This year’s World Population Day falls during a milestone year when we anticipate the birth of the Earth’s eighth billion inhabitants. This is an occasion to celebrate our diversity, recognise our common humanity, and marvel at advancements in health that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates. – António Guterres, UN Secretary-General
As of November 15th this year, the world population reached 8 billion. This signifies the major improvements we’ve made in health care that have lowered the risk of death and increased life expectancy.
However, it also serves as a reminder that we are living in crucial times as the planet is adapting to the increase in human life. Climate change and nature loss caused by human activities – from the food that people eat to the fossil fuels burned for energy – are having an increasingly significant impact on the planet.
According to the latest UN data, the Malaysian population is an estimated 33,347,887 (33.3 million) as of Wednesday, November 16, 2022, equivalent to 0.42% of the total world population. This represents a significant increase from 32.7 million in 2021 and 27.5 million in 2010. With a forecasted annual growth rate of 1.2%, this population is expected to increase even further by 2025.
This population increase inevitably results in bigger problems in the future.
#1: More People Means More Pollution
Climate change is one of the biggest environmental challenges faced by the world today. And understanding population growth trends is a crucial part of understanding and confronting this crisis.
Greenhouse gas emissions are strongly linked with population growth; as the world population grows, so does its consumption of resources such as fossil fuels which in turn leads to increases in the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Indeed, human activities are estimated to add bout 11 billion metric tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year.
According to a 2020 research evaluating 44 countries, emissions arising as a result of population growth wiped out two-thirds of the reduction in emissions arising from greater energy efficiency between 1990 and 2019.
A larger population does not necessarily mean more greenhouse emissions per person. The US, for example, represents just over 4% of the global population but accounts for 17% of the world’s energy use, with their per-person carbon emissions among the highest in the world. In 2019, the US’s carbon emissions were estimated at 14.7 metric tonnes per capita, far lower than in past years but still too high for comfort.
This is a problem for Malaysia which has been moving forwards with a zero-carbon emission plan. The World Bank data shows that Malaysia’s carbon emissions have risen to 253,270.00 kT in 2019 coinciding with the country’s population being at 32,804,020 in the same year. And yet, it has a far lower carbon emission than the US, estimated at 7.9 metric tonnes per capita.
For the average Malaysian, a changing climate will result in more erratic weather that can lead to one of two things:
- Heavier rainfall, especially during the monsoon season that will lead to greater and more destructive floods, or
- Longer and hotter heatwaves that may result in droughts leading to water shortages and cut-offs, something that is especially devastating for the people of Kedah who are already dealing with water shortages on a near-daily basis.
#2: The Need For Space Will Destroy Our Forests
With an increasing population comes a greater need for food and living space, inevitably resulting in the destruction of natural environments such as our forests. Nearly two-thirds of global forest cover loss occurs mainly in the tropics and sub-tropics (including Malaysia), and already we have lost over 43 million hectares, an area roughly the size of Morocco, between 2004-2017.
This growth, in concert with rising per-capita consumption, will require large increases in food and biofuel production. – William F. Laurance, Jeffrey Sayer, and Kenneth Cassman, Trends in Ecology & Evolution
Between 2002 and 2021, the greater Ulu Muda landscape lost 82.8 square kilometres (32 square miles) of humid primary forest, according to satellite data collated by the University of Maryland (UMD) and visualised on Global Forest Watch.
Tropical ecosystems are crucial for global biodiversity and provide vital ecosystem services, but are facing unprecedented pressures. The already massive global footprint of agriculture is expanding rapidly, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. Its impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems will be intense and increasingly pervasive. – William F. Laurance, Jeffrey Sayer, and Kenneth Cassman, Trends in Ecology & Evolution
Besides biodiversity loss and adverse changes to our soil and water cycles, the loss of forest cover will also reduce the Earth’s ability to withstand climate change, and cutting down or burning forests will release their stored carbon, adding more to the climate crisis. According to Global Forest Watch Climate, the estimated annual gross carbon dioxide emissions from tree cover loss in tropical countries averaged 4.8 gigatons per year between 2015 and 2017. Put another way, tropical tree cover loss is now causing more emissions every year than 85 million cars would over their entire lifetime.
Malaysia prides itself on its natural heritage, and it serves as a major source of tourism income for the country. To see our forests being torn down is to see part of our heritage being destroyed.
Can you imagine Cameron Highlands bald and hot? Unfortunately, it is already happening.
#3: Food Insecurity May Become A Problem
According to Urban Hijau, Malaysia is considered to be a food insecure country and its reliance on food imports to meet domestic needs puts it in a very precarious position as disruptions in food supply chains from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia can potentially lead to high food price spikes in the future.
