16bn or 7.3bn in 2100? New UN figures say both possible

The United Nations has today released new projections for global population growth up until 2100. Issued every two years, the projections for 2017 show slight increases over those produced in 2015 – increases measured, however, in hundreds of millions of people.

The figures also show that very small differences in family size will have a huge impact on the global population.

Key points

  • The principal “medium variant” projection is that the Earth’s population will be 9.8bn in 2050 and 11.2bn in 2100.
  • There is a 95 per cent probability that the global population will be between 8.4 and 8.7 billion in 2030, between 9.4 and 10.2 billion in 2050 and between 9.6 and 13.2 billion in 2100.
  • The chance of population growth ending before 2100 is only 23 per cent.
  • The 47 least developed countries will see their populations more than triple between 2017 and 2100, reaching more than 3bn people.
  • The medium-variant projection assumes that the global fertility level will decline from 2.5 births per woman in 2017 to 2.2 by 2050, and then to 2.0 by 2100. (A fertility level of 2.1 is considered to be the “replacement rate”, at which numbers of births and deaths will balance out over time.)
  • Africa remains the region with the highest fertility levels, although total fertility has fallen from 5.1 births per woman in 2000-2005 to 4.7 in 2015. Over half of global population growth up to 2050 will occur in Africa.
  • In the last ten years, fertility levels in Asia fell from 2.4 to 2.2.
  • The population sizes projected in the principal projection will not be met without action. In the words of the report, “it will be essential to support continued improvements in access to reproductive health care services, including family planning, especially in the least developed countries, with a focus on enabling women and couples to achieve their desired family size.”
2017 UN population projection: world
Source: United Nations Population Division

We will provide more detailed analysis of the report soon. The UN’s summary of the projections can be read here and further detail, graphs and interactive graphics are available here.

Our view

In a statement to the media, Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

These figures contain no surprises – but serve to emphasise again both the challenges we face and that it is possible to surmount them. The 95% certainty range is between 9.4 and 10.2bn people in 2050 and fully 3.6bn in 2100. Beyond even that, the projections reveal that if there is on average just half-a-child more per woman than in the medium projection, our population in 2100 could be 16.5bn; with half-a-child less, it could be 7.3bn – smaller than our population today. 

Differences on that scale are vast and there is almost no conceivable scenario in which the planet can sustain the numbers at the upper end of those ranges. As the report makes clear, we are only going to see us hitting the lowest figures with concerted action, starting now. In particular, we’re seeing global population growth being driven in the very countries which can least handle the burden of more people and in tandem, the authors of the projections admit to particular uncertainty about how far and how quickly fertility rates will decline in those places. 

More, better, faster

The environmental and economic consequences of population growth are profound and alarming but the key message of these figures is that action to address it will make an enormous difference to our futures. The progress that’s been made already in bringing down fertility rates is a welcome sign that more women are becoming empowered, fewer people live in poverty and more people are getting the heath care, family planning and education they deserve. It is vital that the global community does more, better and faster on all of these fronts.  

We are already in a crisis and our current trajectory of rising numbers and rising affluence is unsustainable. The planet is groaning under the strain of seven-and-a-half billion of us and we are using the renewable resources of more than one-and-a-half Earths to supply our needs. The fewer of us there are to put more strain on the Earth, the easier it is to tackle the multiple challenges we face: getting climate change under control, lifting people out of poverty, protecting biodiversity and ensuring that the resources we have are used fairly and sustainably.

Find out more about why population matters and see the key facts regarding population, sustainability and the solutions to population growth.

Education, family planning and population

In the UK, a committee of MPs has called on the government to increase overseas aid spending on education, while an international petition calls on world leaders to address failings in the education of girls. Girls’ education is not just vital for their personal development but plays an essential role in bringing down family size and reducing population growth.

The Committee on International Development has written to the UK government, calling on it to devote 10% of aid spending to education. It found that the average expenditure on education per child in low and middle-income countries was less than $10 per head per year, even with spending of all aid agencies taken together. The proportion of the global humanitarian budget spent on education is just 1.8% and has been declining since 2011.

