World Population Day: Our ground-breaking research

The earth in front of the sun

Today (Wednesday 11 July) marks World Population Day, an annual campaign seeking to raise awareness of global population issues. To mark the occasion, we're highlighting some of our world-leading research centres where our staff and students are working towards a more sustainable future. 

Established by the United Nations Development Programme, World Population Day highlights the importance of family planning and reproductive rights while addressing the challenges raised by growing populations around the world.

The theme for 2018 is "Family Planning is a Human Right", marking 50 years since this principle was enshrined at the 1968 International Conference on Human Rights. 

Colleagues from across our University are working at the forefront of research on rising populations and the challenges they bring. Through ground-breaking projects, they are producing the knowledge we need to meet demands on resources and build a more sustainable world. 

The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures

The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures is an innovative collaboration between our University and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.

With research produced by our world-leading academics, the centre contributes to key policy debates on resource distribution and building a fairer world against the backdrop of growing global populations.

The Grantham Centre also facilitates ambitious multidisciplinary projects, including input from our scientists, engineers and social scientists. By combining expertise in this way, our researchers can address some of the most pressing problems facing the world today.

On top of this, the centre supports 67 PhD students working on subjects ranging from soil science to psychology. The supervisors of these projects include economists and ecologists, political scientists and polymer chemists, bringing the interdisciplinary expertise needed to tackle the complex social, political and technical challenges of sustainability.

Transforming agriculture

The Grantham Centre published a ground-breaking paper in 2015 which set out a sustainable model for intensive agriculture, in response to the demand for a dramatic increase in food production to meet the needs of growing global populations.

The paper described ways in which modern biotechnology techniques could be used to improve the sustainability of crops, for example, by enabling soil to interact with soil microbes in order to become less dependent on artificial pesticides.  

Engaging the public

During this year’s Festival of Debate, the Grantham Centre hosted a number of free public seminars exploring some of the most pressing sustainability issues facing society today. One of these asked the question “Should people in the UK have fewer children to save the world?”

With a wide-ranging panel of experts chaired by Professor Jill Atkins from our Management School, the event lifted the lid on the rarely-discussed issue of overpopulation and what it means for a sustainable future.

Planning for the future

Professor Colin Osborne

For Professor Colin Osborne, Associate Director of the Grantham Centre, the issue of population growth is often misrepresented. He said: “Global population growth is often used as an excuse for slow progress towards a sustainable future, and of course it's true that the more of us there are on Earth, the further we have to stretch natural resources. But this excuse ignores two important facts. First, progress towards the UN's sustainable development goals – through the alleviation of poverty, the empowerment of women, and access to family planning, healthcare and education – has drastically reduced birthrates globally.

"Instead, we have to confront the uncomfortable fact that the blame for many sustainability problems lies close to home, with the unsustainable level of consumption by the globally wealthy, including most Europeans. Living like the average European is not sustainable for the whole world, and it's up to us to change our ways and drastically cut our consumption and waste."

Find out more about the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures

The Urban Institute

Our Urban Institute is leading the way in shaping the cities of the future.

A collaboration of expert academics from across our University, the institute tackles some of the major social, economic and environmental challenges facing our cities. Around the world, cities are under increasing strain from growing demand, with 70% of the world’s population expected to be city-based by 2050.

The Urban Institute carries out cutting-edge research around five key areas: Urban Automation, Co-producing Urbanisms, Controlled Environments, Infrastructure in Action and Urban Humans.

Through their innovative approach, colleagues from the institute uncover new ways to understand our urban environment and to re-imagine it for future populations.

Find out more about the Urban Institute

The University of Sheffield Sustainable Food Futures

An interdisciplinary initiative, the University of Sheffield Sustainable Food Futures (SheFF) works to make contemporary systems of food and agriculture more sustainable.

SheFF researchers collaborate across a diversity of subjects, from social sciences to engineering, to tackle the issue of feeding a growing population from finite resources. Seeking innovative solutions, the group addresses problems such as food waste, healthy diets and fairness in the supply chain, providing new ideas formed by world-leading expertise.

SheFF's ultimate vision is for everyone to access sufficient safe, affordable and nutritious food.

Find out more about SheFF