the UN Environment and International Resource Panel, the extraction of materials to sustain the globe’s population has tripled in the last five decades. In 1970 for example, the world extracted 6 billion tonnes of fossil fuel compared to 15 billion in 2017. The same picture is replicated all across the board, including in categories like biomass (plant, animal, water etc), metals and non-metallic minerals. Non-metallic minerals currently contribute to the highest extraction at 44 billion tonnes.
Looking at the 2019 Global Resources Outlook Report presented at the United Nations Environment Assembly 4 in Nairobi recently, we can determine that much of the materials extracted have been done in poor and developing countries. While this has contributed to the increase of their GDP, unfortunately, these resources are going to the wealthiest nations, despite the fact that developing countries are at an industrializing stage where they need to escalate the development of new infrastructure.
This extraction of materials continues to create tremendous stress on the planet with experts warning that some impacts are irreversible. Some of the areas of concern are climate change, water stress, land-use related biodiversity loss, and now marine life threats because of pollution. For example, biomass extraction has contributed to around 17% of climate change and 80% of biodiversity loss in the last five decades.
In their report, the Decoupling Working Group of the International Resource Panel has noted:
‘It does not seem possible for a global economy based on the current unsustainable patterns of resource use to continue into the future.’
There are some scientists who already believe that the world can not support a population of over 10 billion people. Harvard University socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in the book ‘The Future of Life’:
‘If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land would support about 10 billion people.’
There is, therefore, an urgent need for policymakers to come up with action plans to minimize the extraction of materials and to adopt circular economy and renewable energy initiatives, and adopt new technologies to reduce this resource utility footprint.
It is estimated that by 2060 when the population hits the 10 billion mark, almost an equivalent of half of the infrastructure of what the world has now will have to be developed afresh and sustained – new cities and new linkages. The world will need close to 200 billion tonnes of materials annually to sustain her global population. To achieve this, the world will have to increase farmland by 20% to feed and clothe her people, reducing forest cover by almost the same amount. This is not to mention the amount of stress humanity will place on freshwater sources which have led to some commentators observing that if the planet should have a World War 3, it will be started because of water.
The future for humanity is therefore extremely dire. This is unless there is a sustained effort by the global community to develop resource efficiency policies, climate change mitigation policies, landscape and biodiversity protection policies, and finally for all global citizens to adopt healthy eating habits while reducing food waste. Unless this is done starting now, the next generation and the planet will have tremendous difficulties. We don’t have much time.