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Population Matters response to UK government’s A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment

19 January 2018

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Population Matters response to UK government’s A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment

Campaigning charity Population Matters has today contacted the Secretary of State for the Environment to call upon him to introduce measures to address unsustainable population in the government’s environmental plan. In its submission, the charity notes that A Green Future acknowledges population growth’s impact on the planet without considering its contribution to environmental problems in the UK or proposing any measures to address it.

The submission examines how ONS projections for long term population growth show wide variations based on different scenarios, including fertility and migration. These mean that population growth is not inevitable and policy measures can have a positive impact on them. It details the contribution of population to CO2 emissions and water scarcity and how family planning aid can help meet A Green Plan’s stated aim of contributing to the solution of environmental problems. It concludes with a call for a strategic and ethical overarching population policy in the UK, to meet the aspirations of A Green Future and to address the other issues arising from population pressure.

Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

“Population Matters applauds the Government’s stated objective to be ‘the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.’ Yet the Plan fails to address the over-riding challenge to achieving that objective: human population growth and its impacts. 


“As our patron, Sir David Attenborough, states with characteristic common-sense: ‘All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more people.’


“That’s as relevant to our small island as to the planet overall. A Green Future has more references to populations of wildlife in this country than the population of human beings.  There are ethical and effective policy approaches that can be taken to bring UK population to sustainable levels. By ignoring human population, the Government’s plan is at best a finger in an already over-brimming dyke.”

The policy is appended in full below.


Contact: Alistair Currie, Head of Campaigns and Communications

Tel: 0208 123 9170

Response by Population Matters to A Green Future: Our 25 year Plan to Improve the Environment

18 January 2018

Population Matters is the UK’s leading charity campaigning to achieving long-term sustainability through promoting smaller families and moderating consumption globally. Our vision is for a future with decent living standards for all, a healthy and biodiverse environment, and a stable and sustainable human population. Our agenda is avowedly pro-people, pro-planet – and underpinned by a rights-based approach.


  • The government’s aspirations and overarching objectives are welcome
  • Failure to properly consider the effects of unsustainable population levels and growth undermines the Plan’s analysis
  • Lack of any policies to address population growth fundamentally undermine the potential effectiveness of the Plan
  • Population growth in the UK can be reduced and population brought in time to sustainable levels through practical, ethical and strategic polices

The population factor


Population Matters welcomes the Government’s stated overarching objective for A Green Future[i] – that “ours can become the first generation to leave that environment in a better state than we found it and pass on to the next generation a natural environment protected and enhanced for the future.”


Population Matters applauds and shares that objective, but believe that the 25 Year Plan is fundamentally flawed in failing to include any detailed consideration of the over-riding factor challenging our ability to live within the environmental boundaries of our planet and so sustain all life on earth, including that of our own species, namely: ongoing human population growth and its impacts.


Our patron, Sir David Attenborough, communicates this point with characteristic succinctness and common-sense:

“All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more people.”

What applies to Island Earth applies to our own island, and in particular England – the third most densely populated country in the European Union after Malta and the Netherlands[ii],[iii]. A plan which seeks to address our environmental challenges without addressing population is holed below the water line.


Key points


1. Population growth is not a predetermined fact


The Plan does refer to population in passing (pages 7, 17, 18, 28, 31) – but without any detailed analysis, apparently accepting ongoing population growth as something that is predetermined and cannot be influenced.

This is incorrect – as borne out by the data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) – the leading sources for data on human population at, respectively, the UK and global levels.

ONS produces National Population Projections every 2 years. Its latest projections published on 26 October 2017 state:

  • UK population is projected to pass 70 million (currently 65.6m) by mid-2029; 72.9m mid-2041*
  • ONS’s latest long-term (100 year) projection is for 86 million by 2116 – 20 million more people than currently. [iv]
  • The projected growth of 16% over 2015 – 2040 is well above the EU average while Germany’s  growth is 4%.

