Population Matters

Recent global population projections

Recent global population projections

This document provides additional insights into the issues arising from the recent paper in Science magazine in which Patrick Gerland of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and others asserted there is an 80 per cent probability that world population, now 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion by 2100.

Population size
The significance of the new work is that it provides greater certainty regarding the range of United Nations population size and age profile projections, whether these be global, regional or national. Moving from an arbitrary range around the medium projection — half a child per woman above and below the medium projection — to a range based on statistical techniques means that we can be more confident about the likely outcome.

Crowd of people

To be specific, it is highly likely — there is an 80 per cent probability — that, given current policies, the world population will be between 40 per cent and 75 per cent larger than it is today in the lifetime of many of today’s children — i.e. by 2100 — and will still be growing at that point. While almost half — 48 per cent — of the world’s population live in countries with replacement — 2.1 children per woman — or subreplacement birth rates, the population of Africa is forecast to rise from approximately 1.0 billion today to 4.2 billion by 2100.

Population is an important issue for at least five reasons:

  • it is happening in an era when per capita consumption is expected to rise in much of the world as it industrialises and urbanizes, so population growth will combine with per capita consumption growth to cause overall human consumption to rise rapidly;

  • climate change and approaching limits to our ability to extract fresh water reserves, fish stocks, arable land, fossil fuels, etc. at current costs are likely to limit our ability to greatly increase food production;

  • population growth contributes to climate change by increasing overall consumption; to political unrest and conflict resulting from competition over resources within and between nations; and to dangerous and disruptive migratory pressures;

  • as populations increase, they reduce quality of life and cost of living in other ways: housing costs, home sizes, residential overcrowding, utility costs, access to services and leisure opportunities, unemployment, development pressures, traffic and transport congestion, loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, loss of amenities and access to green spaces, etc.; and

    Women living in poverty

  • much of the population growth is in the very poorest countries, putting a huge burden on societies that already face multiple challenges and very low incomes — such growth will be destabilising and will also pose challenges for aid donors.

This greater certainty of future population projections, presented within the context of rising per capita consumption and our understanding of resource and environmental limits such as those theorised by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, should prompt us to reconsider our neglect of population as an issue.

A recent paper found that the predictions in the famous 1972 Limits to Growth book about unsustainable exploitation of natural resources were on track.

Population policy has been all but abandoned in recent decades. It was barely mentioned during the United Nations-led Sustainable Development Goals process or at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. There has been more support for women’s empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights — in the form of FP2020, the Girl Summit and other efforts.

It is true that empowering women and providing access to family planning tends to lead to smaller families. It is estimated that approximately 40 per cent of pregnancies worldwide, or 85 million pregnancies, were unintended in 2012. Of these, 50 per cent ended in abortion, 13 per cent ended in miscarriage and 38 per cent resulted in an unplanned birth.

It is further estimated that 220 million women wish to delay or avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraception. This is for multiple reasons, showing that providing information and a range of methods are required, as are consistent and affordable supplies.

Doctor visit

Despite this, aid for population and reproductive healthcare programmes only accounts for 1.4 per cent of all aid spending. Although the United Kingdom government is a world leader in promoting women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights, it spends only a small proportion of its foreign aid in these areas.

Some cultures continue to have a preference for large families. Cultural change — including women’s education and empowerment — is required in addition to improved family planning provision.

In 2013, only 37 per cent of governments worldwide had policies to lower the rate of population growth. Twenty per cent had policies to raise it. The remaining 43 per cent of governments had policies to maintain the current rate of population growth or did not intervene to influence it.

We recommend:

  • an international commitment to gender equality in all spheres;
  • that a much greater proportion of aid be spent on the quality and quantity of family planning provision;
  • a much greater global emphasis on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe and legal abortion;
  • ending endemic conflict, which is hugely disruptive of family planning provision;
  • an acknowledgement that family planning provision is not only about health or human rights or women’s equality, but is also fundamental to global sustainability;
  • the promotion of smaller families as the responsible choice for social, equity, environmental and sustainability reasons; and
  • limiting government subsidies to the first two children per household, except in cases of proven need.

Of these, perhaps the most important, and the most neglected, is the promotion of smaller families as the responsible choice for social, equity, environmental and sustainability reasons.

Elderly man

Ageing population profiles
Patrick Gerland in the paper noted that “the ratio of working age people to older people is likely to decline substantially in all countries”. We believe this should be addressed mainly through planning for greater provision for the particular needs of older people.

There are a number of ways in which concerns over the ratio — not enough workers to fund the pensions / provide elder care — can be addressed.

There is substantial unemployment in many countries. Training the unemployed would reduce any labour shortage. Secondly, many mothers do not work due to insufficient childcare. We should provide the childcare to keep mothers in work. Thirdly, most work is not manual. Older people are healthier than ever before and should be enabled to continue working. Fourthly, we should invest in mechanisation to reduce the need for workers. Fifthly, one can always import workers from the vast pools of unemployed and underemployed workers in the poorest countries. Sixthly, much work today occurs in the service sector. As populations fall, fewer workers are required. Finally, wealth comes from a high level of productivity per worker. In all industries, highly educated and trained workers operating state of the art machinery can produce vastly more than poorly trained workers using more basic equipment, so there should be a focus on mechanisation and improving productivity.

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