Earth’s population could start falling after 2050

Shadows of people both adults and children standing in front of a sunset with a projection of a world map in the background. Population Gerd Altamann Pixabay
Population Gerd Altamann Pixabay
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A new report has suggested that global population – that reached 8 billion in November 2022 – could peak at 9 billion in 2050 and then start falling.

This projection is significantly lower than previous estimates, including those from the United Nations. Furthermore, if we all took a “Giant Leap in investment in economic development, education and health then global population could peak at 8.5 billion people by the middle of the century”. 

The new projections, by researchers from the Earth4All initiative for the Global Challenges Foundation, is published as a working paper People and Planet, 21st Century Sustainable Population Scenarios and Possible Living Standards Within Planetary Boundaries.

To arrive at the projections, the team of researchers “used a new system dynamics model, Earth4All, to explore two scenarios this century. In the first scenario – Too Little Too Late – the world continues to develop economically in a similar way to the last 50 years. Many of the very poorest countries break free from extreme poverty. In this scenario the researchers estimate global population could peak at 8.6 in 2050 before declining to 7 billion in 2100. In the second scenario, called the Giant Leap, researchers estimate that population peaks at 8,5 billion people by around 2040 and declines to around 6 billion people by the end of the century. This is achieved through unprecedented investment in poverty alleviation – particularly investment in education and health – along with extraordinary policy turnarounds on food and energy security, inequality and gender equity. In this scenario extreme poverty is eliminated in a generation (by 2060) with a marked impact on global population trends.”

The authors opine that other projections often downplay the importance of rapid economic development.

“We know rapid economic development in low-income countries has a huge impact on fertility rates. Fertility rates fall as girls get access to education and women are economically empowered and have access to better healthcare,” said Per Espen Stoknes, Earth4All project lead and director of the Centre for Sustainability at Norwegian Business School.

“Few prominent models simulate population growth, economic development and their connections simultaneously,” comments Beniamino Callegari, an Associate Professor from Kristiania and member of the Earth4All modelling team.

Ten world regions were used in the analysis, including Sub-Saharan Africa, China and the United States. According to the statement: “Currently, population growth is highest in some nations in Africa, such as Angola, Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, and Asia, for example Afghanistan.”

“If we assume these countries adopt successful policies for economic development then we can expect population to peak sooner rather than later,” continues Callegari.

Also analysed was “the connection between population and exceeding planetary boundaries, which is linked to the carrying capacity of Earth”. Based on this the team discovered that contrary to popular misconceptions, “population size is not the prime driver of exceeding planetary boundaries such as climate change. Rather, it is extremely high material footprint levels among the world’s richest 10% that is destabilising the planet.”

“Humanity’s main problem is luxury carbon and biosphere consumption, not population. The places where population is rising fastest have extremely small environmental footprints per person compared with the places that reached peak population many decades ago.” said Jorgen Randers, one of leading modelers for Earth4All and co-author of The Limits to Growth.

Provided that there was an equal distribution of resources, the team’s demographic prjections indicate that the entire global population could achieve living conditions exceeding the UN’s minimum level without major changes in current development trends. Furthermore, the research also concluded that it is possible for everyone to escape extreme poverty and pass a minimum threshold for a dignified life with access to food, shelter, energy and other resources”, at current population levels, but this would require a much more equal distribution of resources.

“These extraordinary turnarounds are designed as policy and investment road maps that will work for the majority of people,” the authors write in their report. “They are not an attempt to create some impossible-to-reach utopia; instead, they are an essential foundation for a resilient civilization on a planet under extraordinary pressure.”

Figure: Comparing five population scenarios to 2100 (United Nations, Wittgenstein, Lancet, Earth4All – Too Little Too Late, Earth4All – Giant Leap). Source Callegari B., Stoknes P.E., People and Planet: 21st century sustainable population scenarios and possible living standards within planetary boundaries.

Figure: Comparing five population scenarios to 2100 (United Nations, Wittgenstein,
Lancet, Earth4All – Too Little Too Late, Earth4All – Giant Leap). Source Callegari B., Stoknes P.E., People and Planet: 21st century sustainable population scenarios and possible living standards within planetary boundaries.

 

The report is a Working Paper. It is entitled People and Planet: 21st Century Sustainable Population Scenarios and Possible Living Standards . The report has not been peer-reviewed and can be found here.

 

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.