Royal Society calls for a more equitable future for humanity

26 April 2012

Consumption levels between developed and developing nations must be rebalanced alongside a stabilisation of the world’s population by voluntary methods, according to a new report from the Royal Society.

The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise consumption levels, then reduce them, to help the poorest 1.3 billion people to escape absolute poverty through increased consumption.  Alongside this, education and voluntary family planning programmes must be supported internationally to stabilise global population.  The new report, People and the Planet, is the result of a 21 month study by the Royal Society, the UK’s 350 year-old national academy of science, on the issues around global population.

Sir John Sulston, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chair of the report working group, said: "The world now has a very clear choice.  We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption.  We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices.  Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future."

"We call on all governments to consider the issue of population carefully at the Rio+20 meeting and to commit to a more just future based not on material consumption growth for their nations, but on the needs of the global community, both present and future."

Trends in consumption are analysed, with four material resources considered.  Particularly notable statistics for these resources include:

  • Water: a child from the developed world consumes 30-50 times as much water as one from the developing world and it is now estimated that by 2025, 1,800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.
  • Food: globally, average calorific consumption increased by approximately 15% between 1969 and 2005, yet in 2010 close to one billion people did not receive enough calories to reach their minimum dietary energy requirements.
  • Energy:  Utilising CO2 emissions as a measure of energy consumption, per capita CO2 emissions are up to 50 times higher in high income than low income countries, with energy insufficiency a major component of poverty.
  • Minerals: production of minerals dramatically increased from 1960 to 2007, for example by four times in the case of copper and lead, close to four times for lithium and 77 times for tantalum/niobium (used in technological devices).

The report also assesses demographic trends from across the globe, encompassing population size, mortality, age structure, migration and urbanisation, highlighting various international and national trends, including:

  • The annual increase in numbers of the world’s population peaked in the 1990s and the rate of population growth has been declining since the mid 1960s. 
  • Continued global population growth is inevitable for the next few decades but is not inevitable in the longer term.
  • Between 2010 and 2050, it is projected that global population will add 2.3 billion people and become predominantly urban.
  • The global population is ageing: in 1950 5% of the population was 65 and above, in 2010 it reached 9% and by 2050 it is expected to be 20%, almost 2 billion people.  The percentage of the UK’s population that is over 65 is predicted to rise from 16% in 2010 to 24% in 2050, but the effects will be substantially mitigated by improved health of the elderly.

Key case studies included South Korea, Kenya, Niger and the UK.  
In addition to concluding that the consumption by those that consume most must be reduced and that health and voluntary family planning must be supported, the report features numerous other recommendations including:

  • Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues and demographic changes and the influences on them should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning.
  • GDP is a poor measure of social well-being and does not account for natural capital.  New comprehensive wealth measures should be developed that better reflect the value of a country’s assets.
  • New socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth must be developed, which will lead to better targeted governmental policies that are not based on consumption of resources without consideration of wider impact.
  • Increasing population will lead to developing countries building the equivalent of a city of a million people every five days from now to 2050. Governments should plan for urban growth with reduced material consumption and environmental impact through the provision of well organised services.

Sir John Sulston said: “Ultimately, we should all strive for a world in which every individual has an opportunity to flourish.  Science can help us to achieve this goal, not only by developing practical solutions that improve our health and living standards and optimise our use of resources, but also by identifying potential problems, such as emerging diseases or the impact of greenhouse gases.  However, science is not a panacea and scientists alone cannot solve the challenges we now face.  Humanity must now act collectively and constructively if we are to face the future with confidence.”

Sir John Sulston will present key findings of the report to delegations from United Nations Member States, in New York, on Tuesday, 1 May, ahead of the Rio+20 Conference.