Should we be worrying about the global population?

By Dave Sanderson

The second of three guest blogs this week from Dave Sanderson to mark World Overshoot Day, 8 August 2016

Immigration featured highly in the recent Brexit debate but much less was said about the overall population of Britain. And very little is ever said about the rapidly increasing global population, despite it being one factor behind increasing immigration to Britain, Europe and the USA. Clearly, the number of people on the earth cannot grow forever, so should we be concerned?

Let’s look at the current situation. As of June 2016, UN data shows the global human population was 7.33bn. The ten most populous countries are:

1. China 1,373,541,278   6. Pakistan 201,995,540
2. India 1,266,883,598   7. Nigeria 186,053,386
3. United States 323,995,528   8. Bangladesh 171,696,855
4. Indonesia 258,316,051   9. Russia 142,355,415
5. Brazil 205,823,665   10. Japan 126,702,133

The UK population is 65.1m, making it the second most populous country in the EU after Germany (80.7m) and greater than third placed France with 64.7m. The total population of the 28 EU countries is 738m, 10.05% of the global total.

It is interesting to see how population is changing over time. Again the UN provides the numbers:

WORLD

The global population is currently growing rapidly, at about 80m / year but with very different rates of growth in different countries. These latest (2015) UN population projections were published in 2016, referring to data from 2015. They predict higher world population figures than the previous set did. In a nutshell, the current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 (16% increase), 9.7 billion in 2050 (33% increase) and 11.2 billion in 2100 (53% increase). These are the median figures and small changes in fertility now could lead to higher or lower figures in the future. 

Several very striking points are made in the UN report which we must think about carefully as they will affect us all. Half of the world’s population growth is expected to be concentrated in nine countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America (USA), Indonesia and Uganda, listed according to the size of their contribution to the total growth.  So the world’s biggest consumer, the USA will have significant population growth, with dire consequences for our environment.

Ten African countries are projected to have increased by at least a factor of five by 2100: Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia. How very poor, hot, dry and weakly governed countries with small economies like Somalia, Mali and Niger could sustain a population 5 times as great as they have now is very hard to imagine. A humanitarian crisis (famine, war etc) seems inevitable and millions may die or emigrate if they can. A very good reason to ensure that national and international aid programmes focus on provision of sex and female health education, provision of free contraception etc…if the local governments will allow that.

Europe is predicted to see a fall in its indigenous population. Indeed, in June 2016 data showed that for the first time, deaths exceeded births in the EU. Yet the report also says that rich countries will increasingly become a magnet for economic migrants from poor countries with fast growing populations; overall EU population is still growing for this reason, leading to significant political and economic effects. According to the UN, most of UK population growth will come from immigration in future. It would seem unlikely that this net in-flow (net, because a smaller number of people migrate in the opposite direction) can be stopped as nations perceived as wealthy and liberal will be an irresistible draw to ever increasing numbers of young people in poorer nations desperate to better themselves. Many developed nations have ageing populations and some say they need young immigrants to help maintain economic growth and standards of living. Yet that is an unsustainable ponzi-scheme argument, as those young immigrants will themselves age, so will need more young people to support them etc etc. As the UK Brexit vote demonstrated, most people (not just in the UK) don’t want more immigration as it is perceived to dilute social cohesion. There is thus a need for a pragmatic, data-driven debate about this to arrive at a wise and practical way forward.

These figures ARE worrying. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste, according to the Global Footprint Network’s Overshoot Index . Obviously we only have one Earth. A bigger population makes solving existing problems (political, economic, social as well as environmental) worse and the issues harder to deal with. As Sir David Attenborough said on January 17 2016 ‘It seems to me that every one of the ills of the past 200 years – hunger, famine, loss of identity, forests disappearing, loss of dignity, overcrowding, loss of countryside – it’s all to do with increased population…Anywhere that women have control of their bodies and education and are literate and politically independent, the birth rate falls.

This surely is good reason for Governments (and all political parties) to place this issue at the heart of policy making and strategies. And, as Sir David points out, the solutions are well known.

Dave Sanderson is a retired economic development professional, active in many areas of sustainability. He is deeply involved with Greater Manchester TreeStation, is on the Board of the Woodland Trust’s Smithill Enterprise Hub, helped found the Saddleworth Hydro Scheme, acts as a Woodland Creation Champion, monitors bird populations for the RSPB and BTO and is an active member of the charity Population Matters.

To find out more about how population growth and sustainability impact the planet, visit www.populationmatters.com and get involved.

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One thought on “Should we be worrying about the global population?

  1. Pingback: Yes, population does matter, but we need to focus on individual consumption | the green economy

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