Population and its impact on the natural environment is a complex interrelationship between a number of factors, including population dynamics (growth, distribution and decline) and development (industry, transport, agriculture, construction, trade and consumption).  These factors influence the level of consumption of natural resources and the kinds of pressures on natural systems such as solid waste, wastewater emissions and effluents. Finding a balance between environment assets, the capacity of natural systems to provide resources and absorb waste, population dynamics and development is difficult, yet essential for humans to sustain their lives on the planet. 

Though there is no simple relationship between population size and environmental change, it is noted that indefinite population growth cannot be sustained by limited natural resources. In the absence of other options, feeding growing number of mouths would definitely lead to over-exploitation and degradation of arable land, potable water, forests, and fisheries among other resources. Of course, humankind is dependent on the environment for all elements of life.  Degraded and inadequate quality resources can lead to public health issues that then influence the distribution of population.

Similarly, population distribution across the globe also affects the environment. Though it reduces the pressure on land and resource depletion in rural areas, urbanization induces the production of large quantities of wastes in all its forms, and creates huge demand on energy and basic infrastructure.  Given that over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, such pressures may lead to environmental degradation if environmental management services are not well managed and maintained.

Economic development also has a significant impact on how populations impact the environment. The industrial model of development, which often results in increased levels of consumerism and relies heavily on the use of fossil fuels, is the typical path that is taken.  This combination of population growth and development has resulted in a number of pressures on the natural environment, including:

  1. •Unprecedented increase in pollutants’ emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases.  Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up by approximately 35 percent since the 1900s, rising from 280 parts per million by volume to 387 parts per million in 2009.

  2. •Increasing levels of deforestation as a result of needing more land for food and timber production, which not only reduces global biodiversity, but also reduces the global capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, further exacerbating the climate change problem.

From a climate change perspective, the combined impacts of industrial development and population growth are undoubtedly catastrophic. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a sea-level rise of about half a meter by 2100, inducing flooding and soil erosion, increased storms, accelerated extinction of plants and animals, shifting agricultural zones, and a threat to public health due to increased water stress and tropical disease. The areas that are most likely to be impacted currently have the highest levels of population growth, high levels of poverty and therefore lowest ability to cope with these changes. As a result, these conditions are expected to trigger an increase in environmental refugees and international economic migration thus impacting the global demographic distribution.

Population + The Environment

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The world’s population is likely to grow from 6.9 billion in 2010 to somewhere between 8.0 and 10.5 billion by 2050. (United Nations)

90% of countries in the least resilient (to climate change) quartile are experiencing population growth rates above the global average. (Population Action International)

The poorest 50% of the world population is responsible for 7% of carbon dioxide emissions. (United Nations Population Fund)

Stats + Figures


Translator: Kassem El-Saddik (Lebanon). Vice President, Development Without Borders