The demographers may have got it wrong. New projections say the population of the planet will not stabilise at 9 billion sometime this century. In fact, there is an 80 per cent likelihood that, by 2100, it will reach at least 9.6 bn − and maybe rise as high as 12.3 bn.
The latest data, published in the US journal Science, has profound and alarming implications for political stability, food security and, of course, climate change, since greater numbers of people mean greater demands on agricultural land, water and fuel.
At the heart of the findings − led by Patrick Gerland, of the United Nations Population Division in New York, and backed by sociologists, statisticians and population scientists from Seattle, Singapore and Santiago in Chile − is both new data and a more sophisticated approach to the mathematical probabilities for fertility and life expectancy, and for international migration.
The new evidence is that, contrary to previous expectations, women in Africa are still having larger families − in part, because contraceptives are not available and because mortality linked to HIV infection has been reduced.
So, by the end of the century, Africa – once relatively sparsely populated, but now home to around one billion people – will have to feed between 3.5 bn and 5.1 bn.
The new information is available because the UN Population Division re-examines its calculations every two years − and the new techniques include the adoption of a methodology known to mathematicians as “Bayesian probabilistic”.
Most climate change predictions, when they incorporate population growth at all, have been based on the long-standing assumption that the planet’s burden of humans will peak around 2050, and then begin a slow decline
In the new scenarios, Africa remains at the heart of the population explosion, and African women on average have 4.6 children. There are 4.4 bn people in Asia now, but this is expected to peak at 5bn in 2050 and then decline. North America, Europe, Latin America are expected to stay below 1bn each.
“Earlier projections were strictly based on scenarios, so there was no uncertainty,” said Dr Gerland. “This work offers a more statistically-driven assessment that allows us to quantify the predictions and offer a confidence interval that could be useful in planning.”
The study makes no mention of climate change, and the demographers are more concerned with the numbers of young workers who will have to support increasingly elderly populations. But population, economic growth and global warming are inexorably linked.
Most climate change predictions, when they incorporate population growth at all, have been based on the long-standing assumption that the planet’s burden of humans will peak around 2050, and then begin a slow decline.
Because of this, some researchers have been able to put forward arguments for optimism and propose that climate change can be contained and food security assured with careful management and new thinking.
But recent research suggests that while climate change will open more land in higher latitudes for potential crop growth, the gains will not be great, because the conditions for multiple harvests in the tropics will be reduced.
There are other factors. For example, land once available for crops is disappearing under tarmac and cement as the world’s cities grow, and even with a projected population peak of 9bn, an estimated additional 1.5 million square kilometers of tilth and pasture would be lost to the cities by 2030.
Losses of farmland
In addition, the encroachment of the world’s deserts and the erosion of once fertile farmland continues to exact its toll. Statisticians say that between 19 hectares and 23 hectares of land is abandoned every minute. With the latest, and more alarming, population projections, these losses of farmland can only increase.
But these are all projections, rather than predictions. Armed with such information, governments could take steps to ensure a more secure future.
The authors of the Science paper argue that fertility decline could be helped by better access to contraception, and by the education of women.
They add, grimly, that things could also get worse: “It should also be noted that the projections do not take into account potential negative feedback from the environmental consequences of rapid population growth.
“The addition of several billion people in Africa could lead to severe resource shortages, which in turn could affect population size through unexpected mortality, migration, or fertility effects.”
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