Girls

The committee highlighted the value of education for girls. The Malala Fund told the committee that “If all girls had 12 years of education, child marriage would drop 64%, early births would drop 59% and child deaths would decrease by 49%”.

A petition by the campaign group One has also highlighted the need for education for girls. 130 million girls are currently not in school. In advance of the G20 Summit in Germany in July, the petition calls on world leaders to put  adequate financing in place to ensure all girls receive a proper education.

Education and family planning

Education plays a vital role in bringing down family size. It has been a key factor in success stories such as the falling birth rates in Thailand and South Korea over recent decades. It has a striking impact in Africa: African women with no education have, on average, 5.4 children; women who have completed secondary school have 2.7 and those who have a college education have 2.2.

Take action

Please sign the One petition.  In addition, take action to defend global family planning which has been hit by significant cuts in US aid funding.

Note. The forthcoming general election in the UK means that there is currently no value in writing to MPs or the UK government about aid.

Have we reached 7.5 billion?

At some point this month, the seven-and-a-half-billionth person alive on this planet will be born – if they haven’t been born already. No one knows quite when that will be, or where it will be, but it’s a milestone we can’t ignore.

It took until the time of Napoleon for the Earth to have a population of one billion. We reached two billion less than a century ago. Today, we add a billion every 12-15 years. The UN projects a likely population of 9.7bn by 2050, nearly 30 per cent more people than there are today – but it acknowledges 11bn a a genuine possibility. By 2100, a population of 11bn is likely, and 16bn possible.

The numbers

Population growth is slowing – but not by enough. In many parts of the world, the “total fertility rate” (TFR, a way of reflecting birth rate) has fallen to below “replacement rate” of 2.1 children, at which births and deaths equal one another and population eventually stabilises. In most countries TFR is falling and has been doing so for many years. But a fall in the average rate is deceptive.

Graph of UN population projections
United Nations world population projection 2010 to 2100

Today, the UN reports that global TFR is still above replacement rate, at 2.5, and in the least developed countries, a fertile woman will have four children on average. Niger has the world’s highest TFR – 7.5 children per woman.

In some countries, the decline in fertility rate has slowed to a stop, or has even reversed.

Population and poverty

Sub-Saharan Africa is not just driving global population growth: high birth rates are holding some African countries back from escaping terrible poverty, as communities and families struggle to meet the food, education and health needs of their growing numbers and national and local infrastructure cannot meet the demands of such high population growth. Locally, soils, water supplies and habitats for wildlife are all under pressure.

Lower fertility but more babies

Other factors drive our global population growth, including living longer. The most significant factor is the sheer number of us to have children: when there are more than a billion more people than a generation ago, fewer people being born per couple is outstripped by the growing number of couples and more people than ever before are being born.

More people, more impact

Plane taking offWhile numbers are growing quickest in the poorest countries, children born in the richest countries have the greatest impact on the environment. An American produces 160-times more CO2 than someone from Niger – a British person 70-times more.

Levels of consumption in the developed world demand more of the planet than it can provide. We are already using the resources of 1.6 planets – if we were all to live as Americans do, we would require four Earths to sustain us all.

Today, many more countries are escaping poverty but that welcome and necessary development poses a challenge for us all: as they become more affluent, their consumption and emissions increase. The rich world must cut its consumption – and the most effective way is to reduce numbers of consumers.

Solutions

Every new human being makes sustaining a good life for all of us on a healthy planet more difficult to achieve. We have the power to reduce that impact and end population growth sooner.

If, on average, there is just half-a-child less per family in the future, there will be one billion fewer of us than the UN expects by 2050 – and four billion fewer by the end of the century (within the lifetimes of many children born today).  Billions less mouths to feed, land to use and greenhouse gases to be produced.

