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The Greatest Show on Earth? The End of Population Growth.

Joseph J. Bish, MS Jul 01, 2021

Population Media Center is aiming for a historic blockbuster: the near-term end of global population growth. But, within the context of current world demographic trends, which are based on extremely large numbers (multiple billions of people), a long-term, intergenerational perspective is key when addressing environmentally informed population concerns. Therefore, as of 2021, we define “near term” as sometime in the decade of the 2050s or 2060s – or about 30 or 40 years away.

Ending population growth in this timeframe would be in line with the UN’s “low variant” population projection, which models global population growth ending in 2054 at the peak of 8.92 billion people. This would still represent a substantial population increase — over 1 billion more people than today’s 7.8+ billion — but it is far preferable to the other UN projections. Those models, known as the medium and high variants, show much larger population increases. PMC works every day to help avoid these projections becoming a reality.

PMC works to maximize voluntary family planning and uptake of modern contraception, educate about the many health and economic benefits of smaller families, and increase women’s independence and leadership. Combined and synergistically interacting, these are the critical objectives towards realizing the relatively smaller population projection issued by the UN —as they are also the key objectives in realizing lower fertility rates.

All population projections, or demographic forecasts, are built on expert assumptions about childbearing and human longevity trends. The UN projections, considered the world’s flagships, are usually issued every two years. The most influential variable in these models is childbearing, also known as fertility, total fertility rate, or average number of births per woman per lifetime. The lower the fertility rate, then generally speaking, the smaller future population growth will be, and the sooner population growth will stop altogether.

Importantly, the medium variant reflects what the UN thinks is most likely to happen. It is not favorable from an ecological point of view. Medium variant projections are much larger than the low variant and forecast 9.7 billion people by 2050 and 10.8 billion by 2100. In other words, the low variant projection for 2050 is nearly 1 billion people smaller than the medium projection. It is incontestable that the planet would be less strained if asked to provide resources for 1 billion fewer people by 2050 than otherwise might be the case. This is especially true if the goal is equitable economics and equal standards of living that promote full human health and well-being for all people everywhere.

The medium variant projection is based on a decrease in global fertility from today’s average of 2.4 births per woman down to 2.1 by 2050 and 1.9 by 2100. The low variant projection is based on 1.7 births per woman by 2050 and 1.5 by 2100. Based on these fertility assumptions, the population divergences for the year 2100 are even more drastic.

The low variant projection shows a global population decreased back to 7.3 billion by 2100, but the medium variant shows an increase to 10.8 billion. That 3.5 billion fewer person difference is, ecologically speaking, invaluable. For context, it is equal to the combined population sizes of China, the United States, all of Africa, and all of South America in 2021. The prospects of an environmentally sustainable human civilization, living in equilibrium with healthy and prospering nature, will be greatly enhanced if humanity can voluntarily achieve a future in line with the low variant projection.