We are 30% short. So, for example, when the Vietnamese government announced that they were freezing exports of rice, we were badly affected because we import a lot of rice from them. – Barjoyai Bardai, economist
Our increasing population will only put more stress on our agricultural sector. Despite having over 700,000 hectares of agricultural land, we dedicate much of it to the growing of cash crops such as palm oil, rubber and cacao, with the cultivation of food crops such as fruits and vegetables not being as common.
Currently, we import over RM55 billion worth of food every year, while we export roughly RM33 billion. We could reduce exports, and use them to substitute imports. – Barjoyai Bardai, economist
A country’s ability to feed itself depends on three factors: availability of arable land, accessible water and population pressures. The more people there are, especially in poor countries with limited amounts of land and water, the fewer resources there are to meet basic needs. If basic needs cannot be met, development stalls and economies begin to unravel.
Food is a basic need for us, are for those in the Bottom 40% (B40), it can be especially expensive to afford enough to feed themselves and their families. If food production in our country or elsewhere drops off due to climate change, it will certainly make it more difficult for us to get staple foods like rice and vegetables as a result of shortages or price hikes. They may even end up consuming more processed foods just to survive.
#4: We Are Producing More Garbage
Besides greenhouse gases, another environmental problem that will increase in conjunction with growing populations is solid waste; in 2020, the world was estimated to generate 2.24 billion tonnes of solid waste, amounting to a footprint of 0.79 kilograms per person per day. With rapid population growth and urbanisation, annual waste generation is expected to increase by 73% from 2020 levels to 3.88 billion tonnes in 2050.
The life expectancy of a landfill is about 20 to 25 years, depending on how much area it takes up. But a big part of such sites will be full or unusable within two to three years due to the rising amount of waste. – Housing and Local Government Ministry
Malaysians generate about 38,699 tonnes of solid waste every day – at least 1.17kg per person. A 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that Malaysia has an annual per capita plastic use of 16.78 kg per person, much higher than China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Most of this waste usually ends up in landfills where it can cause all manner of environmental problems; furthermore, we only have so much space to construct additional landfills, leading to the burning of such waste which has its own issues.
We are all too familiar with the problem of littering and improper disposal of our garbage. And greater exposure to this waste will have a severe negative impact on our health. Already we have to deal with the problem of discarded plastic containers harbouring mosquito breeding grounds. But now we will have to worry about consuming microplastics in our fish and seafood and breathing in toxic fumes from burning plastic and e-waste.
The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and sometimes non-existing waste management systems. It starts with issues related to oil extraction, through toxic environments and greenhouse gas emissions, and it even impacts water distribution policies. – Juliano Calil, a senior research fellow at the Centre for the Blue Economy
#5: Malaysia Has An Aging Population
It is estimated that by 2050, the world’s population of people aged 60 years and older will double (2.1 billion). The number of persons aged 80 years or older is expected to triple between 2020 and 2050 to reach 426 million.
While this shift in the distribution of a country’s population towards older ages – known as population ageing which started in high-income countries (for example in Japan, 30% of the population is already over 60 years old), it is now low- and middle-income countries that are experiencing the greatest change. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population over 60 will live in low and middle-income countries including Malaysia.
A 2022 report by the Department of Statistics states that Malaysia is currently becoming an ageing population. According to the report, the composition of the population aged 0-14 years (young age) in 2022 decreased to 23.2% as compared to 23.6% in 2021. Meanwhile, the composition of the population aged 15-64 years (working age) increased from 69.4% in 2021 to 69.5% in 2022.
The number of people over 65 years in Malaysia is projected to triple from two million today to over six million by 2040. Members of the community aged 80 and above are projected to increase from 0.3 million to nearly 1.4 million by 2040. – Datuk Vincent Lim, president of Concept, Innovation and Strategy (C.I.S.) Network Sdn Bhd
While certainly a good indicator of how much better our healthcare has become, with people leading much longer lives, an ageing population also brings with it multiple challenges. Are the elderly receiving a comfortable level of living? Are they emotionally stable enough to overcome anxiety and feelings of neglect, loneliness and rejection? Are their pensions capable of covering the rising costs of food and other necessities?
What about those without pensions? Many depend on their EPF (Employees’ Provident Fund) savings, and according to reports, about 50% of those who contribute to EPF do not have enough savings to last for their remaining years.
Besides the obvious challenges of providing adequate care to a growing elderly population, there is also the threat of a shrinking workforce.
Already, Malaysia’s agricultural sector is suffering from an ageing workforce, with around 26% of its agricultural workers aged 50 years old or above in 2018. While much of the younger population finds greener pastures elsewhere, there comes the problem of whether to allow the ageing workers to continue with their jobs, fund projects to attract younger prospects or hire migrant workers.
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