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New index highlights most overpopulated countries

Singapore is the world’s most overpopulated state, followed by Israel and Kuwait, according to a new league table ranking countries by their degree of overpopulation. The UK is 17th in the table.

The Overpopulation Index, published by the Optimum Population Trust to mark World Population Day, July 11, is thought to be the first international “league table” to rank countries according to the sustainability of their populations – the extent to which they are living within their environmental means.

It examines data for over 130 individual countries and concludes that 77 of them are overpopulated – they are consuming more resources than they are producing and are dependent on other countries, and ultimately the Earth a whole, to make good the difference.

Middle Eastern and European countries dominate the index, with nine and eight respectively among the 20 most overpopulated. China and India, despite being bywords for overpopulation, rank lower, at 29th and 33rd respectively. The world as a whole, meanwhile, is overpopulated by two billion – the difference between its actual population and the number it can support sustainably, given current lifestyles and technologies.

The calculations have been made possible by advances in the methodology of ecological footprinting, which measures the area of biologically productive land and water required to produce the resources and absorb the waste of a given population or activity and expresses this in global hectares – hectares with world-average biological productivity.

The index uses data contained in the latest Ecological Footprint Atlas, produced last year by the Global Footprint Network and based on figures for 2006. Data were available for over 130 states. The atlas assesses the ecological footprint and biocapacity (renewable biological productivity) of a country on a per capita basis. The index measures the proportion of a country’s average per capita footprint not supplied from its own biocapacity to determine how dependent it is on external sources.*

A UK citizen, for example, has an average ecological footprint of 6.12 global hectares but because of the size of the population, their “share” of national biocapacity is only 1.58 global hectares. This gives the UK a self-sufficiency rating of 25.8 per cent – the proportion of its footprint it derives from its own resources –and a corresponding dependency rating of 74.2 per cent. If it had to rely on its own biocapacity, the UK could therefore sustain only a quarter of its population – around 15 million – and, at current consumption levels, is “overpopulated” by more than 45 million (see index).

The population of Africa as a whole, while not exceeding its biocapacity share, has both higher levels of fertility and poverty than any other continent. OPT chair Roger Martin described this as “a stark illustration of the unfortunate trade-offs between growing populations and sustainable livelihoods which we are currently seeing”.

He said: “Some people may argue that in a world of international trade, national self-sufficiency doesn’t matter. We think that’s a very short-sighted view. You don’t have to be a little Englander or an eco-survivalist to conclude that in an era of growing shortages – food, energy, water – being so dependent on the outside world puts us in a very vulnerable position. With the rest of the world, including many countries much poorer than the UK, supplying three-quarters of our overall needs, it’s also morally questionable.”

“ ‘Overpopulation’ is a much used and abused word, but we believe the index helps to anchor it firmly in the realm of sustainability – of people living within the limits of the place they inhabit. I think the index also clarifies what we really mean by sustainability and how important human numbers are to the concept.”

“To reduce our impact on the planet, we need to think about both numbers of consumers and how much they consume, and the UK is doing exceptionally badly on both fronts. Had we published this calculation last year, my understanding is that the UK would have been in 19th position. In terms of numbers – and therefore in terms of sustainability – we are still moving in the wrong direction, both in the table and in reality. It’s about time we woke up to the fact that the UK has a real population problem.”

Mr. Martin added: “There is a long history of estimating how many people the world can support, some of it extremely fanciful. Ecological footprinting has developed rapidly in recent years and is now beginning to produce probably the best data we have ever had. The index uses this data to provide a compelling picture of not only where we are but where we need to be. And where we need to be, both globally and nationally, is clearly supporting significantly fewer people than we are.”

*For further explanation and technical notes, see index at www.optimumpopulation.org/overpopulationindex.pdf
For details of ecological footprinting, see www.footprintnetwork.org/atlas. Individual data were not available for some countries.
**The index only covers countries where the ecological footprint exceeds biocapacity; countries with a high fertility rate and a footprint lower than their biocapacity are those experiencing extreme poverty, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa.