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One Planet, How Many People? A review of Earth’s carrying capacity

UNEP discussion paper for the year of RIO+20

It is estimated that global population reached seven billion in late 2011 or early 2012. As global population has doubled since the 1960s, per capita GDP has grown to more than ten times what it was then. The human impact has grown to such a scale that it has become a major geophysical force. It is not surprising that concerns about the number of people the Earth can support have re-emerged recently. Attempts to define an upper limit of the number of people that the Earth could support are inevitably subject to considerable uncertainty, however, the greatest concentration estimates falls between 8 and 16 billion people - a range we are fast approaching. While there are many ways we might reduce our per capita impact on the planet, the collective impact will always be multiplied by global population, making population an issue which cannot be ignored.

Discussion paper: One Planet, How Many People? A review of Earth’s carrying capacity

Some Key findings:

  • Population growth remains a major concern for future well-being.
  • Material consumption is a major concern.
  • Demography is not destiny.
  • We must all play a role in finding human-centered, rights-based policies.
  • This requires a three-pronged approach: Developed countries have to take the lead in changing their production and consumption patterns. Developing countries should maintain their development goals but do so while adopting sustainable practices and slowing population growth. Developed countries should commit to enable and support the developing countries’ sustainable development through finance, technology transfer and appropriate reforms to the global economic and financial structures.
  • We cannot simply rely on technological innovation (the “bigger pie”) and demographic transition (“fewer forks”) to eliminate or solve the population problem.
  • We have existing methods that have proven to be effective sustainable development tools.
  • We also have new tools and better models that can be used to help us develop policies.


  • Erdsysteme