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Global Population Growth

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2009

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley, and I know that as usual you will be firm but fair in chairing the proceedings. It is also a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), in his place to respond to the debate. I have followed his career with great pride and joy and am pleased that he has been so successful. I wish him well in his new job in Government, which is an exciting but difficult one.

The local council in Stafford is today unveiling its proposals for a consultation on its next local development framework. The Conservative-controlled Stafford borough council will be explaining why it has agreed to a Labour Government plan for a growth point at Stafford, because it has agreed to take 20 per cent. more new housing over the next 20 years than it would have had to take under a normal calculation. I am sure that there will be great controversy locally about why we must have all that house building in Stafford in the next 20 years. When people such as myself explain that it is because of the growing population and the need for housing, people ask me where that growing population comes from and why we have to have it.

There are many explanations of our need for more housing, but much of that need relates to demographic change and not necessarily to immigration change. Those questions illustrate on a small scale in one place in this country the population growth going on around the world, which should concern people but does not get the airing and debate that it should receive.

After I secured the debate, I suddenly started to see the topic attracting comment and attention in the media. Last week, George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian about population growth being a serious concern, and argued that we should blame not the poor for having children, but the rich for hogging more than their fair share of the world’s resources. This week Sir Jonathon Porritt was reported in the Telegraph headlines for saying that there should be a two-child limit in future on the size of families. He referred to irresponsible parents who have more than two children and green campaigners who betray their membership by not debating that important issue. I would very much like to dissociate myself from his comments, particularly as I am one of four boys born to my very successful mother and father, who are both sadly dead. My approach is different, and I would like to explain it this morning.

It is important that we focus on the part that population growth will play as a more general issue in sustainable development. The population of this country has now passed 60 million and is forecast to reach 77 million by the middle of the century. The world’s population has passed 6 billion and is forecast to reach 9 billion over the same time scale. That would mean an increase in the world’s population of 6 million every month, which is a staggering statistic.

I am drawn to the debate on population because of my initial concerns for the environment and the urgency of our task to combat climate change. The Climate Change Act 2008 was a world first in setting a binding target for cutting carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent. by 2050. I took part in the debates as we crafted that Act. We of course have to mitigate by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases and adapt by preparing for rising sea levels, warmer summers, wetter winters and more unpredictable weather events, but as I asked on Second Reading, where is the discussion about the effect on all our plans of the level of population we will be working with?

My approach is very different from that of Sir Jonathon Porritt. I do not think that society should interfere in the free choices people make about having children, and I want the world community to discuss all aspects of sustainable development, including population size. In this debate, I want to focus on two points that arise as a result of a growing population. First, given that there will be a larger population in the future, how can we manage the world’s resources to meet their needs? Secondly, can we agree that, on balance, the world will be a safer place if we can stabilise the population at a lower level than currently forecast, and if so, what can we do to achieve that stability?

I will look first at the resources for a larger world population. Currently, over 1 billion people—about one sixth of the population—live on an income lower than $1 a day. The balance between those living rural or urban lives shifted last year: for the first time, more of us are urban dwellers. As the population grows and land use continues to shift towards urban living, we will need smarter ways of providing water for drinking, washing and irrigation and of farming to produce enough food for everyone. As we know from our plans in the UK for cutting carbon emissions, we will have to replace much of our carbon-based energy with renewable sources.

I shall now discuss the implications for water. One in three people in the world already face water shortages, and there are significant areas of water stress now. The Pentagon produced a risk assessment a while ago that identified competition for limited water supplies as potentially a major cause of future conflicts, and we can anticipate migration away from areas of water shortage. Also, we can see that rising sea levels will create too much water in some areas, which will cause flooding, wash away people’s homes and again trigger migration. The forecast rise in global population means that, by 2030, we can expect demand for water to be 30 per cent. higher than today. In some developing countries, as much as 70 per cent. of fresh water is currently used for agriculture, so we simply have to focus agricultural research and development on global public goods such as developments to support sustainable water and land use, and that brings me to food.

We saw last year that prices rise when food is scarce, often beyond the reach of local people, and we witnessed serious riots around the world due to food shortages and unaffordable prices. It was certainly a wake-up call for the international community and our own Government and food producers that food security is even more basic than energy security. The forecast rise in the global population means that demand for food is expected to rise by 50 per cent. by 2030, so we need the agricultural research and development I have mentioned to stimulate agricultural production in all parts of the world. It is a big ask: more food from less land. There will be less land because of the urbanisation I have described. At home and abroad, it is essential that our Government promote long-term investment in research, science and technology to support farmers everywhere.

