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5 Ways Nature Can Help Us Meet the Population Challenge

Today is World Population Day, a U.N. observance dedicated to raising awareness about the Earth’s growing population, which experts predict will reach 9.6 billion people by 2050.

Population expansion is not inherently a bad thing. Every community and every country has the right to grow and prosper. However, we need to get smart about living within planetary boundaries and making the health of nature’s systems one of our development priorities.

Adding another 2 billion people will exacerbate stresses on our already-taxed planet. We must find solutions — and some of these solutions could lie in sustaining the services that nature has provided since the dawn of humanity.

1. Pollinating crops

You’ve probably seen stories about dying honeybees in the news, but you might not be aware of just how much is at stake.

According to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), 87 out of 115 leading global food crops — including important cash crops like coffee and cocoa — depend upon pollination from bees, birds and even mammals. The UNEP estimates that the monetary value of pollination numbers in the hundreds of billions of dollars, a value which must be maintained or increased if we are to double agricultural production by 2050 to keep up with global food demand.

2. Absorbing CO2

No matter what people do to reduce the disastrous impacts of climate change, human actions have already “locked in” a certain amount of warming.

So as populations (and human needs) grow, maintaining the Earth’s ability to offset the CO2 generated by increased consumption is essential.

The world’s tropical forests absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere — a benefit that only lasts as long as the trees remain standing. Currently, the cutting and burning of tropical forests causes 17% of greenhouse gas emissions — a strong argument for keeping these forests intact.

And did you know that other natural systems play a less publicized, but crucial, role in absorbing CO2? Coastal ecosystems like mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses have been estimated to store up to 50 times the amount of carbon, per acre, as tropical forests.

3. Filtering waste

Without getting graphic, more people means more waste. Wetlands and marshes treat and detoxify a variety of waste products.

This, in turn, reduces or prevents the contamination of the systems that give us our fresh water. These systems also protect ocean life, including many species that humans eat, from runoff. According to UNEP, some wetlands may reduce the concentration of nitrate — a major component of fertilizers — by more than 80%.

4. Generating renewable energy

As more of us come to require energy to power our cars, turn on our lights and heat and cool our buildings, the planet’s ever-dwindling supply of nonrenewable power sources like oil and coal will not be enough. Fortunately, the Earth contains many renewable sources of energy: solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, even algae.

And here’s more good news: expanding industries could provide new sustainable economic opportunities for people in sunny, windy climes such as Mongolia and the American tribal nations on the Great Plains.

5. Preventing the spread of disease

When humans degrade ecosystems, it can spread disease — by altering the habitat of species that carry infectious diseases.

For example, cutting down forests can lead to more mosquitoes by changing the distribution of surface water where mosquitoes breed. As more people move in to the deforested area, this could increase the number of people infected with malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.

The good news for all of us is that there are some positive signs that population growth is slowing.

But as global demands for food, water and energy continue to grow, the free services that nature provides will be crucial to ensure the well-being of current and future generations.

And nature can’t keep doing these things for us if we don’t protect it.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor of Human Nature.