The impacts of unsustainable development

Special article for the Earth Day

The world’s population is projected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, increasing by more than 25% from 2020’s population of 7.8 billion. In contrast, the animal population is decreasing heavily every year. For instance, around 60% of all fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals were wiped out by human activity between 1970 and 2014[1].

The situation is only getting worse. It is expected that nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals, and microorganisms will be killed or severely threatened over the next quarter-century due to deforestation, environmental contamination, and overexploitation of natural resources driven by agriculture and other human activities[2].

Note: Image extracted from United Nations Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ (2019). Source: WorldAtlas, “Most Populous Animals on Earth”, 2020. Available at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/most-populous-mammals-on-earth.html

Not only are we wiping out all kinds of live beings that cross our way, but we are also exposing ourselves to more significant threats that can challenge our existence.

1.Experts estimate that we are losing about 137 plant, animal, and insect species daily due to human-made rainforest deforestation, resulting in 50,000 species per year. As the rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases[3].

Source: Buy the Amazon, “Forest Facts”, 2019. Available at: http://www.buytheamazon.com/forest-facts2

2. Growing cities increase population and economic growth; however, they also increase greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in fast-growing damages, especially in adverse health impacts over the people living in such cities[4] [5].

Source: data from Statista. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/830953/deaths-due-to-air-pollution-in-major-countries/

3. Environmental degradation through CO2 emissions and deforestation exacerbates the magnitude of climate change impacts, resulting in more dangerous and destructive natural hazards.

Source: EM-DAT database.

4. Population growth and gaps in the development of adequate technology add to various additional challenges, such as sustainable energy production and water scarcity.

Note: image extracted from Luke Sharrett/Getty Images. Source: WWF (2019).

5. The additional pressures in water availability, combined with global warming, create further issues in the agriculture sector.

Source: United Nations Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ (2019).

Suppose we continue with the business-as-usual scenario, behaving the same way as always. In that case, this situation may lead to political instability, occasioning wars and conflicts over natural resources and development. Significant changes are required to revert this trend. Although solutions already exist, not every country is willing or can undertake them due to culture, contextual and resource-wise issues. The situation becomes even more challenging when we talk about developing countries.

The evidence in China’s “One-Child” policy and research

In 1979, given the dangerous rapid population growth in China, the government implemented the “One-Child” policy to ensure that the population growth did not outpace economic development and ease environmental and natural resource challenges and imbalances given by such growth[6].

More concretely, according to the Vice Director of the Population Commission in Henan, China, “the population controls have kept sulfur dioxide emissions down by 17.6% and the main source of water pollution by 30.8%. Without the One-Child policy, the average person in Henan would have a third less land and a quarter less forest. It has also prevented between 137m and 200m tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere”[7].

In academia, the researchers Seth and Kimberly (2017), discovered that compared to the second most impactful action to reduce the annual climate savings in tones of CO2, which is not owning a car, having one less child, is 30 times more effective.

These facts demonstrate that the planet may not be capable of sustaining the way we live and interact with nature for a long time. As expressed in the graph above, reducing population growth is just the surface of our real sustainability problems.

Women empowerment and affordable and attractive sustainable solutions as key to leapfrog on sustainability

There are multiple solutions to achieve sustainable development. However, which are the most effective? Considering the graph on personal choices to reduce your contribution to climate change, enhancement of women empowerment, and affordable and attractive sustainable solutions could be essential.

First, women are not empowered enough in developing countries, leaving them with less education, health, and job opportunities. This lack of empowerment, through lack of education, information, access to birth control, influences positvely the high population growth rates in developing countries.

High and rapid population growth rates can hamper economic development, causing massive unemployment and the obstruction of sustainable development. By empowering women, i.e., giving them access to education and employment, it would be easier for them to break out of poverty and decrease this unsustainable high growth. For instance, those who work and study are more likely to use birth control.[8]

Second, sustainable alternatives are out there and well-known with the general population; they are often not the cheapest or the most attractive. An easy example is the use of airplanes versus trains or other more sustainable means of transportation to travel inside a country or across countries. Airplanes are usually more affordable and faster than trains and other transportation methods; however, travelling by plane is considered the most polluting transportation mean. In another example, products with the “eco” labels or brands that guarantee that their products are recycled with minimized ecological footprint are more expensive than the traditional alternatives. These leave general population with litle choice when trying to adapt more sustainable lifestyles.

Conclusions and final discussions

Significant development gains are still awaiting, and they should be further leveraged by international organizations, such as the United Nations, as well as by governments and society.

On the one hand, women’s empowerment in developing countries is critical to achieving sustainable development and an equal society. Women empowerment can revert the trends on explosive population growth and provide better life opportunities to their countries.

While a more significant number of people are starting to be aware of their impacts and the alternatives to their actions, most sustainable options are still not affordable or not as attractive as the less sustainable ones. In this regard, governments could incentivize the most sustainable solutions by making them more affordable and accessible. If these alternatives are not reasonable and attractive enough, the change won’t happen, and we would continue as we currently are.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, we cannot expect an easy and pleasant future. The change must come now.

References:

[1], [2]:

[3]

[4]

[5] Other references of interest:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242185439_Population_Growth_and_Global_Carbon_Dioxide_Emission#:~:text=On%20average%2C%20it%20is%20found%20that%20a%201%25%20increase%20in,the%20next%20decades.%20...

[6]

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/oct/25/china-one-child-policy-benefits-rules#:~:text=This%20policy%20was%20initiated%20primarily,of%20water%20pollution%20by%2030.8%25.

[8]

Acknowledgements:

I would like to acknowledge those who engaged with me in previous debates before publishing this article, for their fundamental contributions on how to best address the topics on population growth, lifestyles, and sustainable development.

I want to give special thanks to Santiago Lema Burgos for his contributions to enhance the content’s readability of this article.

My name is Cristina Bernal Aparicio and I write to raise awareness and share knowledge on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.