I chair the all-party group on science and technology in agriculture, which incidentally is not some entry group for pushing genetic modification. It looks at the research, some of which has already demonstrated what works somewhere in the world. Some science is about efficient land management, plant breeding and the right tools for the job. Some technology is actually quite low-tech and uncontroversial. In some developing countries, for example, there is potential to treble or quadruple existing crop yields by straightforward steps such as investment in infrastructure, quality seeds, education and measures to reduce wastage and post-harvest losses.

In the UK, climate change will pose questions about which crops will be most suitable for our conditions and whether a changing climate will bring new pest and disease challenges for our crops and livestock. However, we cannot shut our eyes to evidence of additional new ways to help feed the world’s growing population. I expect biotechnology will offer some solutions—for example, crops with enhanced tolerance to drought, heat and stress. The important point is to allow the scientific research to take place so that we can then consider the evidence and decide which farming methods to adopt or reject.

It is important that the Minister acknowledges the need for us to support research and development in the long term, with a joined-up, strategic approach. That means that every Government Department must be involved, not just the Department for International Development. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs clearly has an interest, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Treasury will have an interest in ensuring that we have a coherent, joined-up approach to that kind of research.

In the UK, we have efforts to achieve that kind of approach. DEFRA has formed its new Food Policy Council and Professor Beddington, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, has set up a foresight initiative to consider long-term food security issues. The Royal Society is conducting its own inquiry into biological approaches to boosting production. Through the all-party group on science and technology in agriculture, I am supporting calls for an integrated food research strategy. Internationally, we have opportunities to set the same approach through EU discussions about reform of the common agricultural policy, the Doha round of trade talks and efforts to boost international research and development so that we increase global food production in socially and environmentally sustainable ways.

I shall turn to the third of those three limbs about meeting people’s future energy needs. Similarly, the case for research and development in new renewable energy technologies is essential. The forecast population growth means that demand for energy is expected to rise by 50 per cent. by 2030. We must not meet that demand by burning more carbon, because of the climate change threat. In any event, the finite sources of carbon-based fuels might not stand the strain, as anyone who follows the peak oil debate will testify. Like the food debate, we face challenges of price rises and security of supply. It is urgent, therefore, that we develop a diverse range of renewable energy technologies capable of deployment in all parts of the world and of meeting the predicted increased energy demand. There are, of course, consequential considerations in all the three areas that have to be addressed. For example, we need effective regulation, but not over-regulation. We need translational research to ensure that the basic science is carried through into practical and beneficial outcomes. It is very important that we do not take our eye off the ball in ensuring that we have enough people with the right skills for such ways of working.

I now turn to the population side of the equation. People who rely on large families to combat the fear of childhood deaths and poverty need to be reassured that health care and wealth can be had. We must all agree that education, family planning and health services should be universal rights. I do not necessarily sign up to the objectives of the Optimum Population Trust, but I find its work helpful in informing the debate. When asked about the population solution, it responds:

“GLOBALLY: reduce birth rates. NATIONALLY: reduce or keep birth rates low and/or balance migration to prevent population increase. All countries need environmentally sustainable population policies to underpin other green policies. PERSONALLY: have fewer children and work a few more years before retiring.”

I throw that policy solution into the mix for consideration without endorsing its particular approach.

I know that the Minister has read the report on the hearings by the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health called, “Return of the Population Growth Factor: its impact upon the Millennium Developments Goals”, which was published in January 2007. The instigator and chair of the inquiry, and publisher of the report, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), is with us today. I look forward to hearing from him in a moment. The report reminds us that in 2000 the United Nations set eight goals for global development, to be achieved by 2015, known as the millennium development goals. Strikingly, the original goals made no reference to population growth and gave no recognition of its impact. The UN has since agreed to add a specific goal calling for universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. Mostly, the countries with the greatest levels of poverty and greatest need to achieve the goals also have high birth rates and rapidly growing populations. The report says:

“Improved access to family planning is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing infant and maternal mortality. Slower population growth offers a demographic dividend, which opens the door to economic progress and permits a country to invest in education and health”.

I have been following this debate through other means. The International Planned Parenthood Federation argues that any debate about population should be framed around people’s rights. The federation believes that

“women, men and young people everywhere should have control over their own bodies”,


“they should be free to choose parenthood or not”,

that they should

“be free to decide how many children they will have and when”

and that they should

“be free to pursue healthy sexual lives without fear of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.”

I agree with those conclusions. However, we cannot discuss tackling climate change, environmental degradation, resource efficiency and population levels in isolation. Each issue has a bearing on all the others. Every crisis, whether social, economic or environmental, will be affected by resource consumption patterns, inequities in trade, the distribution of wealth and societal changes. We need policies that place people at the centre of all that we seek to achieve in terms of sustainable development and peaceful coexistence. We must consider much more than just birth rates—we must also consider mortality, spatial distribution, migration and urbanisation.