As ONS emphasises‘’Population projections are not forecasts”.  ONS runs a range of projections – low, medium and high. The latest published figures refer to the ONS’s medium projections. The low, medium and high projections are calculated on a variable “set of underlying assumptions about future fertility, mortality and migration.” Those assumptions can be influenced and fertility and migration are both amenable to policy changes.

In the case of fertility, the UN’s global model is instructive. The UN’s low, medium and high projections for the global human population ranges from a low of 7.4 billion people on the planet by 2100, to the medium figure of 11.2 billion, and a high of 16.6 billion[v]. That huge variance of 9.2 billion is based on a very small change in individual fertility rates globally:  i.e. the average fertility globally going up or down by just ‘half a child per woman’. One child less per every second family produces a total population of 7.4 billion; one child more and the figure is more than double.

Population growth whether in the UK or globally is not predetermined and there are ethically acceptable, non-coercive ways that policy-makers and individuals can enable the lower rather than higher projections to be achieved (see below).

2. The UK’s environmental footprint is already too heavy


The Plan makes no reference to the UK’s current ‘Global Footprint’ (see below) or any clear acknowledgement that the UK is already drawing too heavily on its own available and wider globally available natural resources and ecosystems.

It talks of “enhancing our natural capital – the air, water, soil and ecosystems that support all forms of life” with the aim of boosting “economic growth and productivity over the long term.” Yet there is no acknowledgement that the UK is already in deficit in terms of its own and everyone else’s available natural capital.

According to the respected Global Footprint Network, collectively the UK is consuming nearly 3 planet’s worth of resources – that is, the amount of the Earth’s renewable resources required if everyone sought to live and consume as we do. [vi]

Depletion of natural capital is almost inevitable when population is increasing – as that of the UK is.

3. Curbing Climate Change – ignoring the most effective ‘possible action’

The Plan states that, “We will take all possible action to mitigate climate change, while adapting to reduce its impact” – but omits to make any mention of the most effective action for curbing climate change and reducing emissions of harmful greenhouse gases: enabling and encouraging people to have smaller families and fewer children.


Recent research from Lund University, Sweden, compared all green lifestyle choices a family could make and found that by having one fewer child, an individual would reduce their CO2 emissions by 58.6 tonnes per year over their lifetime – more than 20 times the benefits of any other action[vii].

The Climate Change Act commits the UK to reducing emissions to 80% of the 1990 level by 2050. By 2050, the UK’s population will be 17 million higher than in 1990, and (according to the medium ONS projection) will be 13% higher than it is today. This growth significantly exacerbates the challenge of meeting the target but lower growth will squeeze greater value from every other measure employed to reduce emissions.

Addressing the population issue by enabling and encouraging people to choose smaller families is an essential component of an effective global and national climate change strategy – especially relevant in developed, high-consuming countries like the UK.[viii]

4. Water – some rather dry facts about the UK


The Plan refers to the need to safeguard long-term water resources, “Ensuring interruptions to water supplies are minimised during prolonged dry weather and drought.”  It fails, however, to address the simple reality that a central factor in water scarcity is demand, which is directly related to population. For instance, the South East of England, the region where current and projected UK population growth, associated housing development and other infrastructure is concentrated, is already hugely water-stressed. According to the Royal Geographical Society, “On a world ranking of water availability – from most to least – southeast England would be 161st out of 180 world regions. Increasing population and housing growth will increase water demand by 5% or an extra 800 million litres of water per day by 2020.” [ix]

In terms of water available per person, southeast England has less water available than the Sudan.


5. Acting and thinking nationally and globally

A Green Future is to be commended for emphasising that the UK or even England is not a single, isolated island or country separated from mainland Europe or the wider world when it comes to the environment and life-sustaining ecosystems:

“We all live on one planet. We cannot improve the UK’s environment in isolation from the wider global environment – we must protect and enhance both.”

It commits the Government to “help developing nations protect and improve the environment by providing assistance and supporting disaster planning.”


