The challenges of a greater population

What are the issues that a population of 8 billion people have to face?
06 December 2022

Interview with 

Kathleen Mogelgaard, Population Institute


A crowded beach


If our immediate future is for the moment set to be one of continuing growth, what are the challenges that we are facing with a greater population? Will Tingle spoke with Kathleen Mogelgaard, CEO of the Population Institute about the array of challenges that come with a growing number of people, from disease, to the economy, to the environment…

Kathleen - This is also a complicated one when it comes to thinking about population trends and environmental impact, because we know that not every person has a uniform environmental footprint. This is illustrated really clearly with the climate change issue where folks in the United States and other industrialized countries have a huge carbon footprint with the kinds of consumption patterns that we have. And places around the world that are growing the most rapidly, in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, their carbon footprints per capita are extremely small. So while it is true that an overall growth in the world's population over time is a factor that can drive the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, population growth is not an area that is dominant in terms of its impact on the growth of greenhouse gases. The area that is dominant in the growth of greenhouse gases is the highly fossil fuel consumption patterns that are happening in industrialized countries. That's not to say however, that we shouldn't be thinking about population dynamics in our response to the climate crisis. And one area where this is extremely evident is in terms of climate change vulnerability. We know, for example, that the countries that are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, many of them are experiencing rapid population growth. So as we as a collective global community are thinking about long range responses to the climate crisis, we really need to be understanding those demographic trends, how they exacerbate vulnerability, and also thinking about how the investments that we make today that improve the health and wellbeing of people here today can have an impact of shaping demographic trends over time in ways that reduces the scale of human vulnerability to climate change and really strengthens adaptive capacity. Things like investing in the education of girls, ensuring that reproductive health and family planning services are available and accessible to everyone everywhere.

Will - In less economically developed parts of the world. Obviously, as you say, they are not responsible for the majority of carbon emissions, but is there anything to the claims that as their populations grow and industrialization increases and they have access to better transport, better infrastructure, better standard of living, that their levels of carbon emissions will suddenly spike up? And with the increase in population they have, it becomes an environmental effect of a greater population, but 20 or 30 years further down the line?

Kathleen - For sure. And some of the climate modeling that has been done has demonstrated this. That over time, as we have growing world population and as we make assumptions about the kinds of poverty alleviation and economic development goals proceeding, that there will be, even with the best technology in renewable energy extended to everyone everywhere at as quick a pace as we can possibly do, there will be continued use of fossil fuels to some degree in parts around the world. And so as populations that are growing now hopefully begin to come out of poverty, we can expect their carbon footprints to increase to some degree. But we hope that we can really be doing our job to support the development and dissemination of renewable energy technology very widely.

Will - It's a hot topic now, and it certainly has been for the last few years, but with an increased population, does that go hand in hand with areas being more prone to disease outbreaks?

Kathleen - Certainly as communities live in closer contact with one another as population density proceeds, you know, there is a global trend toward urbanization. In the last couple of decades, we have crossed over the threshold of 50% of us now living in urban areas around the world. And we are also pushing up against the boundaries of natural habitats. And these are things that, as I understand, can lead to greater transfer of disease between animal populations and human populations. And then when you have human populations that are living in much greater density, in closer proximity to one another, diseases can transfer, and can be spread more rapidly in those kinds of conditions. Particularly if there are places where infrastructure is not in place, where communities are not planned in ways that really support clean water and sanitation, for example. There's that kind of human population density that can lead to the rapid spread of disease.

Will - What are the economic effects? Because presumably you'd think if there were more people, surely we are generating more money.

Kathleen - It's not quite that simple, unfortunately. We are living in an increasingly demographically divided world, and I know there are a number of countries that are experiencing population aging, with greater proportions of their populations in the older age brackets. There are some countries right now that are actually experiencing population decline, but there are many countries around the world that are continuing to experience very rapid population growth, and they have extremely youthful age structures. So each generation is larger than the one before. And in places where they're already struggling to provide basic services around education, around housing, around job opportunities, when each generation is larger than the one before, it can be very difficult to even stay in place with the kinds of progress that you are offering to your own population. And a very rapid population growth rate can overwhelm those basic services, can make it very difficult to provide education to the population, to provide housing and to provide job opportunities. So a rapid population growth rate that many countries are still experiencing can make it very difficult to pursue our goals around poverty alleviation, for example, or other sustainable development goals.


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