Population: One planet, too many people?

This two-part report presents projections of change in global population through to the end of the 21st century, and outlines what engineers need to do to meet the key challenges of this future world.

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.

We recognise 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.

Key recommendations

  1. Governments should adopt 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. Our 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 the Department for International Development (DFID). We recommend 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 of the UK. 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.

Related links

Read the press release:
Population explosion: Can the planet cope?

Read the Engineering News article:
Population crisis looms

Read an interview with Dr John Bongaarts, a key contributor to the report:
Dr John Bongaarts population interview

Listen to BBC Radio 4 coverage:
Population explosion: Can the planet cope?

Listen to BBC Radio Five Live coverage:
Population explosion: Can the planet cope?

Listen to BBC World Service coverage:
Population explosion: Can the planet cope?


All reports and policies

Browse all our reports, policy statements, consultation responses and presidential addresses

View all

Have a question?

Contact our press team.