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Chartered Institution of Water and
Environmental Management (CIWEM)

106-109 Saffron Hill, London, EC1N 8QS  
Tel: 020 7831 3110 Fax: 020 7405 4967

Population and Consumption


This Policy Position Statement (PPS) sets out CIWEM's position on the importance of addressing current levels of population growth, resource consumption and moving towards living within environmental limits in the UK.


CIWEM calls for:

1. An end, globally, to the presumption that economic growth and population growth are essential for a successful society, with societal wellbeing and a healthy natural environment afforded greater status in this respect.

2. A demonstrable commitment by the Government to align all aspects of the UK economy, including its population, with the principle of living within environmental limits.

3. An urgent and informed public debate on sustainable human population movement and growth for the UK using independent research and data which also measures the impact of people's lifestyles on the environment, and considers issues such as faith, cultural attitudes, poverty and migration.

4. The Government to monitor and report on the impact of population and people's lifestyles on the environment, such information being essential to planning and evolving communities and to planning for action on climate change.

5. Wider education, especially in schools, regarding the environmental impacts of the UK's consumer culture, with a focus on more needs-based living, society and family.

6. A complete review of all benefits and fiscal policies to identify any perverse incentives for people in the UK to have more than two children, leading to a non-coercive policy which encourages people to 'stop at two'.

7. Wider public education regarding reproduction and fertility, in all areas of global society, and provision of free family planning support to all.

8. The UK to lead the way in international negotiations to increase levels of overseas development committed to educating men and empowering women to take greater control of their own fertility.

9. A clear and concerted effort to eradicate poverty, recognising the clear correlation between poverty and higher reproduction rates. This effort should foster development not based on a traditional western model and utilise leading techniques and technologies which are 'light touch' on the environment.

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) is the leading professional body for the people who plan, protect and care for the environment and its resources, providing educational opportunities, independent information to the public and advice to government. Members in 98 countries include scientists, engineers, ecologists and students.



One third of all humans who have ever lived are alive today. The global population is currently 6.9 billion and is predicted to pass 7 billion in 2011 and rise to around 9 billion people by 2050.  Over the past 200 years populations have risen dramatically (globally from around 1 billion in 1800) as improved public health and industrialisation driven by the harnessing of energy from fossil fuels has lead to significant increases in life expectancy in many nations. Yet today, there is still widespread poverty and 1.1 billion people lack access to drinking water and basic sanitation. As the global population grows, two-thirds of the world's people will face moderate to high water shortages by 2050[i].

It is widely regarded that a fertility rate (births per female) of 2.1 is the replacement level for humans. The world average, whilst having fallen over the past few decades is still above this at 2.5[ii]. In the UK the total fertility rate stood in 2008 at 1.9 with the average in Western Europe at 1.6 and in the USA, 2.1[iii]. In many of these regions population growth will occur largely, if not entirely, through inward migration.

Typically in less industrialised countries the fertility rate is higher. The average rate in 2008 for Asia was 2.3 and South America, 2.2. In sub-Saharan Africa it was 5.3. Broadly speaking, these rates have declined marginally over the past 10-20 years but show a link between higher fertility rates, low life expectancy and where poverty is widespread. Rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India are closer to the rates of western nations, with India at 2.7 and China, which has followed its ethically questionable one child policy, at 1.6.

Demographic development interacts in many ways with social and economic development. The size and age composition of a population are determined by fertility and mortality trends which depend on, among other things, education, income, social norms, and health provisions. As countries industrialise and these trends change, infant mortality rates decline. This then leads to a fall in fertility rates as more children are able to reach adulthood and provide for their families.

In population literature there has been an assumption that as a country develops and its affluence increases, pollution levels increase initially and then later decline (a relationship often referred to as the environmental Kuznets curve). This has been attributed to a greater willingness to pay for pollution abatement and a clean environment alongside the development of 'cleaner' technologies.  However whist this has been shown for some traditional pollutants such as particulates, the same cannot be said for others, for example greenhouse gas emissions[iv]. In industrialised countries, increased prosperity has run side by side with increased use and manipulation of natural resources from greater demands for food, water and energy.

Respected recent reports from WWF confirm that humankind has already breached environmental limits and the capacity of the planet to support present levels of consumption. For many social, environmental and economic problems, population growth and consumption can be attributed as a root cause, and in others, it is a clear exacerbating factor. CIWEM believes we need to raise awareness of the issues that uninhibited population growth places on resources and the environment[v].

