By Li Lantao
With the birth of a baby girl in Armenia in the Caucasus, the global population hit 8 billion on November 15, 2022. This landmark figure has made the world pay more attention to the global population, with issues like how the total amount and growth rate will change in the future, and whether our planet can afford to grow an increasingly large population. In fact, the consensus of all parties on some issues has basically been reached, yet this has also triggered more thoughts and even confusion on what the future holds for humanity.
The 20th century is a century of explosive population growth. At the beginning of the 20th century, the global population was only 1.6 billion, and by the end of it, the global population had grown to 6.1 billion. This was an almost fourfold increase, a rate that is unlikely to be repeated in this century.
The current global population growth rate has slipped to its lowest level since 1950 (and below 1% since 2020). With the change in growth rate, for the world’s population to reach 8 billion is considered an important milestone, which marks the end of an era of rapid population growth. Most projections also assume that the population will peak sometime in the second half of the 21st century and then stabilize or gradually decline.
Figure: Size and Growth Rate of Global Population since the Second Half of the 20th Century
While the global population will continue to grow, whether it can break through the 10 billion mark remains uncertain. Regardless of whether the number reaches its peak, the continuous increase in the population will certainly put some pressure on the world. The main issue is, how can such a massive population be sustained.
Different studies have given widely different answers. It is worth noting that according to the relevant statistics of the United Nations, of the 65 relevant studies, 20 of them believe that the planet earth can carry up to 8 billion population, 13 studies believe that its carrying capacity is less than 8 billion, while 32 studies believe that the figure should be greater than 8 billion. From an academic point of view, feeding 8 billion people will not be a major problem. Some also believe that the carrying capacity of the earth changes with the progress of human civilization. For instance, 1,000 years ago, the earth could only sustain less than 500 million people, while 100 years ago this would be 2 billion people. In addition, this largely depends more on people’s consumption habits. Some scholars point out that if everyone on the planet lived like the American middle class, then the planet might only have a carrying capacity of about 2 billion people. Former U.S. President Barack Obama remarked that if more than 1 billion Chinese live the same lifestyle as their American counterparts, it will be a tragedy for humankind, as the earth will not be able to bear it.
Fortunately, the future global population growth will not be concentrated in Europe, the U.S., or even China. Instead, population growth is more likely to appear in some poorer countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, more than half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania. After 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to contribute more than half of the world’s population growth, and the planet may enter an era where sustained population growth only occurs in Africa.
The problem, however, is that, even at lower living standards, the existing populations in places like certain countries in Africa are already in limbo. These countries in underdeveloped areas are currently facing widespread problems such as poor governance, environmental degradation, food shortages, and inadequate infrastructure. In the absence of guaranteed economic development, the increase in population in poorer areas will only place more burdens on the people and will not significantly boost the economic output through the increase of the labor force which could ultimately improve social welfare. It is reasonable to speculate that much of the population growth concentrated in the regions that are least able to cope could lead to some of the worst consequences, including interstate conflict, civil war, ecological destruction, and dysfunctional governments during a crisis.
It should be noted that climate change coupled with population growth will make the situation in related regions even worse. For example, the African continent which contains 54 countries, currently accounts for 15% of the world’s population, is the continent most affected by extreme weather such as floods and droughts. Studies have shown that drought-affected areas in many African countries have expanded by as much as 40% since the 1980s, possibly because of climate change. According to estimates, 250 million people in Africa are affected by severe water scarcity, and as many as 700 million people are expected to be displaced by 2030. Until 2030, four out of five African countries are unlikely to have sustainably managed water resources. Due to rising global temperatures, large-scale climate refugees could occur in Africa, along with the Middle East, India, Brazil, and other regions.
For some European countries and the U.S., the situation is rather different. Almost all high-income countries and most middle-income countries now have low fertility rates as well as slowing population growth rates, and more and more countries are experiencing population declines. China, as things stand, is among the countries with very low population growth. Many countries are working to raise fertility levels and prevent rapid population decline. However, there is also a growing awareness among the governments that their measures to act on this will be limited in effectiveness unless they are willing to accept large-scale migrations. That being said, historically, and realistically, this is often not a very popular or even acceptable option.
Although immigration can bring the labor force and even related professional skills that are scarce for economic development, if there is a huge influx of migrants, especially refugees, the social security and public services of the receiving country will be seriously stressed. Furthermore, this can also potentially lead to ethnic conflicts, national identity crises, and other issues. Due to the low birth rates of host countries, new migrants, and their subsequent second generations, will increasingly become the main source of population growth in these countries. According to statistics, from 1990 to 1995, half of the population growth in developed countries came from new migrants and as high as 3/4 from 2000 to 2005. From 2010 to the present, almost all population growth in developed countries came from new migrants. The differences between foreign cultures and local cultures brought about by this will inevitably challenge the culture, customs, traditions, and religion of the host country, and their strong impact on the main culture of the host country will cause major concern among the government and the people. If this is not handled properly, it may lead to social unrest.
This scenario is likely to become a reality after the world’s population crosses the 8 billion threshold, moving from rapid aggregate growth to structural growth that is highly correlated with regional factors. There is no denying that this shift in the global population may have some positive effects. Yet, in the face of the huge imminent impact, it is indeed necessary for countries to prepare for the worst the soonest as possible. For the planet to feed more people, humanity needs more sustainable lifestyles and to reduce excessive consumption of energy and resources. From this point of view, it will be necessary for those in developed countries such as Europe and the U.S. to embrace a more austere lifestyle in the future.
Final analysis conclusion:
After the global population reaches 8 billion, it will change from a period of total rapid growth to a stage of structural growth. The increase in population in poorer parts of the world will make the regional differences in global population growth more obvious. With their distinct paces in social governance and economic growth, coupled with climate change, regions with sustained population growth such as Africa are facing severe challenges, while other regions may face problems such as continuous aging and immigration.
Li Lantao is a researcher for ANBOUND