The underestimated risk posed by population growth – A threat to sustainable development?

The issue of population growth as a threat to (sustainable) development has already been acknowledged centuries ago. Thomas Malthus (1798) was the first to elaborate on the negative impacts of population growth on food supply. According to his theory, population growth increases in an exponential way, whereas, food supply only grows in a linear way. As a result, the population’s demand for food will exceed the amount of food available.

Even though, Malthus’s approach might be too straightforward, it puts emphasis on an issue that has also met with a lot of attention recently. Population growth is officially recognized as a challenge by the UN, but still is not an SDG although its potentially negative consequences are well-known. All out of the 17 SDGs claim to be key to achieve sustainable development. Reducing population growth being one major goal or challenge, however, is not even listed as an SDG. The world population forecast for 2050 is about 9.8 bn. Will sustainable development be possible with world population’s basic needs exceeding the amount of ecological resources available? How can food supply in the long run be guaranteed without exhausting the environment?

The definition of sustainability clearly demonstrates that the social dimension is a vital part of the sustainability triangle. It is interrelated with the economic and ecological dimension. What characterizes sustainability most is a balance between the different components meaning that an imbalance or a one-sided focus on one of the components would be misleading. When applying the criterion of strong sustainability, the consistency of total capital does not matter but rather the importance of ecological capital that can only be substituted to a limited extent by other components of the triangle. Population growth, though, will exhaust ecological capital since the latter one is not easily replaceable by other forms of capital. Furthermore, reaching the SDGs 2 and 3 (zero hunger and climate action) at the same time is a contradictory goal in itself. More agricultural food production within so-called developing countries to prevent hunger would either require higher productivity of the food sector through industrialized production techniques or more agricultural lands. This issue remains one of the key challenges for Africa, the fastest growing continent in terms of population.

A study has revealed that the reduction of population growth could contribute to a lower amount of carbon emissions produced per year as well as a higher per capita income.

Therefore, achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change or some of the SDGs would require states to reduce their population growth rate. Further challenges posed by population growth are its impacts on the level of per capita consumption, reinforcement of inequalities, and health care and education. The achievement of universal basic living standards being one major goal of current development cooperation largely depends on the reduction of population growth. Nevertheless, social, cultural or religious aspects cannot be ignored either when discussing the issue of a growing world population. In some countries of the world, having numerous descendants is still regarded as crucial to secure families’ economic base and to support older family members. Large family size and strong ties within those are still common in many African and some Middle Eastern countries. When analyzing the link between population growth and economic growth, a certain pattern can be observed. Both factors, at least empirically, have been correlating for most industrialized nations. As population growth is a multidimensional phenomenon, the importance of enhanced health status, medical progress, high-quality education, and employment cannot be neglected. They have all contributed to higher population growth rate given a fairly high fertility rate. At the same time, economic growth was on the rise. A shift from agricultural to industrialized production could be observed in that period in Europe. But should developing countries refer to the European benchmark that would even increase population growth?

Paradoxically, most environmental degradation has been caused by carbon emissions from industrialized production and excessive consumption in industrialized countries. Therefore, modernization/industrialization may not necessarily be the right way to reduce population growth, especially when it comes to mitigating environmental pollution.

China’s birth control policy is a rather radical example of how to strictly contain the negative impacts related to population growth. However, China’s experience demonstrates that large population and massive industrialization among others have triggered some of the above-mentioned potentially negative impacts. Asia’s economic powerhouse, despite imposing its birth control policy, has not managed to mitigate negative population growth-related impacts on sustainable development and environmental protection, simply because China’s population is already extremely large.

The states should recognize population growth as a threat because it burdens the availability of scarce resources. Active policy intervention such as in China has been a wide-ranging and partly radical decision but still turned out to be an efficient tool to tackle high population growth rate. Alternatively, some countries could implement awareness campaigns allowing the people to be taught about potential risks or consequences resulting from high population growth rates or creating a social system that helps overcoming parents’ economic dependence on numerous descendants.


Casey, Gregory/Galor, Oded (2016), Population Growth and Carbon Emissions, Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Fien, John (2010), Module 13: Population & Development, UNESCO: Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future. URL:

Güney, Taner (2017), Population Growth and Sustainable Development in Developed-Developing Countries: An IV(2SLS) Approach. Suleyman Demirel University Isparta: The Journal of Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences Y.2017, Vol.22, No.4, pp. 1255-1277.

Perveen, Shama (2004), Population Growth and Sustainable Development, Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 39, No. 7 (Feb. 14-20, 2004), pp. 629-633.

Ray, Debraj (1998), Development Economics, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s