Sustainable Energy

A loss of people and biodiversity: How the growth of towns and cities has impacted the countryside

Key Points
  • As our planet's population continues to grow, pressure on its resources is intensifying.
  • People leaving rural areas for urban ones can have an impact on the environment.
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As cities get bigger, rural areas are changing

Until recently, the idea of moving to a big city or town represented an attractive proposition to many. In 2018, the United Nations said that 55% of the planet was living in "urban areas" and forecast that this would rise to 68% by the middle of the century.

While the coronavirus pandemic has made a great deal of people re-evaluate their priorities in terms of where they want to live and work, it still holds true – for the moment, at least – that the economic, cultural and social offerings of a highly urbanized environment can be hard to beat.

It may not seem immediately obvious, but people leaving rural areas for urban ones can have some pretty significant impacts on the natural world.

Speaking to CNBC's "Sustainable Energy", Yann Laurans, biodiversity and ecosystems programme director at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, was asked whether "rural flight" was a threat to the environment.

"It is a global threat," he replied. "Think that 80% of biodiversity worldwide is in areas where traditional production, people's way of life, is happening," he added.

Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has previously stated that "traditional indigenous territories" are home to 80% of the world's biodiversity.

"So, when we lose these people that live in the countryside, in the mountains, in the savannas, when they 'fly' to the city, we are losing the biodiversity that's accompanying this system," he added. "And that's one of the explanations of why biodiversity is actually decreasing so strongly." 

On the subject of governments getting involved with the issue, Laurans stated that "of course" they were trying to do something but pointed to larger, systemic, problems that presented significant hurdles.

"They invest in rural areas in terms of, for example, roads, hospitals, schools, and all this," he explained. "But this is not enough to fight against … let's say the general economic system of which we are part, all of us."

Environmental challenges

Laurans explained that the countryside faced two major environmental challenges.

"One is the, let's say, the encroachment from urban environments to the countryside," he noted.

"We are … demographically growing, and we are also growing in terms of the use of space. Think of all these roads, harbors, that are built and destroy the landscapes, the forests, by cutting it into small pieces."

This is an important point. For while people may be moving away from rural areas to urban ones, it is also the case that cities and towns can subsume surrounding countryside as they grow in size, gobbling up land and resources in the process.

Take the U.K. capital, London: many of its neighborhoods started out as rural or semi-rural settlements that were absorbed by the city as its population and needs expanded.

Laurans described the second challenge as "the very general standardization of landscape" which he put down to "the spread and the increase of farming and of industrial farming."

The concept and practice of monoculture – dedicating land to the growth of one specific crop or animal – generates a great deal of debate and discussion.

While it can potentially result in high yields, its detractors point to what they regard as significant impacts on biodiversity and the environment, among other things.

As our planet's population continues to grow and pressure on its resources intensifies, all of the issues mentioned above will become topics of significant importance. How governments, businesses and society react to these challenges will shape the world we live in for years to come.