Paul Tuns:

As it does every other July 11 – the date is designated by the United Nations as World Population Day — the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs released its biannual report on global population and future projections. The World Population Prospects 2022, released a year late due to data-gathering bottlenecks because of the pandemic, predicted that in November, global population will reach 8 billion people, and that the number of people inhabiting the Earth will continue to grow until the 2080s when it will plateau before decreasing due to the trend of declining fertility rates around the turn of the century.

The long-term projections by the UN’s research team, predict that there will be 9.7 billion inhabitants by 2050 and reach its zenith in 2086 at 10.4 billion, after which it will level-out and eventually decline. That is an update from its 2019 report which predicted a global population of 10.9 billion by 2100, which partly reflects the accelerating decline in fertility rates just two years ago.

Global population grew by just one per cent in 2021, the first time since the Second World War population growth has been that low. Europe’s population declined for the second year in a row, shrinking by 744,000 people in 2020 and 1.4 million last year. The continent’s population shrank for a combination of reasons, including lower fertility rates, lower migration levels, and a surge in deaths due to the pandemic and government measures in response to the pandemic.

John Wilmoth, director of the UN’s economic and social affairs department’s population division, said that the pandemic was not the main driver in Europe’s declining population, noting that Germany has joined several eastern and southern European countries with more deaths than births. Europe’s population is projected to continue to contract until the end of the century.

World Population Prospects 2022 notes that populations are aging rapidly around the globe due to the combination of lower fertility rates and improving health care. Although the report mentions it several times, the report downplays the most important driver of population aging, namely lower child mortality rates.

The low population growth rate is partly the result of long-term trends, including a declining number of women of child-bearing age and rapidly falling fertility rate. The fertility rate is the number of births that the average woman has over the course of her lifetime, and it has fallen from a global average of over five children per woman in the 1950s to 2.3 births today and is projected to decline further to 2.1 per woman by 2050. A fertility rate of 2.1 is considered the natural replacement rate for a society and today most of east Asia, Europe, and North America have fertility rates well below 2.1. For Canada, the United States and a number of European nations, populations would be in decline were it not for immigration. Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Spain have fertility rates below 1.3.

Today, only sub-Saharan Africa (4.6), Oceania excluding Australia and New Zealand (3.1), Northern Africa and Western Asia (2.8), and Central and Southern Asia (2.3) have above replacement-level fertility rates.

By 2050, the UN predicts that half of that growth will occur in just eight countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania.

The report projects that 61 countries will experience a population decrease of one per cent or more between now and 2050 “owing to sustained levels of fertility.” Five eastern European countries – Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, and Ukraine – will see their populations drop by 20 per cent or more.

It also notes that two-thirds of the world’s population now lives in countries that have below replacement-level fertility rates.

One headline-grabbing fact from the report is that next year India will overtake Red China as the most populous country in the world. Uday Balakrishnan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru, wrote in The Hindu that if India invested in basic education, universities, and healthcare, it would reap “the demographic dividend,” while noting that China’s economy could be entering an age of stagnation due to its below replacement-level fertility rates. The Washington Times reported that Beijing was “muted in its response” to the report while officials in Delhi “responded with cautious gratification.” Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said “For India to surpass China, its larger and more powerful strategic rival, on any front is significant.”

The report notes that 10 per cent of the global population is over the age of 65 and projects that percentage will climb to 16 per cent by 2050. It projects that the number of persons over 65 will be equal to the number of people under the age of 12 and double the number of children under the age of five. There are currently 771 million senior citizens on Earth, and that number will climb to 1.6 billion by 2050.

Today, global life expectancy is just over 71 years of age, down a year since 2019, though it is expected to rebound and reach 77.2 years by 2050. Global population will increase due to people living longer.

In its coverage of the World Population Prospects, the Financial Times reported that rapidly aging populations will “hit economic growth and public finances and is already posing growing political challenges.” 

The population reports are issued roughly ever two years by the UN and World Population Prospects 2022 was the 27th iteration since 1951. In the first report, the UN estimated the global population to be 2.5 billion. Population growth in the 1960s reached 2.1 per cent leading the Club of Rome and other doomsayers to predict that global overpopulation would strip the planet of its resources while billions suffered in abject poverty. Those dire predictions never became true and despite approaching 8 billion inhabitants, there are fewer people living at subsistence-level than in the 1980s.

Population projections are notoriously difficult to correctly predict because future decisions about child-bearing and social and technological improvements that increase lifespans are hardly linear. Therefore, the UN’s report also offers ranges of population growth and says that there is a 95 per cent likelihood that the number of births in 2050 will be between 118 million and 155 million – and the precise number of births in 2050 will affect raw birth totals within two to three decades.

Demographics is not an exact science and other projections predict lower peaks. The European Commission Joint Research Center offers low-, medium-, and high-fertility scenarios which find that global population will peak at 8.7 billion in the 2050s, 9.7 billion in 2070, and 10.4 billion by 2100 respectively. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation recently projected a population of 8.8 billion by 2100.