I endorse the following quote by Robert Engelman, of the environmental group Worldwatch:

“Differences in future population growth can’t by themselves determine whether we stabilise the climate or improve human well-being. But by imagining a global climate framework based on both equity and sustainability, we can see that slowing population growth is crucial to the goal of climate stability. So clear does the relationship become that special vigilance in defence of reproductive rights may be needed in a world of still-growing populations ever more worried about the future of the climate”.

I agree so much with that quote, and asked for this debate, because as people grow more concerned about what the future holds—some things look grim, given those statistics on population growth, energy consumption, food, water and so on—they will start to worry and look for easy solutions. It is important that we place the debate on population growth in the context of sustainable development, so that we can resist the more extremist causes that might come.

Many worrying trends in today’s world are causing stresses and strains already. It is urgent that global efforts are made to ensure a sustainable future for our planet and succeeding generations and to ensure that they have popular understanding and support. With consent will come the public backing on all the social, economic and environmental fronts that we need. That will include an easing in the forecast global population growth and an eventual stabilising of the world’s population. As we debate local development frameworks in the coming weeks, I will have to explain to my constituents that migration is not the only cause of population growth. It is great that in the developed world people are living longer, and I expect that this demographic trend will extend to more and more countries in the future. However, it means that even with voluntary, popular support for more effective family planning, any gains in reducing population growth will be achingly slow.

I set the Minister a number of challenges: to confirm our intention to keep the UK at the forefront of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and to tackle climate change; to ensure that, at home and abroad, we contribute fully to finding the appropriate solutions to ensure that a growing world population will have enough water, food and energy to meet our needs, and to ensure that the world community understands and accepts that a stable population will contribute to future development that is fair and sustainable. It is not much, Minister. How can you do it?

We have just heard a tremendous contribution to a very important subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing this debate. His remarks were sharp, relevant and very much to the point, and I hope that the Department for International Development will take them seriously. He kindly mentioned the all-party report. He will be interested to know that it is working on an update to the report, which we hope to publish around Easter. The report concluded that the millennium development goals would not be reached with the current levels of population growth in the areas where the goals are most pertinent.

People usually respond to this debate by saying, “Well, economic development is the best contraceptive. It does not need a ministerial push.” In truth—this is a key conclusion in the report—in the 20th century, no country has got itself out of poverty without first addressing population growth. Whether the chicken or the egg comes first, the message from the evidence is clear. I hope that the Minister and his Department, which responded very well to the report—I congratulate it on its response—will focus on the unmet demand for contraception. The hon. Member for Stafford mentioned the need for good family planning services, about which he is absolutely right. In Africa there are hundreds of millions of people who want contraception but cannot get it. Addressing that alone will make a huge difference. With a proper programme we can have sustainable development, which will address the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing this incredibly important debate. I, too, have followed his career with great interest; he is one of the most thoughtful, intelligent and passionate Members of the House. The people of Stafford are incredibly fortunate to have him advocating on their behalf on a range of issues. I am delighted, therefore, to be able to respond to this debate.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, population growth is both a global and a local issue, which must be tackled honestly in every situation. It is all too easy to pander to populism. What we need is a balanced, responsible and grown-up debate. I know that my hon. Friend will lead such a debate in his own community in the period ahead.

Let me congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on the pioneering work that he has done in this area. I have to say in all honesty that I have not read his report; it would be totally disingenuous of me not to put that on the record. However, I commit to reading the updated report when the hon. Gentleman produces it later this year, and also to offering to meet him and hon. Friends, should that be appropriate.

We all agree that tackling global population growth is inextricably linked to our capacity to achieve many of our commitments in the developing world. We cannot divorce it from issues such as economic growth, alleviating poverty and improving health and education. It is a core that runs through all of those aspirations and objectives for the developing world.

Global population growth has been referred to as one of the unfinished agendas of our time, yet it has become a subject that many agencies hesitate to discuss in case they are accused of removing free choice or forcing individuals to have fewer children. The UK Government do not support programmes that coerce individuals and couples to have fewer children, but we want population growth issues to be actively debated. As my hon. Friend said, every Government must have a coherent policy, particularly those in countries that have rapid population growth.

The key statistics have been mentioned already, but they always bear repeating. The UN estimates that the world’s population will increase to 9.2 billion by 2050. It says that a staggering 99 per cent. of that growth will occur in the developing countries. Why is that a problem? As my hon. Friend said, it is because rapid growth will place a massive strain on Governments to deliver to their people basic services, such as education, health, water and sanitation. Such services are needed to achieve and sustain the progress envisaged by the millennium development goals.

