Population dynamics and consumption

A core aim of PSN is to increase awareness of the significance of both population dynamics and unsustainable and inequitable patterns of consumption for sustainable development. We believe that addressing both population and consumption is necessary and complementary.

Population dynamics refer to demographic trends and changes, including: population growth; population decline; ageing; urbanisation; and migration, which influence the size, composition and spatial distributions of populations.1

It’s not about either / or

Credit: epSos.de via Flickr

Patterns of consumption and production (including the efficiency with which resources are used) and numbers of people (population) influence demand for and pressures on natural resources, associated with our need for food, water, shelter, fuel etc.

In this way both population and consumption are key underlying drivers of environmental change and key to humanity’s capacity to achieve health and well-being for all, within planetary boundaries.

Population trends, alongside consumption patterns and efficiencies, set the scale of the global development challenges we face – shaping the number and location of people who need access to clean water, food, health and education services etc. and resultant environmental impacts.

For these reasons we refute the common perception that the solution to the world’s pressing environmental and development challenges is about either reducing population or consumption.

We believe that this simplistic assumption is unhelpful; population cannot be addressed without taking into account consumption patterns, and vice versa.

A complex relationship

Credit: Alan Levine via Flickr

Consumption patterns and population dynamics interact with and affect international development outcomes in complex ways. For example, urbanisation can offer opportunities for economies of scale (more efficient use of resources) whilst at at the same time, it can be associated with increased affluence and consumption opportunities. This can, of course, be a positive thing for poverty alleviation but demonstrates the complexities, opportunities and challenges associated with population and consumption issues.

The vast majority of future population growth is projected to take place in the world’s poorest countries where per capita consumption rates are many times lower than the developed world. Despite this much lower consumption rate, high population growth will inevitably exacerbate the challenges these countries already face in alleviating poverty and ensuring food and water security, and access to health and education services for all.

To lift the growing numbers of people out of poverty, the world’s poorest will need to consume more2, and at the same time, the world’s more affluent will need to consume less if we are to avoid further breech of planetary boundaries.

The relationship between population and climate change is particularly complex. The key driver of climate change is the unsustainable, inequitable and unethical patterns of consumption by the world’s richest countries and groups. While the world’s poorest countries have contributed the least to climate change, they are most vulnerable to its effects.

Population growth in the world’s poorest countries is not to blame for climate change, however, many of these countries identify high population growth and density as undermining climate change adaptation by exacerbating environmental problems such as soil erosion, water and land shortages.3

Addressing unmet need for contraception offers scope to advance environmental sustainability, support climate adaptation and increase resilience in ecologically fragile areas, alongside other necessary initiatives to address unsustainable and inequitable patterns of consumption.

Addressing population dynamics and consumption issues

Population, Health, Environment (PHE)

An innovative way of addressing population and consumption issues in an integrated way is through an integrated Population, Health, Environment (PHE) approach, which addresses the complex interactions between humans, their health and well-being, and the environment.

Integrated Population, Health, Environment (PHE) programmes combine conservation with reproductive health provision and other development interventions, increasing the effectiveness of biodiversity protection and benefitting both the health of local communities and the ecosystems upon which they depend.4

Experience from these projects has shown that integrated programmes provide multiple benefits and are more effective than delivering either natural resource management or reproductive health interventions in isolation.5

Read more about PHE and the PHE programmes of PSN network members.

Research, publication and programme highlights

Population dynamics and biodiversity briefing


  1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Highlights and Advance Tables. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.228. New Your: UN.
  2. Royal Society (2012) People and the Planet. London: Royal Society.
  3. Bryant, L., Carver, L., Butler, C.D., et al. (2009) “Climate change and family planning: least-developed countries define the agenda.” Bulletin of World Health Organization, 87, 852-57.
  4. Mohan, Vik., Shellard, T. (2014) Providing family planning services to remote communities in areas of high biodiversity through a Population-Health-Environment programme in Madagascar. Reproductive Health Matters, 22, 43, 93-103.
  5. D’Anges, L., D’Anges, H., Scwartz J.B., et a.l (2010). “Integrated management of coastal resources and human health yields added value: a comparative study in Palawan (Philippines).” Environmental Conservation, 37, 4, 398-409.