Population Matters

Population “Factfulness” – where Hans Rosling goes wrong

Population “Factfulness” – where Hans Rosling goes wrong

Hans RoslingFactfulness, the new book by the late Hans Rosling and his family is rightly receiving a great deal of attention. At Population Matters we commend Hans Rosling as a brilliant communicator and a person dedicated to improving the lives of people across the world. We also strongly share his belief that understanding facts and data is essential to solving the challenges we face.

In that spirit, we offer the following facts, which run counter to Prof Rosling’s popular but shakily founded position that population isn’t a problem and future population growth will effectively sort itself out. We believe that he was only able to maintain that position through neglecting environmental problems, over-simplifying population data and placing his faith in demographic theories that haven’t been proved and technological solutions that haven’t yet been invented.

At Population Matters, we maintain that making a better life for everyone – a goal we share with the Roslings – requires concerted action on population, not assurances that it isn’t really a problem.

Fact One: There could be far more than 11 billion people in 2100

The UN offers a range of projections for population growth, of which 11.2bn people in 2100 is one possibility. The UN’s 95% certainty range for 2100 shows a maximum of nearly 13bn and a minimum of under 10bn – a range of nearly 40% of the current global population (7.6bn). The top projection shows almost no decline in rate of growth by the end of the century.

Further, according to the 2017 World Population Prospects report, “for countries with high levels of fertility, there is significant uncertainty in projections of future trends, even within the 15-year horizon of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and more so for the projections to 2100 [emphasis added].”

Fact Two: Very small differences in family size make major differences to future population

According to the UN, variations in global population size caused by even small changes in the size of families are very significant. For example, If there is just half-a-child per family more than the UN’s medium projection expects, our population in 2100 could be more than double what it is now – if half-a-child less, it would be smaller than it is now.

Fact Three: Without concerted effort, even achieving 11.2bn will not be possible

The UN’s medium projection is not what will happen if we let things carry on as they are. The UN’s 2017 World Population Prospects report states:

“To achieve the substantial reductions in fertility projected in the medium variant, 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.” [Emphasis added.]

200 million women worldwide continue to have an unmet need for contraception, mostly in Least Developed Countries.

Fact Four: Global fertility won’t fall if governments work to make it go up

South Korea flagA number of governments are now encouraging or incentivising larger families. These include Iran, South Korea and China.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, however, has said he has “absolutely no worries” about Japan’s low birth rate and high ratio of older people, describing it as “an incentive to increase productivity”.

Fact Five: Education and economic development are not enough

Hans Rosling is absolutely right that women’s empowerment, education, lifting people out of poverty and contraception are essential to bringing down family size and reducing population growth – but of those, what actually does the practical work is access to and provision of high quality, effective family planning services. Countries which have introduced active family planning programmes which provide services, education about contraception and actively encourage smaller family sizes see greater falls in fertility than the average for developing countries.

Source: O’Sullivan, J (2016) Journal of Population and Sustainability

Growing evidence also suggests that Prof Rosling’s reliance on the theory of “Demographic Transition” – in which countries moving out of poverty experience lower fertility rates – is misplaced. While the pattern was strong in the history of many currently developed countries as they moved out of poverty, fertility rates are falling so slowly and haltingly in a number of Least Developed Countries that demographic transition is barely happening at all.

Fact Six: The current human population is demanding more resources than the planet can provide

Focussing on population growth, as the Roslings do, broadly assumes that population is not a problem now and the issue is stopping it becoming a problem later. That conclusion can only be reached by neglecting resource and environmental concerns.

Population – and associated consumption, especially in the developed world – is a driver of multiple environmental problems now: further population growth will exacerbate the problems.

Fact Seven: Human population correlates to major environmental problems

Fact Eight: More people, more climate change emissions

People emit carbon. Gross disparities exist in the CO2 emissions of citizens of different countries but high population can drive high emissions even where per capita output is low. (Indian per capita emissions are a fraction of those of the USA but it joins the US as one of the world’s top three carbon emitters.)

A key study published in 2017 by the Universities of Lund and British Columbia argued that the single most effective long-term measure an individual in the developed world can take to cut their carbon emissions is to have one fewer child (which will also have an ongoing effect by creating fewer grandchildren and descendants).

Another major international study by Project Drawdown in 2017 identified practical policy measures that could be taken to minimise greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Project Drawdown analysed more than eighty policy options and identified family planning and educating girls as among the top 10 workable solutions to combat climate change available today. Project Drawdown calculated that together, these would reduce CO2 emissions by 120 gigatons by 2050 — more than onshore and offshore wind power combined.


Their enormous positive effect is a result of their role in reducing family size and population growth.

Fact Nine: More people, less wildlife

As human population has increased, the number of both animals and animal species has shrunk dramatically.

Fact Ten: Not everyone is as relaxed as the Roslings about population

A growing scientific consensus is emerging about human population impacts upon our planet:

  • In November 2017, 15,000 scientists signed on to a “warning to humanity” which identified population as a “primary driver” of environmental destruction
  • A 2017 survey of Nobel Laureates found that “population rise/environmental destruction” was the issue of greatest concern
  • Sir David AttenboroughSir David Attenborough has spoken frequently about the issue. In an interview this March he said: “The natural world is steadily being impoverished. The situation is becoming more and more dreadful and still our population continues to increase. It’s about time that the human population of the world came to its senses and saw what we are doing – and did something about it.”
  • A paper published in Nature Ecology and this March identified population growth and high consumption as the “main drivers” of biodiversity loss

Meanwhile, leaders from the Global South have repeatedly expressed concerns about the impact of population growth on their economic developments:

Dr Ibn Chambas
  • In November 2017, Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the United Nations Special Representative to West Africa and the Sahel said:

“In [the] case of Africa, so far…population grows faster than the economy, and countries cannot cope with the increasing demands for basic social services such as water, sanitation, education, and health.”

  • In 2018, Executive Director of the Ghanaian National Population Council, Dr. Leticia Appiah said the government must “incentivize small family size. You have to make small family size attractive and a norm.”
  • In 2017, Malawi’s Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Goodall Gondwe, said:
    “The high population is exerting a lot of pressure on our economy. As a country we have made tremendous gains over the years but the impact is not reflected on our economy because the gains have been dissipated by population growth”

    Shahid Khaqan Abbasi
    Shahid Khaqan Abbasi

  • Pakistani Prime Minister Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi recently told a delegation from the country’s population council that population growth was the country’s “major challenge.”

The global crisis we face is too great to allow hope and theories to solve it. We hope these facts will help to increase the demand for action that will make a difference.

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