World's population hitting 8 billion not a 'doomsday scenario', UN official says

Growth rates expected to drop by 1% or more in 61 nations

A busy Times Square in Manhattan. Births have been steadily declining in the US, Europe and Japan, with the majority of future population growth to be focused in Africa. Reuters
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The world population surged past eight billion on Tuesday, the UN said, warning that more hardship is in store for regions already facing resource scarcity due to climate change — but on Tuesday, a senior UN official said it was not a “doomsday scenario”.

While many worry about the impact of the growing number of people on a world already struggling with inequality, a climate crisis and conflict-driven migration, Ib Petersen, deputy director for management at the UN Population Fund, told reporters he considers this to be a “success story” for humanity.

“What is truly unique about this moment in history is not the number we have reached but the unprecedented demographic diversity,” Mr Peterson said.

The world population has doubled in the past five decades, hitting four billion in 1974. It took a little more than a decade for the planet to add its latest billion.

Middle-income countries, mainly in Asia, accounted for most of that growth, gaining about 700 million people since 2011.

India added about 180 million people and is set to surpass China as the world's most populous nation next year.

But the UN said population rates are expected to drop by 1 per cent or more in 61 nations.

This should keep the world from reaching nine billion people until 2037. The UN projects population will peak at about 10.4 billion people in the 2080s and remain at that level until 2100.

Mr Peterson noted there are two distinct issues to deal with: rapid population growth in some nations and a decline in others.

“Many nations are experiencing declining and ageing populations, while others have large youth populations,” he said. “In fact, the median age in Europe is 41, while the median age in Sub-Saharan Africa is 17.”

The US population growth rate in 2021 was only 0.1 per cent, the lowest since the country was founded. The current US population is 337 million and will reach 375 million in 2050.

Births have also been steadily declining in Europe and Japan, and China has struggled with the legacy of its One Child Policy programme, last year urging families to have a second and even a third child while also limiting access to abortion.

John Wilmoth, director of the UN Population Division, expects that for some of these countries, immigration will be the only source of growth.

Otherwise, he said, “they would be declining in size just based on the balance between births and deaths”.

Although slower population growth, if maintained over several decades, might help mitigate environmental degradation, conflating population growth with a rise in greenhouse gas emissions ignores the fact that countries with the highest consumption and emissions rates are those where population growth is already slow or even negative, said Maria Francesca Spatolisano, the UN assistant secretary general for policy co-ordination and inter-agency affairs.

“The majority of the world population growth is and will increasingly be concentrated among the world’s poorest countries,” she said.

“These countries which have significantly lower emission rates are likely to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change, in part because they lack the resources needed to adapt to these changes and to mitigate their impacts.”

Carbon emissions of the richest 1 per cent, or about 63 million people, were more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity between 1990 and 2015, a 2020 analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute and non-profit Oxfam International showed.

Resource pressure will be especially daunting in African nations, where populations are expected to boom, she added. These are also among the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts and most in need of climate finance.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where about 738 million people already live without adequate food supplies, the population is projected to jump 95 per cent by the middle of the century, the Institute for Economics and Peace reported.

“In order to usher in a world in which all eight billion people can thrive, we need the rapid decoupling of economic activity from the current overreliance on fossil fuel energy, as well as greater efficiency in the use of such resources,” said Ms Spatolisano.

Wealthy countries and the international community, she added, can help ensure that developing countries receive the necessary assistance, both technical and financial, so that their economies can grow.

Updated: November 15, 2022, 10:02 PM