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How does the growing global population and increasing consumption affect biodiversity?

Since the middle of the 20th Century, the human population has grown dramatically from around 2.6 billion to reach 7.8 billion in 2021. Housing and feeding so many people has accelerated the destruction of natural habitats, while higher levels of consumption, particularly in some richer parts of the world, have also increased the exploitation of natural resources and led to growing levels of pollution.

Perhaps the greatest threat to biodiversity from a growing population is from the rapidly increasing per capita consumption. There has been an unprecedented increase in consumption, with about 10% of the world's population in the G7 countries consuming 40% of the Earth's biological productivity. Increasing levels of meat consumption, for example, have required more land for livestock while burgeoning water use has increased the risk of drought in some regions. Similar patterns can be seen in the demand for other natural resources. 

As human populations have grown, habitat destruction such as deforestation also increases to make way for agricultural land. Between 1962 and 2017, it is estimated that 340 million hectares of new croplands were created globally and 470 million hectares – around half the area of China - of natural ecosystem were converted into pastures. 

Urban sprawl, along with the associated transport infrastructure, can radically transform habitats, increase pollution, raise ambient temperatures and increase the risk of non-native species being introduced by human movements.

While the International Union for Conservation of Nature predicts that the numbers of threatened species is likely to  increase rapidly in regions where human population growth rates are high, the demands of consumers also impact biodiversity in areas far away. International trade is reported to be responsible for 30% of global species threats and one study found that 17% of total biodiversity loss occurs due to the commodities that are produced for export to other parts of the world – largely the rich, industrialised nations. 

With global population expected to reach 10.9 billion by the end of the century, the impact that humans have on biodiversity is expected to accelerate unless steps are taken to reduce consumption and modify our current global food system. In particular the people of the poorer lower and middle income countries will also wish to increase their consumption over the coming decades in order to raise their standards of living. The richer industrialised countries will need to take steps to reduce their high levels of consumption to compensate for this.

To find out more; Consumption patterns and biodiversity | Royal Society; Demographic trends and policy options | Royal Society

Find answers to 16 key questions about biodiversity

  • Introduction

    At its simplest, biodiversity describes life on Earth – the different genes, species and ecosystems that comprise the biosphere and the varying habitats, landscapes and regions in which they exist. We've answered some of your most popular questions about biodiversity.

    Find out more

  • What is biodiversity?

    Biodiversity is all the living things on our planet – from the smallest bacteria to the largest plants and animals. So far, we have identified around 1.6 million species but that is probably only a small fraction of the forms of life on Earth.

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  • Why is biodiversity important?

    Biodiversity is essential for the processes that support all life on Earth, including humans. Without a wide range of animals, plants and microorganisms, we cannot have healthy ecosystems.

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  • How do we measure biodiversity?

    There is still much we do not know about the complexity of biodiversity on Earth. There are a number of ways that we measure it, with counting species the most common approach.

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  • What is the scale of biodiversity loss?

    The list of known recent extinctions is still a small fraction of all species on the planet but it is far above prehuman levels and the evidence suggests it is rising fast.

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  • We regularly hear of new species being discovered - does that not offset the loss of existing species?

    Every year thousands of previously unknown species are discovered, described and named.

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  • Where is most biodiversity loss happening and why?

    Biodiversity loss has been most pronounced on islands and in specific locations around the tropics.

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  • Is the rate of biodiversity loss increasing or decreasing?

    Compared to the 1.6 million species known about on Earth, the number of recorded extinctions can seem very low.

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  • What is the state of biodiversity in the UK?

    The UK boasts more than 70,000 known species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms.

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  • How do humans affect biodiversity?

    Humanity impacts the planet's biodiversity in multiple ways, both deliberate and accidental.

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  • How does the growing global population and increasing consumption affect biodiversity?

    Since the middle of the 20th century, the human population has grown dramatically.

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  • How does climate change affect biodiversity?

    The environmental changes being driven by climate change are disturbing natural habitats and species in ways that are still only becoming clear.

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  • How does deforestation affect biodiversity?

    Forests contain some of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. But between 1990 and 2020, around 420 million hectares of mainly tropical forest has been lost.

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  • What can we do to protect biodiversity?

    Loss of natural habitats has been taking place over thousands of years, but scientists are confident that we have ways to help biodiversity recover.

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  • What can I do as an individual to protect biodiversity?

    While large scale changes in behaviour, policies and measures will be essential, individuals have a vital part to play.

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  • Can we allow nature to regenerate without intervention?

    Biodiversity loss is a complex issue involving many overlapping processes. While nature can recover when left to do so, it requires dramatic changes in our behaviour for this to happen.

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  • How do we decide what is worth saving or putting our efforts into protecting?

    The value of the natural world can be interpreted in many ways, from their raw economic value to the inherent social, cultural and emotional benefits they provide.

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