5 April 2001


NEW YORK, 4 April (DESA) -- Concerns about the consequences of environmental change have ascended to the top of the international agenda, and have brought in their wake renewed attention to the complex interrelationships between population, environment and development. In recognition of this fact, the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs has issued the first-ever United Nations wall chart on population, environment and development.

The wall chart features new demographic data from the 2000 revision of the United Nations population estimates and projections. The demographic data include total population and population density, as well as total, urban and rural growth rates for all countries of the world. The chart also presents the most up-to-date key environmental and development indicators from other United Nations and outside sources regarding fresh water, forests, agriculture and nutrition, poverty and economic development, energy consumption, number of motor vehicles, carbon dioxide emissions and participation in international treaties relating to the environment. A summary of the major findings appears below.

Total Population and Population Growth

World population is currently 6.1 billion people, with less developed regions accounting for 80 per cent of the total. The population is growing at 1.2 per cent annually, or 77 million people per year. While more developed regions are barely growing, at some 0.2 per cent annually, the population of less developed regions is increasing at 1.5 per cent a year. The least developed countries, which are at an earlier stage of the demographic transition, are characterized by relatively rapid growth -- 2.5 per cent annually.

Population Density

Sharp differences distinguish more developed regions, with 22 persons per square kilometre, from less developed regions, where density is almost three times higher, at 59 persons per square kilometre.

Urban and Rural Population Growth

The world is becomingly increasingly urbanized. Although the level of urbanization is considerably lower in less developed regions (40 per cent) than in more developed regions (76 per cent), urban areas in less developed regions are growing much more rapidly (2.7 per cent per year) than in more developed regions (0.5 per cent annually). On a global basis, rural populations are growing at a rate of only 0.4 per cent a year, while in more developed regions the rural population is shrinking by 0.8 per cent a year. Reductions in the rural population will take place after 2010 in all major areas except Africa and Oceania, as a result of the expansion of urbanized territory, the flow of migrants from rural to urban areas, and overall declines in population growth.


Demand for fresh water has steadily risen with increasing population and socio-economic development. Consequently, the per capita availability of fresh water globally has fallen to nearly one third of its 1950 level. Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of the population increase during the twentieth century. About one third of the world’s population live in countries that are experiencing medium-high to high levels of water stress.

Forest Cover

Up to half of the forests that originally covered the Earth have been cleared. Forests are critical because they house indigenous cultures, shelter global biodiversity, provide ecosystem services, store carbon, contribute to economic growth and meet recreational needs. Although some 90 million hectares of forest were lost between 1990 and 2000, the pace of deforestation is estimated to have been lower in the 1990s than during the 1980s.

Crop Land

The amount of crop land available per capita is decreasing in all world regions, as population increases. Farmers have traditionally satisfied increasing demand by ploughing new land, but in many regions opportunities for expansion are now limited. Boosting productivity has, therefore, become crucial for increased food production.


Although the percentage of the population that is undernourished has halved since 1970, some 792 million people in developing countries, and 34 million in developed countries and those with economies in transition, are still undernourished. The problem is most severe in central, eastern and southern Africa, where almost one half of the population is undernourished.

Gross Domestic Product per capita

The two defining characteristics of global economic growth in the latter half of the twentieth century have been its unprecedented pace and its unequal distribution between countries and regions. Even though population increased more rapidly during the twentieth century than ever before, economic output grew even faster, owing to the accelerating tempo of technological progress.


The percentage of the world’s population living in absolute poverty (living on less than one United States dollar per day) has declined since the mid-1980s. However, the decline is below the pace needed to achieve the internation development goal of reducing extreme poverty by one half by 2015, and the total number of the poor in 1998 was greater than it had been a decade earlier. Poverty is related to a wide range of factors, including income, health, education, gender and ethnicity.

Commercial Energy Consumption per capita

Energy consumption is a function of economic growth and level of development and is therefore very unequally distributed in the world. Although their share has fallen slightly in recent years as the rest of the world progresses along the path to development, developed market economies, comprising one fifth of the world’s population, consume almost three fifths of the world’s primary energy.

Number of Motor Vehicles

During the twentieth century, there was a major shift from rail and water transport to road and air transport. Since the 1940s, the number of vehicles on the road has grown from some 40 million to 680 million. The most rapid rate of increase of motor vehicles is now in less developed regions, where automobile ownership is still low. Transport is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, urban air pollution, urban congestion and health hazards.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions per capita

The intensive use of fossil fuels has led to substantial growth in global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and the build-up of greenhouse effects, a contributing factor in global warming. Annual global emissions of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels have been steadily rising and have quadrupled since 1950. Continuation of these upward trends in emissions may pose serious risks of climate change, especially global warming, possibly inducing surges in sea levels, flooding of low-lying coastal areas, migration of ecosystems, the spread of vector-borne diseases and reductions in agricultural yields.

Population, the environment and development interact in a variety of ways. Based on the data presented in the wall chart, demographic change and socio-economic development are occurring simultaneously with environmental degradation in a number of countries. The global challenge is to improve the living standards of the population, while safeguarding the environment.

The data presented in the wall chart are also available on the Internet at the following address: http://www.un.org/esa/population.

For further information, please contact Joseph Chamie, Director of the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Tel: 1-212-963-3179.

Population, Environment and Development 2001 (Sales No. E.01.XIII.5) may be obtained for $5.95 per copy from the Sales Section, United Nations, New York or Geneva, through booksellers worldwide, or by writing to the Director, Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, New York, N.Y. 10017, United States of America.

* *** *