How is Population Growth Connected to Sustainable Resource Use?

Each of the 7.6 billion people on Earth use resources and energy in their daily lives. The type and volume of both can vary widely from person to person, but the result remains the same; collectively, we are using the Earth’s resources at a rate that cannot be sustained. Population growth compounds this problem. Our global population is projected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, which means an additional 2 billion people consuming Earth’s resources and energy, both contributing to and suffering from the effects of climate change.

Although renewable energy is growing fastest within the energy sector, global population still relies heavily on non-renewable fossil fuels, which account for 87 percent of total energy consumption. The levels of global resource use and extraction rise as our population grows and our economies develop. In 2010, we were extracting 70 billion tons of primary materials (like fossil fuels, timber, and metals) from the Earth. The UN projects that, if we continue to use resources at the same rate, we will need to extract 180 billion tons of material per year by 2050. However, while population growth has no finite limit, the Earth’s resources that we rely on do.

For example, we are in danger of irreparably harming even our renewable resources, like fish; more than 30 percent of the world’s fisheries have been overfished, and need close oversight to avoid species extinction. Many of the world’s largest concentrations of people live in coastal communities, which means that overfishing could lead to food insecurity for over 3 billion people. The United Nations, realizing how vital the health of our oceans and fisheries are to both humans and the planet, included it in their Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 14, “Life Below Water,” aims to make protecting and preserving this resource a priority for the global community.

We also consume resources indirectly, through the production and transportation of our food and goods. Plastic, in its many forms, is all around us. It’s in our cars, our homes, our carpets, detergents, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and roads. It’s in our clothing, packaging, dyes, and pipes. Plastic is created from fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas. After the fossil fuels are extracted and processed to create plastic products, they are often shipped across the globe. This means that the environmental impact of the plastic that we use extends far beyond its ability to be reused or recycled.

As the global population expands, the majority of the growth will be occurring in the developing world, in places like India, Nigeria, and other sub-Saharan African nations. Currently, one North American uses 55 barrels of oil per person, per year. Conversely, one African uses just three barrels of oil per person, per year. This means that the environmental impact of one additional person depends heavily on where they live, and the resources that they have access to. The richest countries consume, on average, more than 10 times as many materials as the poorest countries.

Every country has the right to develop its economy and improve its citizens’ standard of living. However, because our current consumption of Earth’s resources cannot be sustained, the goal is to “decouple” the economic development of our world’s poorer nations from resource use. In other words, we must find ways for economies to grow without a corresponding increase in their environmental impact. Without drastic changes in the way that we consume resources, rapid population growth means that we run the risk of exhausting both Earth’s renewable and non-renewable resources.