Ensuring everyone has the opportunity and the right to choose their family size and that everyone who has that right exercises it thoughtfully and responsibly will mean a better future for the seven-and-a-half-billionth child and those born after them.

More information

See the key facts about population and its impact, and learn about the solutions.

Find out more about what Population Matters believes and what we want.

Chris Packham speaks out on impact of population

Population growth is stifling our green and pleasant land

by Population Matters patron Chris Packham

The Times published an edited version of this article on 9 January 2017. Here is the piece in full. 

“I remember when this was all fields full of birds and butterflies.” It’s a cliché isn’t it . . . but those words frequently describe changes most adults have seen if they have been fortunate enough to spend time in the countryside. It’s also a powerful metaphor for the wider situation we find ourselves in today. You see, our natural world is forced into competition with the unnatural world we humans create – and it is losing. It is losing badly and this destructive competition will inevitably continue as long as human numbers are growing.

You don’t have to be bemoaning the loss of wildlife to feel the effects of a burgeoning population. The latest research from Population Matters – of whom I am a patron – looks at our human environment and the the impact on road and rail congestion of a projected population growth in the UK of almost 10 million people in the next 25 years. The results show that this could cost our economy more than £23bn . . . and that figure, significant as it is, covers just the direct financial cost of congestion. The full, hidden cost is even greater.

Cars, roads, pollution

We know that every car, every truck and every railway carriage adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and makes it harder still to meet the targets we have set ourselves to get climate change under control. More congestion also means more pollution – combustion engines are getting cleaner but when we put more of them on the road, we are chasing our tails.

And what of the roads we might build to ease the crush? In towns and cities we need to replace demolished houses, pushing our urban boundaries out further. When we build roads in the country, we squeeze out the natural world again. But we depend on that natural world so we simply cannot afford to do that, financially or ecologically.

Valuing nature

From a purely monetary perspective, there is an increasing understanding that nature underpins so much of what we think of as “our” economic activity – from worms turning the soil our food grows in to the provision of clean water. In 2013, the National Ecosystems Assessment placed the worth of insects pollinating our crops at £430m per year. Of course, for myself and millions of others, the value of nature isn’t solely measured in pounds and pence nor also the deep and essential pleasure and contentment it brings. It is more that we are intrinsically connected with the natural world, woven into its fabric and complexity and as one very small part of it – entirely dependent on it. We must re-adjust our thinking to know this, because if we don’t we are doomed – pure and simple.

And however you measure it, the hard facts say we don’t value it enough. The State of Nature report published in September by more than 50 UK nature conservation and research organisations found evidence of significant losses in biodiversity – bleeding life’s richness. 56 per cent of recorded species declined between 1970 and 2013. The UK has experienced significantly more biodiversity loss than the global average, and is now ranked as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Yes, that’s our back yard, going down the pan.

The report attributed significant blame to intensive agricultural practices. Our countryside should not be a factory floor but we treat it as if it is. We smother it with crops and destroy the diversity on which the whole system depends. More people means more food: a drive to ever-increased productivity – at whatever cost to the natural environment – seems sadly inevitable. And what applies on this island, applies on Island Earth too. More so, in fact, because Island Earth cannot import resources from anywhere else and the pollution and emissions its population generates have nowhere else to go.

A global problem

WWF’s 2016 Living Planet report pulled no punches in describing the devastation to our natural world caused by human activity. The report calculates that by 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970. In 1970, the global human population was half what it is now.

One of the report’s most shocking conclusions is that the current rate of extinctions is 100 times what would be considered normal without the impact of human activity. WWF’s head of science bluntly described what we face as the first “global mass extinction of wildlife” since the dinosaurs were wiped out. Commenting on the report, Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation, didn’t shy away from identifying the cause: “The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities in every corner of the globe, including now the most remote parts of Africa, is clearly pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.”

