People and the planet — A report from the Royal Society

There are two import­ant pieces of ‘grey lit­er­at­ure’ today: the first, from the Royal Society, is a report on how global pop­u­la­tion and con­sump­tion are linked, and the implic­a­tions for a finite planet. There was also a use­ful inter­view on the UK radio pro­gramme “Today” about 6.45 am; since the pro­gramme is still run­ning I can’t post a link to “listen again”, but it may be at http://​www​.bbc​.co​.uk/​p​r​o​g​r​a​m​m​e​s​/​b​0​1​g​h​c41. The second report is about the eco­nomic case for invest­ing in the envir­on­ment.

The global report from the RS com­mit­tee, led by Sir John Sulston, emphas­izes the prob­lem of unsus­tain­able con­sump­tion in indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries and unsus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion growth in devel­op­ing coun­tries, with many obvi­ous cross-overs as the poor increase their con­sump­tion (not least of meat), and con­sump­tion con­verts to envir­on­mental degrad­a­tion in the developed world.

With its clear writ­ing and import­ant mes­sage, as would be expec­ted from the Royal Society, there is little point in my para­phras­ing the suc­cinct report sum­mary here, so hence I am quot­ing the sum­mary in full:

Rapid and wide­spread changes in the world’s human pop­u­la­tion, coupled with unpre­ced­en­ted levels of con­sump­tion present pro­found chal­lenges to human health and well­being, and the nat­ural envir­on­ment. This report gives an over­view of how global pop­u­la­tion and con­sump­tion are linked, and the implic­a­tions for a finite planet.

Working Group chair Sir John Sulston FRS, Chair of the Institute for Science, Ethics & Innovation, University of Manchester.
Key recommendations

Key recom­mend­a­tions include:

The inter­na­tional com­munity must bring the 1.3 bil­lion people liv­ing on less than $1.25 per day out of abso­lute poverty, and reduce the inequal­ity that per­sists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas includ­ing eco­nomic devel­op­ment, edu­ca­tion, fam­ily plan­ning and health.

The most developed and the emer­ging eco­nom­ies must sta­bil­ise and then reduce mater­ial con­sump­tion levels through: dra­matic improve­ments in resource use effi­ciency, includ­ing: redu­cing waste; invest­ment in sus­tain­able resources, tech­no­lo­gies and infra­struc­tures; and sys­tem­at­ic­ally decoup­ling eco­nomic activ­ity from envir­on­mental impact.

Reproductive health and vol­un­tary fam­ily plan­ning pro­grammes urgently require polit­ical lead­er­ship and fin­an­cial com­mit­ment, both nation­ally and inter­na­tion­ally. This is needed to con­tinue the down­ward tra­ject­ory of fer­til­ity rates, espe­cially in coun­tries where the unmet need for con­tra­cep­tion is high.

Population and the envir­on­ment should not be con­sidered as two sep­ar­ate issues. Demographic changes, and the influ­ences on them, should be factored into eco­nomic and envir­on­mental debate and plan­ning at inter­na­tional meet­ings, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and sub­sequent meetings.

Other recom­mend­a­tions made in the report focus on:

the poten­tial for urb­an­isa­tion to reduce mater­ial con­sump­tion
remov­ing bar­ri­ers to achieve high-quality primary and sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion for all
under­tak­ing more research into the inter­ac­tions between con­sump­tion, demo­graphic change and envir­on­mental impact
imple­ment­ing com­pre­hens­ive wealth meas­ures
devel­op­ing new socio-economic systems. ”


Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison. ORCID 0000-0002-3105-2167

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.