The more of us there are, the less planet there is for each of us. With the global population projected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, Andrew Collier looks at how we might halt this rise while also easing pressure on the earth’s finite resources 

The 18th century economist Thomas Malthus was a prophet of doom long before the real-life crisis of climate change turned warnings into reality. He theorised that food production could not keep up with human population growth, leading to starvation, war, disease and general catastrophe.

In fact, we’re nowhere near filling the planet with people: put together in a huddle, every person on Earth would actually fit on Islay, with room to spare. Nevertheless, the global population continues to rise, compounding the environmental problems humanity currently faces.

This population growth is one of the areas that will be highlighted in Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), which this year takes place on August 22. It marks the moment in the annual calendar when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services starts to exceed what nature can regenerate. 

The EOD organisers stress one simple truth – that the more of us there are on the planet, the less of it there is for each of us. Every person has to be supported in areas such as food provision, healthcare, social functioning and waste management, many of which challenge and compromise the environment.

The statistics are sobering. If every second family had on average one fewer child, then the projected world population of 9.7 billion by 2050 would fall by a billion. By the end of the century, that drop would be four billion.
Importantly, that reduction would move Earth Overshoot Day back by a month by 2050.

It would mean 50 per cent more biocapacity per person by the year 2100 – a hugely significant and positive change.

Providing high quality education for women also helps to tackle population growth and the accompanying strain on resources. Statistics produced by the World Bank show that the difference in family size between women with no schooling and those with 12 years of school learning is four to five children per person. 

Those with the benefit of full education marry later, have smaller and healthier families, and invest in their children. It is clear that female learning generates social change, takes pressure off the planet’s resources and acts as a major driver of women’s empowerment.

The stark disparity in population growth between developed countries and less developed ones can be seen by comparing Scotland to other poorer nations. 
In this country, the total population in 2018 was calculated at 5.44 million. According to the National Records of Scotland, this is set to rise only slightly to 5.57 million by 2043 and then level off.

By comparison, Nigeria – the most heavily populated country in Africa – is predicted to be set to grow from its current 206 million to 401 million by 2050 and more than 728 million by the turn of the century.

By lowering the number of people on the planet, we ease the pressure on resources. And as we consume, so we also discard. The levels of waste we generate are frightening – and growing.

At present, the average person in the United States throws away their body weight in rubbish every month. Population increase means waste has increased tenfold over the last century, and it is now expected to double again by 2025.

Recycling and composting are having an impact, but they are not holding back the tide. Urban areas, which now house half the world’s population, are the worst affected, but we are now seeing waste plastic in almost all of our oceans and rivers.

How can this problem be mitigated, particularly as societies become wealthier, creating yet more packaging and a throwaway culture? Industrial processes can be improved; there can be a greater drive towards re-use and recycling; rubbish charges have been seen to have an effect.

Here at home, there is a drive towards creating a circular economy, a model that aims to eliminate waste and resource over-use by encouraging an extension of the life cycle of products and equipment through initiatives such as sharing, refurbishment and remanufacturing.

The Scottish Government published its own vision for this, titled Making Things Last, in 2016, and Zero Waste Scotland took this further through its own study in June.

This identifies a number of key principles including being led by the available evidence; achieving absolute emissions reductions; prioritising reduction of emissions over offsetting; going beyond net zero; and sharing successes and failures to help drive change.

Louise McGregor, Head of Circular Economy at the organisation, said this circular model provided a tool not just to dispose of waste in an eco-friendly way, but to reduce it in the first place.

“That’s much more effective than waiting for the waste to be generated and then recycling it. Most of the carbon is associated with the production of the products rather than getting rid of it at the end of its life.”

She described the circular economy as a “systems level approach”, explaining: “If you take something like food waste, then we can do quite a lot to collect that and reprocess it, and of course that’s all beneficial.

“But with a circular economy, you think about things from the start – how it is produced in the first place and what you can do at each stage so that waste isn’t there to start with. Historically, we’ve not been very good at doing that.”

Another problem, she says, is that we have developed a throwaway culture. “It’s often cheaper to buy something new than to repair a product. One way of incentivising a new approach is to use economic levers. We need to ask how we can use the tax system to make it more cost effective to do the right thing.”

The country’s farmers, too, are in the front line of the battle against climate change. A report commissioned by WWF Scotland earlier this year raised the prospect of mitigation measures that involve little or no change of land use.

Suggested steps included improvements to animal health and breeding, feed additives, use of nitrogen fertilisers, rotational grazing and using plants such as clovers to fix nitrogen levels.

Dr Sheila George, the organisation’s Food and Environment Policy Manager, said: “Agriculture is at risk from a changing climate but can be part of the climate solution.

“Our land is our biggest natural defence against climate change and farmers and other land managers have a key role in protecting it. We need to produce food in a way that reduces emissions and locks up more carbon. “

She added: “By adapting our farming methods, Scotland could be at the forefront of the global transition to climate-friendly farming with unique export and branding opportunities arising.

‘“To get there, we need to see a reframing of rural policy and financial support along with advice and training available for land managers.”