This is commendable, but not focused, or reflecting ‘joined-up government’.  The UK, through the Department for International Development (DFID), has been in the forefront of countries providing development aid specifically for improving women’s access to family planning. Back in 2012, the UK pledged £516 million over 2012 to 2020 to enable an additional 120 million women and girls in the world’s poorest countries to have the choice and access to modern contraception.[x]

Enabling women to exercise their right to choose how many children they conceive is a fundamental human right – one recognised in the Sustainable Development Goal 3, which aims to ensure by 2030 “universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education”. [xi] The UN’s Millennium Development Goal 5 sought  to improve maternal health through the same method but its target of achieving a 75% reduction in the maternal mortality rate between 1990 to 2015 has not yet been achieved, although progress has been made. However, still only half of pregnant women in developing countries receive the recommended healthcare.[xii]

Universal access to family planning has been further hindered by the Trump administration’s draconian imposition of the ‘Global Gag’ rule blocking all US funding to any NGO or organisation offering any information or referrals about abortion, providing safer abortion or lobbying for better abortion legislation.  With more than 22,000 women dying annually because of unsafe abortions, almost all in the developing world[xiii], continued and increased aid for family planning is clearly essential.

Enabling women to have the power and means to choose how many children they conceive is  critical for enabling sustainable economic development and, as per the Lund University research, for delivering effective and significant environmental goods. Aid for family planning should be integral not just to the government’s aid, security and migration agendas but to its plan to address environmental problems globally.

An overarching population policy


Unsustainable and growing population is not simply an environmental challenge. Population growth exacerbates multiple social and economic problems, putting greater pressure on infrastructure, public services and even social cohesion. The failure to address population in the government’s flagship blueprint for the environment is further evidence of the systematic failure to address population across government. There is clearly a need for the UK (indeed all countries) to have a Sustainable Population Policy:


  • enabling policy-makers and planners to accurately determine future national and regional population growth in the UK and quantify the impact of specific policy options on them
  • assessing the impact of changes in population across government departments and their objectives and integrated across policy frameworks
  • maintaining and extending the UK’s positive action in helping stabilise the global population through aid and intergovernmental activity

Multiple policy levers are available to government to affect population, including education, family planning provision, migration policy and incentivisation of smaller families. Population Matters’s own blueprint for the development of a strategic, ethical, practical and effective population policy can be found here. Any such policy should fall under the remit of a single Cabinet minister, whilst engaging all relevant government departments.

25 years – time to act now

  •  Over the past 25 years, the UK population has increased from 57.8 million to 65.6m – an increase of just under 8 million people. Over the next 25 years, it is projected to increase by another 7 million.
  • Over the same period, the global population has increased from 5.4 billion to 7.6 billion currently – an increase of 2.2 billion people. Over the next 25 years, the planet’s total human population is projected to increase by another 2 billion.

The government is to be commended for taking the long view and recognising that goals set for 25 years ahead need action starting now. Population growth (and, ultimately, stabilisation at sustainable levels) is a long term project too. Children born today and tomorrow will be at reproductive age in 25 years. Protecting the environment for their generation and subsequent generations needs action to address population now.

* The United Nations also produces population projections – its latest estimate for the UK is for a population of 73.1 million by mid-2040, slightly higher than that of the ONS.

  [i] HM Government

[ii]                  Eurostat

[iii]                 Statista

[iv]                 Office for National Statistics projection. ONS’s previous long-term projections for the UK have been considerably higher:  The 2010 long-term projection was for 97 million; 2012 for 93.3 million; 2014 for 95.4 million.

  [v]                   United Nations Population Division

[vi]                 Global Footprint Network

[vii]                Environmental Research Letters


[ix]                 Royal Geographical Society

[x]                  Department fr International Development

[xi]                 United Nations

   [xii]    ibid

[xiii]               Guttmacher Institute


Population Matters

135-137 Station Road, London E4 6AG

Tel: 0208 123 9116

Charity No: 1114109


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