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One Planet, Too Many People?

By 2100, the global human population may reach 9.5 billion with 75% of these people located within urban settlements.  Meeting the needs and demands of these people will provide significant challenges to governments and society at large, and the engineering profession in particular.

Four key areas in which population growth and expanding affluence will significantly challenge society are: food, water, urbanisation and energy.

Food: An increase in the number of mouths to feed and changes in dietary habits, including the increased consumption of meat, will double demand for agricultural production by 2050. This will place added pressures on already stretched resources coping with the uncertain impacts of climate change on global food production.

Water: Extra pressure will come not only from increased requirements for food production, which uses 70% of water consumed globally, but also from a growth in demand for drinking water and industrial processing as we strive to satisfy consumer aspirations. Worldwide demand for water is projected to rise 30% by 2030, this in a world of shifting rainfall patterns due to global warming-induced climate changes that are difficult to predict.

Urbanisation: With cities in the developing world expanding at an unprecedented rate, adding another three billion urban inhabitants by 2050, solutions are needed to relieve the pressures of overcrowding, sanitation, waste handling and transportation if we are to provide comfortable, resilient and efficient places for all to live and work.

Energy: Increased food production, water processing and urbanisation, combined with economic growth and expanding affluence, will by mid-century more than double the demand on the sourcing and distribution of energy. This at a time when the sector is already under increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (on average across the globe to 50% of 1990 levels), adapt to uncertain future impacts of a changing climate and ensure security of future supply.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers recognises the scale of these issues and that there is a need to begin implementing the early phases of routes to sustainable solutions. The long timescales involved in many of the engineering-based projects required to meet these challenges, often measured in decades of construction and implementation, mean that if action is not taken before a crisis point is reached there will be significant human hardship. Failure to act will place billions of people around the world at risk of hunger, thirst and conflict as capacity tries to catch up with demand.

In meeting these needs and demands, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers recommends the following:

1. The adoption by governments of five Engineering Development Goals alongside the UN Millennium Development Goals. In the key areas of food, water, urbanisation and energy, engineers have the knowledge and skills to help meet the challenges that are projected to arise. There is no need to delay action while waiting for the next great technical discovery or a breakthrough in thinking on population control. In this report we present five Engineering Development Goals for priority action and crisis prevention. Governments around the world must adopt these goals and start working with the engineering profession on delivery targets if we are to build on The Millennium Development Goals.  The Institution's Five Engineering Developing Goals are:    

Energy: Use existing sustainable energy technologies and reduce energy waste.  Don't wait for new technologies to be developed

Water: Replenish groundwater sources, improve storage of excess water and increase energy efficiencies of desalination

Food: Reduce food waste and resolve the politics of hunger

Urbanisation: Meet the challenge of slums and defending against sea-level rises

Finance: Empower communities and enable implementation

2. Provide all nations and leaders with engineering expertise. Many governments around the world lack high-quality engineering advice and guidance to make informed decisions for implementation of the Engineering Development Goals (recommendation 1). Many developed nations already provide assistance in areas of medical knowledge and primary/secondary education with great success – the UK does via Department for International Development (DFID). The Institution recommends that the remit of DFID be expanded to train and second civil, mechanical, water, agricultural and electrical engineers to provide other governments with low-cost, practical and up-to-date engineering expertise.

3. Help the developing world to ‘leapfrog’ the resource-hungry dirty phase of industrialisation. The majority of future economic and population growth is projected to occur in the South. However, knowledge of potential sustainable solutions, and experience of the failings from unsustainable dirty industrial activity, are currently concentrated in the North. If economic market forces are left to be the sole or major driver of intervention and action is delayed, then the same errors are likely to be made. Nations in the developed world, such as the UK, must help the developing world to leapfrog the high-emissions resource-hungry phase of early industrialisation to reduce the environmental impact on us all.

Read the Population Report

Additional resources

Listen to an interview with Dr John Bongaarts, a key contributor to the Population Report

BBC Radio 4 coverage
BBC Radio Five Live coverage
BBC World Service coverage

Note for journalists: Download the press release or contact the Institution's Press Office on 020 7304 6877 or 07730 644134

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© 2014 Institution of Mechanical Engineers. IMechE is a registered charity in England and Wales number 206882