A study from charity organisation Population Matters notes a double in population growth in the last 50 years, a change that has “profound implications” for society and the environment.

And the group has told edie that rising numbers of human life will increase total consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, put strain on food supplies, encroach on wildlife and trap countries in poverty, all of which will have severely negative consequences for business activity.

“We will see cutthroat competition for shrinking resources which will include not just fossil fuels but productive land and water, pushing prices up not just for consumers but the businesses and industries which need them too,” Population Matters head of campaigns Alistair Currie said.

“Huge potential markets like much of sub-Saharan Africa will be stuck in poverty and we’ll see political instability arising from population and migration pressures, including conflict over resources.”

Boom or bust

Based on today’s average global emission rates, research finds that population growth will produce added emissions equivalent to four additional USAs by 2050. The study shows that the world is currently using up the renewable resources of 1.6 earths, and will require three by 2050 unless consumption patterns change.

Meanwhile, a global middle class of 3.2 billion people consuming at a high level in 2016 is predicted to rise to roughly five billion by 2030. Companies are being urged by to rapidly adapt business models to deal with these “unsustainable” trends.

“A bigger population of consumers and a bigger global ‘middle class’ of high consumers may seem like a gift to business but the reality is a boom that will almost certainly turn into a bust,” Currie said.

“Growth cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet and fewer consumers is ultimately better for all of us. Business must start recognising and adapting to that reality. With action now, we can limit population growth and eventually reach sustainable levels.”

Challenges and opportunities

The UN projects a world population of up to 11 billion by 2050, which could again rise to 16.6 billion by the end of the century. This will pose significant challenges for governments and businesses, which will have to work in tandem to find innovative ways to deal with increased urbanisation, resource pressure and infrastructure constraints.

But it could equally be seen as an opportunity to shape and demand responsible business, delivering more flexible services and infrastructure. In edie’s series of thought-leadership articles on the global impact of megatrends.

Sustainability megatrends: Population growth and social change

edie is running a series of thought-leadership pieces that provide an overview of the environmental and social impacts of some of the world’s biggest megatrends; exploring how they are helping to shape the low-carbon, resource-efficient business of the future.

The series, which will be discussed in more detail at edie Live 2017, included an article from Carillion’s chief sustainability officer David Picton, who explored how businesses can adapt to the increasing challenges of demographic and social change at a time when populations are continuing to rise and people in all regions are living longer. Read the full megatrends series here

George Ogleby

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