As an example, it is worth considering one country in sub-Saharan Africa and the pressures that it will face in the areas of schools and health. Tanzania has a comparatively low population growth rate of 2.6 per cent., but its population will nearly double—to around 71 million people—between now and 2035. The number of students in Tanzania will more than double to 16 million. The country will need to recruit and train 350,000 teachers, up from just 135,000, and will need more than 50,000 nurses, up from under 3,000. The challenge will be immense.

Not only basic services will feel the strain of rapid population growth. As my hon. Friend said, natural resources such as water, fuel, wood and land for growing food will all come under increasing pressure, and the poor, those most reliant on the natural environment for their basic survival, will feel the greatest impact. Climate change, which is driven by the emissions from countries in the developed world, is also reshaping the environment on which poor people depend. Increased rainfall variability and water scarcity, increased drylands but also increased flooding, and changing patterns of pests and disease will all increase the pressures.

We are committed to helping poor countries in a number of ways. First, to develop in a cleaner, “greener” way, secondly, to prepare for the impacts of climate change, and thirdly, to get a fair deal from any global climate change agreements now and in the future. We are spending £800 million through the Environmental Transformation Fund to help fight climate change and poverty. We are also providing £5 million to improve scientific understanding of climate change in Africa.

DFID has a long history of supporting research into the best use of natural resources. Current DFID initiatives to improve farmers’ access to technologies include supporting the African Agricultural Technology Foundation to enable African farmers to gain access to privately owned and patented agricultural technologies such as striga-resistant maize. Such changes, combined with the effects of rapid population growth, can only increase competition for natural resources and accelerate the pressures brought about by climate change.

The demographers also tell us that rapid population growth can often lead to a “youth bulge”—a high proportion of young people aged between 15 and 29. If developing country economies are unable to offer meaningful training and employment, there will be increasing numbers of socially excluded people, particularly unemployed males, which may lead to increasing conflict, instability, violence and extremism. Therefore, we must tackle the issue for a variety of reasons.

Can we be optimistic that the world is ready to tackle such major issues? It is important to say that the UK Government have always played a leading role in getting the world to face up to such challenges. That has been as a consequence both of Government policy and of a commitment by parliamentarians in all parts of the House.

Four steps have been shown to have an impact on population growth. First, increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services will have a real and lasting impact and will eventually lead to a stabilising of population growth. Secondly, working with couples and individuals to reduce current high levels of fertility, encouraging choice and increasing confidence that children already born will survive into adulthood, through supporting gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment, and improved health, water and sanitation services. Thirdly, addressing the large and growing demand for family planning services—the hon. Gentleman made that point, too. There will be temporary methods for those who want to delay or space pregnancy, and safe permanent methods for those who have decided not to have any more children. The United Nations Population Fund has estimated that 137 million couples worldwide do not have access to family planning, and a further 64 million are forced to use unreliable traditional methods. DFID has recently allocated £100 million over five years to UNFPA to address that specific issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that.

We also know the potential power of the new American Administration’s change of position on such issues within the first 48 hours of President Obama’s taking office. That could have a profound impact on our capacity to tackle the problem in a most effective way, based on science and on what we know works. It is incredibly important that the United States provides a leadership role both with regard to its individual role in the developing world and with regard to its capacity to influence multilateral and international institutions. The change in policy is welcome. It was desperately required, and we now look forward to engaging with the new Administration to ensure that it can lead to rapid and meaningful change on the ground in many countries.

Political leadership in all countries is essential. If I am frank, this issue has been kept in the “too difficult” box for too long, with many senior leaders avoiding it entirely. Rapid population growth must be openly discussed and sensitively tackled, with the provision of support for those Governments who are already concerned and ready to take action. I am delighted that DFID has been at the leading edge of action in four areas. We have embedded and integrated policies on reproductive health and rights within all relevant policies and strategies. My hon. Friend said that we must have a joined-up approach; he is absolutely right. We have a long history of making substantial investments in countries to help them improve their sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes. We have had country programmes in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. We have provided £250 million for India’s nationwide reproductive and child health programme, made a £8.5 million annual grant to the international planned parenthood programme and provided £100 million for UNFPA’s global programme for reproductive health commodities security.

The UK has been a strong and sometimes lonely voice for reproductive health and rights. We have sought to give political leadership on the issue at key international forums over many decades. We welcome the fact that the international climate—please excuse the pun—is changing in every respect in relation to such issues, but we still have a long way to go. If we reflect on the fact that the MDG that is the most off target and that should cause us the most concern is maternal mortality, that should demonstrate the absolute importance of the issue. Maternal mortality leads to the death of many women who have so much to offer their countries, and leaves many children without parents.

Sitting suspended.