A simple solution

The irony is, this is a global problem with the most local solution of all. You see most of us, certainly most readers of this article decide, how many people there are on this planet. Very sadly that choice is not global yet; an estimated two hundred million women worldwide cannot access the family planning they need. But the rest of us can help put that injustice right. But let’s be clear, this isn’t just about putting contraceptives in people’s hands. Helping women empower themselves through political rights, economic support, and essentially, education enables them to choose smaller families – and whenever they have those opportunities, that is exactly what they do.

Here in the UK we already have the choice of how many children we have. If we want them to enjoy the natural world – to have a thriving supportive natural world they will need to survive – we have to recognise that the more of them we have, the more difficult it will be for them to do that. We all need breathing room: animals, plants, human beings. We shouldn’t have to compete for it, and we don’t have to.

Chris Packham is a naturalist and presenter of wildlife programmes on television. 

www.chrispackham.co.uk

Panic and pragmatism: population in Korea and Japan

Flag of South KoreaSouth Korea’s official statistics agency has just announced that it expects the country’s population to shrink by 8 million over the next 50 years. Currently around  50 million, the agency projects that the population will peak at 52.96 million in 2031 and then gradually decline to 43 million in 2065.

Alarm has been raised in the country about the working age population, which is already starting to decline, “plunging”, in the words of a Korean news outlet, by 300,000 every year from 2020 to reach 20.62 million in 2065. Currently 74.3 percent of the entire population, it is the highest among OECD nations but is now projected to be the lowest by 2065, at under 50 per cent.

South Korea has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates at 1.26 (the global average is 2.5) but is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world at more than 500 people per square kilometre.

In contrast to the concern in Korea, in September the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, declared its ongoing population reduction to be an opportunity. With a birth rate of 1.4 births per woman, Japan has both a shrinking workforce and the developed world’s largest proportion of people over 65 – more than one-in-four of the population.

“I have absolutely no worries about Japan’s demography,” Abe told Reuters. Describing Japan’s situation as “not an onus, but a bonus”, he said he saw it as an incentive to boost productivity, including through the use of technologies such as robots and Artificial Intelligence. The Japanese government aims to stabilise Japan’s population at 100 million people by 2060, about one-fifth below the current level.

Boris Johnson: women’s rights address “population boom”

teen_girlIn a major policy speech, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, has highlighted the problems caused by growing population and the impact that foreign aid can have in preventing it.

Mr Johnson’s comments were made in the course of a speech to the prestigious British foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House. Referring to the significant threats to the survival of the African elephant, he noted that that the population of Africa is now nearing 1 billion people, and doubling every 20 to 25 years in some African countries. As Mr Johnson put it, “the massive growth in [human] population . . . means a contest for resources that an elephant is never going to win.”

Mr Johnson described population growth as “another of those things that we thought had got better … 20 or 25 years ago we thought we were turning the tide”. He went on to describe “one answer” to what he called the “population boom”: work funded by the UK’s Department for International Development to teach girls to read in Pakistan, where two thirds of adult women are illiterate.

“It is about giving them the chance to take control of their lives. All evidence confirms that wherever women are empowered and educated there are immediate improvements in the prosperity of that society and the stabilisation of the birth rate.

s216_borisjohnson“And with the world now likely to hit 11 bn people by 2050 – not 9 bn as we thought a decade or so ago, but 11 bn people – that British mission to educate young women and girls, to save them from the evil of modern slavery, to uphold our belief in equality wherever we go is as profoundly in our interests as it is of girls in the developing world.”

Population Matters recently participated in a productive meeting at the UK Department for International Development to discuss the role of family planning and limiting population growth in reducing poverty.

Note. The UN projects a significant range of possible population figures for 2050 to account for the large range of factors involved. Its current median projection is a population of 9.7 bn but that depends on continued falls in fertility and positive action to achieve them.

Study: hitting Sustainable Development Goals will slash population growth

teen_girl_2Last week, before Mr Johnson made his comments, a study from Shanghai University claimed that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030 would mean a global population of between 8.2 and 8.7 billion by 2100, significantly below the UN’s predicted range of 9.5 to 13 billion. The Sustainable Development Goals are a set of agreed global targets for 2030 intended to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure global prosperity.