At a crude level we currently are facing three critical aspects of demographic change:

  • Industrialised countries that are perpetuating patterns of high consumption and encouraging others to do the same. These countries also have ecological footprints which extend way beyond their borders and may create environmental problems in the countries from which they import.
  • Rapidly industrialising countries exhibiting high rates of consumption which will in the medium term have high populations and high levels of consumption. This also includes issues such as maturing diets and the resources to maintain them.
  • Countries that are still facing poverty and depend on large populations for survival. There needs to be a concerted effort to eradicate poverty and these countries should not be encouraged to develop following western development models.

Traditionally population has been discussed as 'the problem'. This tends to imply that it does not apply to the industrialised world with declining fertility rates but to the industrialising world. Yet there are serious ethical issues surrounding a situation where industrialised countries perpetuate patterns of over-consumption as ethically no one human on earth should have any greater right to utilise more than their share of resources than any other. This balance between growing populations and increasing levels of consumption adds to the difficulty of discussing equitable solutions in different parts of the world.

Despite the centrality of population growth and consumption to many of the world's environmental problems, it remains an issue that most governments ignore. A marked reluctance to discuss population publicly, even by the green movement, has added to the urgency of addressing it now. The charity Population Matters[vi] have been instrumental in raising awareness by campaigning for the stabilisation and gradual decrease of the population to sustainable levels by voluntary means. CIWEM is clear that the problems we face today are directly related to both of these factors and there is a need for open and informed public discussion of the issue.


UK situation

The UK population currently stands at over 61million people[vii]. In October 2007 the Office for National Statistics[viii] projected that the UK population would increase to 65 million by 2016 and reach 71 million by 2031. The justification for these projections lies with natural increase (births outnumbering deaths) and net inward migration. Migration is an important driver of population change and the most difficult component to estimate. The rise in migration in the UK can be attributed to increases in globalisation, expansion of the EU, political instability in many regions of the world and the rise in access to travel[ix].

The UK's population consumes more resources than can be produced sustainably. Our way of life is maintained by importing and using resources from other countries, in many cases to the detriment of the people and the environment in producing areas, and drawing heavily on non-renewable resources. The New Economics Foundation third report on interdependence claims that "the UK's patterns of interdependence will have to change radically if our economy is to become remotely sustainable"[x]. It found we are no longer able to meeet our energy needs from domestic resources (with our energy dependence factor increasing 5 fold between 2004 and 2008) and our food self-sufficiency is below that of 40 years ago.

The Sustainable Development Commission recommended that the UK's environmental wellbeing should be measured using the carbon footprint of consumption as broadly, consumption rates are reflected by carbon emissions. In the UK context, we are consuming approximately three times more resources than is 'our fair share', and display characteristics of a materialistic, consumer culture, which is completely unsustainable.


Discussion of key issues

CIWEM considers there are five key issues to address regarding living within environmental limits[1]:

  1. Resource consumption;
  2. Carrying capacity for pollutants and consumer culture;
  3. Population size;
  4. The location of populations and
  5. Poverty and population growth


Resourse consumption

Resource use must be maintained at a sustainable level. Put simply, resource use may be considered as what we take from the environment.  Technological, economic, and social innovation have long been means by which a greater number of people can live from the same environmental resources for example from the agricultural and industrial revolutions. However some resources are renewable and others are not. Many renewable resources such as plant and fish populations are only so if managed properly, i.e. their exploitation is within certain limits.

According to WWF[xi], mankind is using about 20% more resources than the planet can sustain in the long term, and humanity's ecological footprint has more than tripled since 1961. This is by no means spread evenly across the world. Indeed the world's richest half billion people (about 7% of the global population) are responsible for 50% of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions, with the poorest 50% responsible for just 7% of global emissions[xii].

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was undertaken over a four-year period leading up to 2005 by 1300 researchers from 95 nations and is the most comprehensive report into the state of the Planet. The report of the Board of the MA[xiii] raised a number of key points, which included:

Everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a decent, healthy, and secure life.
Humans have made unprecedented changes to ecosystems in recent decades to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, fibre, raw materials and energy.
These changes have helped to improve the lives of billions, but at the same time they weakened nature's ability to deliver other key services such as purification of air and water, protection from disasters, and the provision of medicines.
It also states that pressures on ecosystems will increase unless human attitudes and actions change, and nearly two thirds of the services provided by nature to mankind are in decline, because of our actions.

