The ecological footprint is correlated with the environmental inefficiency of production, per capita production and population. To limit irreversible ecological damage, stabilizing the population needs to be put on the development agenda.

Ecological footprint: the explosive impact of mankind on the planet

The ecological footprint of mankind on the planet, which is calculated every year by the Global Footprint Network to summarize the negative impacts of human activity on the environment, taking into account a conventional absorption capacity of the ecosystem, is constantly rising. Developed countries have an unsustainable environmental impact. Developing countries are on the path to catchimg-up developed countries in economic terms and also for negative environmental impacts. As they have the largest population volumes and their per capita consumption is increasing, their environmental impacts will be explosive. This holds true even if they all adopted the least aggressive production techniques for the environment, which is not the case due to their complexity and/or their capital cost, and the practice of recovering means of production decommissioned by developed countries.

The ecological footprint of countries results from both past activity, with stock and irreversibility effects, and present activity. Its increase is positively correlated with economic activity, as the unbundling between growth and negative externalities is largely a myth: recycling can only be partial and also produces waste. This increase is ultimately correlated with the environmental inefficiency of production (depletion of scarce resources, production of waste), production per capita and the volume of population.


Paranoia of growth: catching-up, convergence, rush ahead?

The obsession with GDP growth is common to all countries.

In developed countries, consumer demand is generally met (with inequalities in distribution) and is tending towards saturation. Infrastructure and public services are here. Yet the paranoia of growth is continuing to be all the rage, stemming from a fantasy of rush ahead . The likelihood of a return to strong long-term growth would appear to be very low. A new type of stationary state is feasible and desirable, leaving room for innovation. This stationary state, combining the stabilization of the population and per capita consumption with the search for a lower impact, may nevertheless not be sufficient to reduce the ecological footprint and it may be necessary to organize degrowth.

In developing countries, growth is inescapable to raise living standards which are still very low. The convergence of living standards towards those of rich countries, the only arguable case, will lead to a sharp rise in global per capita production and therefore in the ecological footprint.


The population: a neglected parameter to reduce the ecological footprint

The global ecological footprint will continue to grow, even if more efficient production techniques are used. There is one remaining action parameter: the volume of population. Indeed, stabilizing the world population could prove less challenging than curbing per capita consumption or reducing the negative externalities of this consumption.

The 1987 Bruntland report Our Common Future set the objective of stabilizing the world population at six billion inhabitants during the 21st century. In 1992, as in 2017, a group of scientists signed World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, recommending stabilizing the world population. In 1992, it stood at 5.5 billion; in 2018, it stands at 7.6 billion. Recent projections suggest 11 billion inhabitants in 2100. The increase should be mainly due to countries which are today the poorest.


Inaccurate ideas about the population

Seeing the population as a source of wealth creates confusion. It is true that as work is the source of wealth — after nature, a State may wish to have a large population and therefore a large workforce. The population increase is also seen as an enlargement of the market, a source of business opportunities and of lower production costs through economies of scale and a greater division of labor. But pro-birth advocates are victims of a fallacy of composition: what holds true on a small scale no longer does so at the international level, when a general population increase has a structural and no longer marginal ecological impact.

Population control is almost a taboo topic: this is seen with the questioning of the realistic and courageous Chinese one-child policy – without discussing the methods implemented to conduct it. The topic has been addressed little since Malthus. His essay touches on a recurrent problem of balance between man and his environment, even though it is based on a reasoning (linking the geometrical progression of the population and the arithmetic of agricultural production) which we today find cursory, in particular because it ignores productivity gains. It is as if this approach were too sensitive or pessimistic to be looked at in greater depth.


Put population control on the development agenda

It is difficult to control the population level in order to limit the ongoing irreversible ecological damage, but less so than strengthening  environmental protection at a given level of per capita consumption or constraining the standard of living, and it deserves to be finally put on the agenda of development actors in addition to other approaches.

Action needs to reach all countries, and in priority those where population growth is the highest. In the past, the population was brutally stabilized by famines, epidemics and wars. Today we have the opportunity to control its size by softer and more subtle methods. The drivers can be positive and negative financial incentives, mandatory education, particularly for girls, family planning and, in developing countries, the introduction of social protection systems, which help people to accept that it is no longer necessary to have a large number of offspring to provide for themselves in later life.

In developing countries, the stabilization of the population, a possible outcome of the demographic transition, will be slow due to the delay in the decline in fertility compared to the decrease in infant mortality. The inertia of demography is an additional reason for not delaying further in taking this path. A side benefit is that lower population growth can lead to a reduction in the rate of unemployment or forced emigration due to poverty. A larger proportion of the economic surplus can then be devoted to raising the standard of living.

In developed countries, stopping the population growth will further increase the already ongoing ageing of the population, with the problems we are familiar with of financing pensions and managing the ageing population. Is this not a lower price to pay to limit our serious environmental footprint?

Although population policies are national, there is no reason for the tension often seen over sovereignty when dealing with issues of common interest. If each country promotes its population growth without concern for the negative consequences for the planet, we are falling back into the fallacy mentioned above. It should be the role of international organizations to avoid this.


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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