In a similiar vein to Mr Johnson, one of the study’s authors noted that

“The key factors are the effects of increasing female education on lowering birth rates in developing countries, and the health target that includes universal access to reproductive health services.

“In general we find that if the international community fails to reach the SDGs then growth will be higher, people will be poorer and in worse health, and this larger world population will be more vulnerable to environmental change.”

Net migration holds steady in UK

crowdEstimates released by the UK’s Office of National Statistics today show that 650,000 people immigrated into the country in the year up to June 2016 and 315,000 left , making the total net migration figure 335,000. The figure is almost exactly the same as the previous year, 336,000.

284,000 EU citizens immigrated to the UK (the highest estimate recorded) and 289,000 non-EU citizens. Of those leaving, approximately 127,000 are estimated to be British, 95,000 EU and 83,000 non-EU.

Nicola White, Head of International Migration Statistics at the ONS said:

“Net migration remains around record levels, but it is stable compared with recent years. Immigration levels are now among the highest estimates recorded – the inflow of EU citizens is also at historically high levels and similar to the inflow of non-EU citizens; there were also increases in the number of asylum seekers and refugees. Immigration of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens continues the upward trend seen over the last few years and in 2015 Romania was the most common country of previous residence. The main reason people are coming to the UK is for work, and there has been a significant increase in people looking for work particularly from the EU.”

163,000 people immigrated to study for more than one year. In the year ending in September 2016, there were a little over 41,000 asylum applications and 4,126 people were “granted humanitarian protection under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme” (4,414 in total since the scheme began in January 2014).

In a statement to the media, Population Matters said:

“More people means more pressure on everything, from buses to butterflies. Our birth rate in the UK is higher than most EU countries and net migration in addition means a national challenge of simple numbers. Currently, twice as many people are born in the UK than increase our population through immigration – we need to start facing up to the challenges posed by both of those factors.

“There’s a global environmental challenge too. By default, people emigrating in pursuit of a better life usually end up consuming more and producing more carbon emissions – the same is true of British emigrants, most of whom end up in places such as the US and Australia. Economic development where it’s needed, lower consumption where it isn’t and having smaller families everywhere will reduce the pressures that drive migration and will give our country and our planet some breathing room.”

Three-quarters-of-a-million more little Britons

pregnant_womanThe Office for National Statistics has today released its “Vital Statistics” report for 2015. It records that 777,165 babies were born in the UK in 2015. With 602,000 people dying, the “natural increase” in the UK’s population (excluding migration) was 175,000 people.

This number of births puts our current total fertility rate (TFR) at 1.8. TFR is the average number of children a woman of childbearing age would be expected to have in the UK at current birth rates. A TFR of 2.1 is considered the “replacement rate” at which numbers of births and deaths will balance out in time. The UK’s TFR has not been above 2.1 since 1972 but “population momentum” and net immigration have led to a population increase of nearly 10 million people since then.

Population momentum arises because the number of women of child-bearing age in the population reflects the higher birth rates of previous generations – as there are more of them, they produce more babies overall, even though the number of births per woman has fallen. Only when TFR has been at replacement rate for decades in a stable population do the numbers of births and deaths actually become equal. This is why further reducing the size of families is still required to limit population growth. The 2015 TFR for the UK is also higher than it was at any point between 1992 and 2005.

The UK’s death rate (number of deaths per 1,000 people) has fallen from  12.1 in 1972 to 9.3 in 2015. In addition to birth rates and migration, death rates are the third factor in determining population.

Global picture

The UK’s total fertility rate is significantly below the global average of 2.5. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the country with the highest TFR is Niger, at 7.5, while Portugal’s TFR is 1.2 and Italy’s 1.5. Global average TFR has been falling since the 1960s but in the least developed countries, remains almost double the replacement rate at 4.0. Disturbingly, in some African countries the reduction in fertility appears to be stalling.