CIWEM believes there must be concerted efforts to significantly increase resource efficiency, particularly in areas such as transport, energy (heating and electricity) and water. Reuse and recycling of materials also saves energy and uses fewer raw materials. Public attitudes towards consumption must be modified so that there is less glamour attached to materialistic and highly consumptive lifestyles, with greater value attached to a more needs-based approach to living.  This represents a very significant challenge, and it is likely that one of the most effective ways of engendering more responsible attitudes to consumption is to include education on this issue in the national curriculum.

In essence, there is a requirement to move away from economic models which are based on perpetual growth, based on consumption. Politically speaking this is an almost unimaginable challenge as such principles are the foundations of all developed, 'western' economies.  Yet as the results of longitudinal studies of happiness or life satisfaction published by the Cabinet Office[xiv] show, levels of happiness rise with GDP until basic needs are met, at which point increased GDP no longer asserts a positive effect on happiness. For humanity to survive in the long-term, our definitions and measures of success must change.


Carrying capacity for pollutants

If we are to live within environmental limits it is essential that we understand and manage the impacts of resource exploitation in terms of the associated pollution and other impacts such as physical destruction of ecosystems (deforestation for agricultural land creation or logging, for example).

The environment is able to cope with, and reprocess many forms of pollution, and ecosystems may regenerate with appropriate careful management regimes.  However, the intensity of contemporary resource exploitation is such that many ecosystems and environmental processes are under extreme stress from pollution and physical destruction and are unable to absorb pollutants or regenerate sufficiently quickly to prevent decline.

For some pollutants such as carbon dioxide we have a fairly clear scientific understanding of the carrying capacity and the reductions required[xv]. The Global Commons Institute[xvi] proposed the system of "Contraction and Convergence", which provides a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change in an equitable manner. Its principle could be extended to wider environmental pollution and resource exploitation quota systems.  Presently many industrialised countries effectively export much of the pollution associated with their consumption, as manufacturing and raw materials production have moved to less industrialised countries where labour and resources are cheaper and environmental regulations are less stringent.  As such countries industrialise and their domestic demand for products increases as a result of wealth creation, such environmental pressures are likely to increase further before they become more tightly regulated.


Population size

As previously stated the population of the UK is expected to reach 71 million by 2031. Demand for housing is currently greater than supply in the UK. In terms of projected future housing growth, the Department for Communities and Local Government[xvii] attributes 131,000 of the projected 223,000 new homes required annually to 2026 to population growth. 33 per cent of the growth is attributable to inward migration.

CIWEM is concerned that Government must recognise that while a large population may bring benefits of wealth creation during periods of economic growth through employment, the population must be recognised as something other than economic units contributing to gross domestic product (GDP). Large, unsustainable populations when allied to high levels of consumption cause environmental degradation and contribute to climate change, and both these factors must be addressed.

The UK population is ageing with the over-65s projected to increase in number by 66% between 2007 and 2032, to make up nearly 23% of the total UK population[xviii]. CIWEM supports greater flexibility in relation to policies on the age of retirement to allow those who want to, to continue working. A strengthening of social and family values should also be engendered to encourage a wider sense of responsibility for the elderly within families. The myth that a growing population is required to maintain the ability to pay for an ageing population must be debunked. The benefits of such a position - like those of perpetual economic growth - are founded on short-termism and are not sustainable in the long-term.

CIWEM asserts that action on climate change and sustainability - at both local and global levels - cannot take place in a meaningful way without a proper analysis and discussion of the effects of population growth.  This is an emotive and difficult issue, but nevertheless it is a debate which must be had. 'Securing the Future', states that: "The demands made on natural resources continue to grow as people's desire to consume more is coupled with a rise in population." CIWEM welcomes the recognition of this link, yet we are concerned that the strategy goes no further in terms of stating whether the rise in population should be tackled as part of living within environmental limits.

Action on population continues to be negatively associated with human rights abuses associated with coercive policies in countries such as China and India. CIWEM believes that the key strategy in tackling unsustainable population growth should be education and awareness programmes, relating to both the availability of family planning support and to the environmental impacts of population growth. At the same time, the feasibility and appropriateness of modification of state benefits such that they are profiled to disincentivise large families, should be seriously examined.  Here a delicate balance would need to be found between actively encouraging a more sustainable population size and protecting the poor and vulnerable. 


