“More than 80% of the world’s population lives in countries running ecological deficits, using more resources than what their ecosystems can renew” according to the Global Footprint . On average it takes “the Earth one year and eight months to regenerate what we use in a year.” The Earth’s health is being pushed into decline by overfishing, overharvesting of forests and other natural resources, and increasing carbon emissions.
Running ecological deficits has resulted in an increase in global temperatures and made extreme climate events occur with greater frequency. Consequently, necessary adaptions to how the world’s population produces food, manages land, and accesses fresh water will need to occur.
With the global population projected to grow substantially through the end of the century , humanity’s footprint on the environment is likely to increase and thus further accelerate the effects of climate change.
Economic Growth and Population Growth: Today’s Reliance on Fossil Fuels
Economic growth has taken on outsize importance in accelerating climate change since the turn of the 21st century. This is due largely to the effects of industrialization, which often depends on the use of more polluting fossil fuels such as coal. While countries like the United States, Russia, and Japan have been some of the largest emission contributors up to this point, the environmental impact of China’s and India’s economies is increasing as these countries rapidly industrialize.
However, China and India still emit less per person than even those countries who utilize more renewable energy. In fact, on average each individual American, Australian, and Canadian emits close to 16 tons of CO2 each year—more than twice the emissions output of the average person living in China, and over 8 times more than the average Indian .
Why do economies like that of America, Australia, and Canada produce more tons of CO2 per person per year?
Strong economic output (resulting in a higher standard of living) and large populations drive consumption and subsequent demands on natural resources. The consumption choices individuals and industries in wealthy countries are making (from food produced through wasteful farming practices, non-renewable packaging for products, a high reliance on motored vehicles and air travel, etc.) are exponentially increasing the impact that a relatively small number of people are having on the health of the earth. For example, increased demand for space for cattle farms leads to deforestation. Forests are one of the largest wilderness areas that have been destroyed to make room for farms, pasture, housing, and for timber.
Unfortunately, as a smaller percentage of the planet’s inhabitants consume more and thus release more CO2, countries in earlier stages of economic development are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts. While these countries account for negligible amounts of CO2 emissions per person, they have become the most vulnerable to changing climates and are poised to suffer significantly as a result. High population growth, high fertility, and high unmet need for family planning in these countries exacerbates the problem further, weakening capacity to readily respond to and recover from the effects of climate change and attendant climate disasters.
While much of the math related to CO2 emissions is done on a per person basis, it is important to understand that every individual’s impacts are relatively small, even in highly developed economies. This is because corporations are by far the largest emitters on the planet. Close to 70% of greenhouse emissions can be linked to 103 fossil fuel companies and 29 cement companies. 
The fact that such a small number of corporations account for the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas emissions signals one unjust tragedy of the climate crisis: Nearly 8 billion people are enduring climate impacts for which a small number of polluting entities profited.
Impact on Forests
Forests and other plants are essential in the fight against climate change because of their unique ability to take in CO2 and convert it oxygen during photosynthesis. But humans have taken over 75% of Earth’s ice-free land—meaning less forests to consume the CO2 even as human population (and demand on forests and other vital ecosystems) has grown.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world lost around 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forest each year between 2015 and 2020, an area equal to the size of South Korea . Data from Global Forest Watch reveal that tropical deforestation, which is pervasive in many of the world’s low- and middle-income regions, currently accounts for 8% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions . This means that if tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter, following China and the United States.
Even as deforestation has accelerated in order to make room for industrial agriculture, global access to food has not. The number of people hungry reached nearly 690 million globally in 2019, and the demand for food is only expected to increase as the world population grows [5,6].
Feeding Earth’s growing population will require a rebalancing of food supply and demand, as current farming methods will not be sustainable in the long-term. Industrial agricultural methods disproportionately contribute to soil degradation through over plowing and overgrazing, as well as high water usage, loss of biodiversity, and waste production. These current methods increase food insecurity and climate vulnerability in communities, particularly for those that have recently experienced desertification .
While some progress is being made to achieve national goals, global emissions have continued to rise. Reducing the effects of climate change will require immediate and ambitious action to decarbonize economies, halt deforestation, restore ecosystems, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere . Delayed action will only increase costs. So what can we do to stop the negative impacts of climate change?
We must ensure we invest in a future that values:
Of course, slowing population growth is an important tool in tackling these challenges.
Learn more by downloading “Human Impacts on the Environment: a Focus on Climate Change”. Go deeper with industry experts and understand the diverse and nuanced ways human activity impacts the environment and causes climate change.