While the total fertility rates of developed nations are far below those in many developing nations, the environmental impact of each individual in high-consuming richer countries is far greater. A UK citizen is responsible for 40 times the CO2 emissions of a person from Sierra Leone. In emissions terms, the 777,000 little Britons born last year are equivalent to more than 30 million babies there.

100,000 new homes in Britain

urban-animal-lit-up-city-at-nightIn his “Autumn Statement” of government spending and taxation plans, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a new fund of £2.3 billion to deliver infrastructure for up  to 100,000 new homes in high demand areas. The move follows the announcement in October of a fund to support the building of houses and is intended to make more land available and suitable for housing.

The government plans to build a million more homes by 2020, in what one minister has described as “the largest government-backed house building programme since the 1970s” in England.

The UK needs 240,000 new homes a year but is currently building only half that amount. Affordable housing is also a significant problem, with house prices rising far faster than inflation. The proportion of 25-34 year-olds who own their own home, for example, dropped dramatically from 59% in 2003 to 36% in 2013.

To minimise the destruction of countryside or farmland, the current focus of housing development in the UK is “brownfield” sites (those previously used for industrial or commercial purposes). In the southeast of Britain where demand for housing is greatest, research suggests these will be exhausted within the next ten-to-twenty years.

The housing shortage and consequent pressure on rental costs and house prices is especially acute in London. As a result, there is flight from the capital, with more people moving from London to other parts of the UK than arriving from the rest of the UK. London’s leavers frequently move to other parts of the southeast, however, where they become commuters, adding to traffic, pollution and congestion, as well as housing pressures in their new communities.

Despite the numbers fleeing London, high birth rates and international migration mean that its population is rising, and is set to reach nearly 10 million within a decade.

The UK’s population is expected to exceed 70 million by 2027. Increasing demand through rising population has driven house price inflation and a housing shortage which one study found has left 4.5 million people in housing need. The increase of approximately half-a-million people in the year to 2016 was the result of 335,000 people immigrating to Britain and a 171,100 rise in “natural growth” – births minus deaths.

WWF: we are facing the next global mass extinction

The 2016 Living Planet report published by WWF today pulls no punches in describing the devastation to our natural world caused by human activity. The report calculates that by 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970.

In 1970, the global human population was half what it is now.

By 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970.2020 is the target date set by the United Nations for halting biodiversity loss — something the report’s authors believe is highly unlikely to be achieved. Instead, they conclude that the average two per cent drop in animal numbers each year is unlikely to slow.

One of their most shocking conclusions is that the current rate of extinctions is 100 times what would be considered normal without the impact of human activity.

Dr Mike Barrett. head of science and policy at WWF, said: “For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife.”

The report highlights particular problems faced by freshwater species in lakes and rivers, with a shocking decline in numbers of 81 per cent. It attributes the decline to “the way water is used and taken out of fresh water systems, and also the fragmentation of freshwater systems through dam building.”

Human pressure on water resources is expected to worsen considerably due to population growth, with, according to the UN, two billion people likely to face absolute water scarcity by 2025.

Dr Barrett continued: “It’s pretty clear under ‘business as usual’ we will see continued declines in these wildlife populations. But I think now we’ve reached a point where there isn’t really any excuse to let this carry on. We know what the causes are and we know the scale of the impact that humans are having on nature and on wildlife populations — it really is now down to us to act.”

The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities is pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.Commenting on the report, Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation, was more explicit in identifying the cause: “The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities in every corner of the globe, including now the most remote parts of Africa, is clearly pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.”

The report itself, however, treats population growth largely as an inevitability which must be taken into account, rather than as a problem which can be solved. Its close and systematic look at the underlying drivers of the crisis — including consumption, food production and distribution, global economic dynamics and much more — is extremely valuable, but its failure to recognise the importance of managing population growth is a deep and disappointing failure.