With the world confronting a host of major crises relating to climate, energy, poverty, food, the global economy and political instability, why should anyone be concerned about population? The simple answer is that advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, while also addressing the gender inequality that contributes to high fertility, can make a world of difference. A critical difference.

Reproductive freedom—the ability and capacity of people to decide for themselves whether and when to have children—is a basic human right, one that is crucial to personal fulfillment and well-being. But it is not just a human imperative. It is also a global imperative.

While the global rate of population growth has decreased, the size of the global population is still expected to continue to increase for decades to come. Roughly 200.000 people are born each day, and the global population is likely to approach 10 billion by mid-century. That projected population growth presents a host of challenges, which will be disproportionately experienced by vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Over the past two decades, the world has made significant strides in advancing gender equity and sexual and reproductive health and rights, and in reducing global hunger and poverty. But the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down and even reversed some of those gains, and progress in these areas  has been slower in parts of the world where rapid population growth occurs. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, for example, the number of people who are chronically malnourished or severely impoverished is still on the rise. 

Greater investment in efforts to educate girls, eliminate child marriage, empower women, and improve sexual and reproductive health and rights will have enormous benefits for people and the planet. With roughly half of all pregnancies around the world unintended, empowering each person to decide the number, spacing and timing of their children would not only fulfill their individual aspirations, but would also slow the growth of our population, reducing overall pressure on the environment and natural resources and improving prospects for sustainability. 

Doing more to prevent unintended pregnancies will not, by itself, save the world. We must do far more to restrict greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the overconsumption of land, water, and other resources that imperils our future. But population is too important to ignore. Improving access to sexual and reproductive health services is important for the health and success of families, and it can also make a highly cost-effective contribution to addressing many of our global challenges. 

There are many interconnected drivers of global unsustainability, be they social, economic, or environmental. The size of the global population is one of them, but is too often ignored both as a driver of unsustainability, or as an opportunity to invest in its related goals, gender equity and reproductive freedom.