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Development of the world population: Good news for people and the planet

Forecasts give the all-clear

The United Nations does not expect the population to explode in the next few decades. Population growth is already weakening today. According to current forecasts by the United Nations, the total population will almost stagnate from 2100 onwards.

While growth in the 1970s was still over 2 percent per year, the population grew by 1.14 percent in 2015. In the year 2100, the world population will have risen from around 7.4 billion today according to a forecast to 11.2 billion and will hardly grow at all every year (0.09 percent).

Massive decline in the birth rate

Why do the UN experts assume that population growth will continue to slow down? One of the most important parameters for forecasting population development is the birth rate. The number of births per woman has decreased significantly over the past 50 years. In 1800 women worldwide had an average of six children. The number of births per woman in 1965 was still five children on average worldwide. Today the global average is 2.5.

However, the UN's forecasts are not based on the assumption that the birth rate will continue to fall, but primarily on the already reduced birth rate. This decline contributes significantly to the fact that the population projections are moderate.

More adults

In view of the lower birth rates, UN experts expect that there will be around as many children in 2100 as there are currently. The predicted population growth is therefore not expected due to an increase in the birth rate.

Rather, the population growth up to the year 2100 will primarily be driven by an increase in the number of adult people. Hans Rosling calls this the "fill-up" effect. Children already born and their parents are getting older and replacing smaller older generations. The graphic below illustrates this effect in a simplified form. The “fill-up” effect is over within three generations and population growth stagnates with a birth rate of around two children per woman.

Poor families have more children

Families in poor societies around the world have more children than families in affluent societies. Extremely poor families rely on child labor in the fields. That was also the case in Germany and Poland around 1800 and, unfortunately, it is still the case in poor countries today.

This trend can be observed across all regions, religions and cultures - whether in Germany, Catholic Poland or Islamic Iran. As soon as people escape extreme poverty, fertility rates drop. High birth rates are the indirect consequence of poverty and the associated high child mortality.

Paradoxical effect

Escaping poverty also means that children survive birth and the first few years of life. On its own, lower child mortality through less poverty leads to faster population growth. But this is not the only effect. The lower child mortality rate also means that parents have fewer children. This second effect slows down population growth.

Poverty can be overcome

The institutional prerequisites for successfully overcoming poverty are well known: market-based democracies characterized by secure property rights and other personal rights in which goods and property rights are allocated via markets and access to political power is open to everyone.

We know under what conditions societies flourish. We know little about how the necessary conditions can be created. Nevertheless, developments over the past few decades are optimistic. In the past 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has halved. Never before have so many people escaped extreme poverty in such a short period of time.

Good news for people and the planet

The more generations grow up in poverty, the more even larger generations follow these poor generations. That is why the environmental problems become all the more serious as the population increases, the further the eradication of absolute poverty lies in the future. Because the number of those who take the step from a life in absolute poverty with few per capita emissions to a life in moderate prosperity with significantly higher emissions, the higher the longer people live in absolute poverty and relatively in their need have a lot of children.

The good news is that combating poverty and protecting the climate are not mutually exclusive in the long term. A rapid improvement in the living conditions of the poorest will lead to an increase in environmental pollution in the short term, but will reduce it in the long term by making future generations smaller. The commitment to the well-known recipe for prosperity, consisting of the combination of market economy and democracy, is therefore not only necessary to enable people to lead a safe life with less materialistic worries, but also in terms of environmental policy.
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