Humanity needs to halt both population growth and climate change

By Malte Andersson, Frank Götmark, and Anders Wijkman | 1 March 2021
The Overpopulation Project


Many of today’s environmental problems are more due to population growth than climate change, and climate change is driven in part by continued global population growth. Development funding to make family planning and modern contraceptives universally available could make a big difference in solving these interlocking problems.

This article was originally published in one of Sweden’s largest morning newspapers (Svenska Dagbladet) and is accessible here or here in Swedish.

The next few years will be crucial in the work to limit global climate disruption and stop the depletion of vital ecosystems. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced rapidly in Western countries, China, India and other nations with a large prosperous middle class, the consequences, according to the IPCC and the UN, could be catastrophic. The responsibility lies mainly with us in richer nations. We got the benefit, for two centuries, of using the stored solar energy that accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. Our civilization prospers from this “free lunch”, as Therese Uddenfeldt called her enlightening book about this unique event in human evolution (“Gratislunchen” in Swedish; an alternative title could have been “Brakfesten”, the Big Spree). We are now beginning to see the consequences: thawing permafrost and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather, giant forest fires, dehydrated farmland, food and water shortages, eradication of wildlife habitats, accelerated extinction of species.

In the shadow of these catastrophes and driving them, another challenge is growing: the world’s population growth, from 3 billion in 1960 via today’s 7.8 to perhaps 11 billion in 2100 according to the most recent UN forecast. An increasing number of people in poor countries are being hit hard by climate change in combination with rapidly growing populations. Until recently, malnutrition had been declining, but in places where the number of people is increasing at a faster pace than food supply, it is growing again. The FAO and the 2020 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the World Food Program, find that 690 million people (approximately 9 percent) were malnourished in 2019, and estimate that the number will climb to 840 million by 2030.

The situation is worst in Africa. Although the economy has improved for many Africans in recent years, the number of malnourished people has been increasing since 2014 and is now 250 million. If the trend continues, every fourth African will suffer from malnutrition by 2030. To avoid future humanitarian disasters, the supply of food needs to increase and birth rates must decrease considerably (from today’s 4.5 children per woman). Otherwise, the same mistakes as with global climate change threaten – passivity that increases future suffering and damage.

Do we in rich nations even want to understand what is happening? Hans Rosling’s bestseller “Factfulness” shows that the proportion of malnourished people has decreased steadily since 1970. But it does not mention that the number of malnourished, suffering people is increasing. That number has grown every year since 2014, and in 2019 also the proportion of malnourished people increased.


The Global Challenges Foundation recently found that among ten countries, Swedes were the most aware of the problems caused by global population increase. But unlike climate change, population growth is rarely discussed in the media and is almost entirely avoided by Swedish environmental organizations. Why this lack of interest in one of the root causes of the rapidly growing imbalance between people and the environment? With a smaller population in rich countries, consumption, greenhouse gases and climate disruption would certainly also have been less. The IPCC wrote in 2014 that “economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions”.

Is one reason why population growth is seldom mentioned that the increase mostly takes place in poor former colonies? The influential European opinion leader George Monbiot argues that rich racist Westerners are trying to blame climate change on the population growth in third world countries, in order to avoid lowering their own unsustainable consumption. This may be so in some circles, and consumption in wealthy countries must indeed decrease to help fight climate change. But it is a grave mistake to claim, like Monbiot and many other supposedly “progressive” thinkers, that the fears of population growth are exaggerated.

Some debaters claim that population growth is not a major problem from a climate or ecological perspective, due to the small ecological footprint of the poor. True, per capita footprints are smaller in the developing world, but a lot of feet can lead to large environmental impacts. In addition, the goal is that every child who is born gets a decent standard of living. To achieve that, sufficient water, energy, farmland, housing, and much more is required, which means that footprints increase over time. This is happening in many developing countries, and therefore efforts to strengthen the economies of these countries must be paired with efforts to limit population growth. There are two main reasons.

Firstly, the risk of increased malnutrition. If Africa’s population grows from today’s 1.3 to 4 billion, it will have dramatic consequences. It is hardly possible to increase food production in proportion to such an increase in population. Malnutrition has been growing steadily in Africa for the last six years according to the FAO. No new green revolution is in sight. Poverty and famine therefore threaten a growing part of Africa’s population, if it continues to increase as the UN predicts. Migration within and from Africa will then be even greater as a result of population growth and climate change.

Secondly, there is also the risk of an uncontrolled increase in greenhouse gases, from the large part of the population whose standard of living is increasing. The rich world should therefore greatly increase its efforts to help African nations, especially its women, to achieve the reduction in birth rates that many countries are striving for, according to the United Nations (see Population Facts No. 2017/10 in the UN link).

A major problem is that many women lack access to, or are actively prevented from using, modern contraceptives. Correcting the shortage is not a particularly expensive effort but can quickly contribute to lower birth rates. Smaller families also strengthen the economies of poor countries, as the proportion of children decreases relative to working adults, more women can join the workforce, children can receive longer and better education, and so on. Independence and education for women are important and deserve strong support, but it is equally important to quickly increase support for modern contraception, counseling and family planning, where increased development funding from wealthy countries could make a big difference.


Halting population growth is clearly beneficial for poor countries and rich countries alike. Many of today’s global problems are more due to population growth than to climate change. For example, exposure to new viruses, and extinction of species as population growth leads to more agriculture, deforestation, hunting, and fishing. To stop the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity, measures are needed both to end population growth and to curtail the wasteful lifestyles and excessive consumption among the world’s middle and upper classes. Reports on global development and measures to solve these challenges must be more balanced, by drawing attention to the consequences of population growth and the great need for family planning in Africa and throughout the world.

Malte Andersson is an ecologist and professor emeritus at the University of Gothenburg.

Frank Götmark is an ecology professor at the University of Gothenburg and studies population growth.

Anders Wijkman is Honorary Chairman of the Club of Rome.

Reprinted with permission from Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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