The location of populations

Living within environmental limits is not solely about resource use.  The concentration of populations in set locations, e.g. large cities means that populations are less mobile and adaptable, and potentially more vulnerable to environmental change - some of which may be exacerbated by mankind's resource use and pollution.  Projections of likely future climate change indicate that this may become an increasing issue.

In the UK, attention has recently focussed on the proportion of the population at risk of flooding either on river floodplains or from coastal erosion and sea level rise and those where there are high demands for water.  It is essential to understand that certain environmental phenomena cannot be prevented and associated risks to human populations eliminated. It is therefore necessary to understand at what point human activity should be limited in a given location because of the existence of environmental hazards, which can only be managed to a certain extent. Appropriate planning and decision-making frameworks should be put in place to ensure that populations are not put at undue risk because of the existence of environmental phenomena.  In the global context it is projected that by 2025, 2.75 billion people will be exposed to coastal threats associated with climate change such as sea level rise or stronger hurricanes because of the ongoing trend of development near the coast.


Poverty and population growth

High birth rates and poverty are inextricably linked.  In many countries childhood mortality remains so high that families have large numbers of children in order to provide a greater likelihood that a certain number will survive to adulthood and so support ageing parents.  Without resources to secure their future people rely on their families. For those living on the margins of survival, children as young as 12 will be contributing to the family with income or labour. High fertility rates also exist where there are few opportunities for women to work outside the home.

Elimination of poverty and provision of better healthcare is key. Additionally, it remains common for women in certain cultures to have little or no control over their fertility, with pregnancy effectively forced upon them by men. Here, education of men, leading to greater respect for women, is essential. Slower population growth offers a demographic dividend, which opens the door to economic progress and permits countries to invest in education, health and environmental improvements; and to give greater control to women over their own fertility. Large families are usually not the choice of the poor, but a result of their inability to exercise their options to manage their family size. Wherever fertility has fallen there is little doubt that female empowerment to control fertility is a key part of the equation.

According to the UN, little progress has been made in reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, where the poverty rate has declined only slightly, from 58 to 51 per cent between 1990 and 2005[xix]. NEF has argued "the only effective and socially acceptable path to influence population dynamics is through eradicating poverty and reducing inequality, this is hardwired to ending rich overconsumption. Overconsumption drives both population growth and movement of people within and across borders. If the latter is to be reduced, the consumption patterns of rich countries must first be cut back to sustainable levels"[xx].


June 2011


Note: CIWEM Policy Position Statements (PPS) represent the Institution's views on issues at a particular point in time. It is accepted that situations change as research provides new evidence. It should be understood, therefore, that CIWEM PPS's are under constant review, and that previously-held views may alter and lead to revised PPS's.


[1] Living within environmental limits is defined in 'Securing the Future' as: "Respecting the limits of the planet's environment, resources and biodiversity - to improve our environment and ensure that the natural resources needed for life are unimpaired and remain so for future generations."


[i] CIWEM evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group. October 2009.

 "Climate change equity: is it a plan, an aspiration or a fashion statement?" /policy-and-international/consultation.aspx

[ii]   World Bank, World Development Indicators - Last updated Apr 2, 2011

[iii] Population Reference Bureau: 2009 World Population Data Sheet

[iv] IPCC special report on emissions scenarios

[v] CIWEM evidence to Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. November 2009. "The Environmental Impacts of Demographic change in the UK". /policy-and-international/consultation.aspx

[vi] Population Matters, 2011.




[x] NEF. 2009. The consumption explosion, the third interdependence report


[xii] NEF. 2009. The consumption explosion, the third interdependence report

[xiii] Statement of the MA Board: Living Beyond our Means: Natural Assets and Human well-Being, 2005 ( )

[xiv] The Strategy Unit, Cabinet Office, 2002. Life satisfaction: The state of knowledge and implications for government

[xv] Forum for the future. 2010. Growing pains: population and sustainability in the UK.

[xvi] A Meyer. GCI Briefing: Contraction and Convergence.

[xvii] Communities and Local Government: New projections of households for England and the regions to 2029, March 2007

[xviii] Forum for the future. 2010. Growing pains: population and sustainability in the UK.

[xix] UN. Millenium development goals progress report

[xx] NEF. 2009. The consumption explosion, the third interdependence report


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