New research suggests that the global population is likely to peak far earlier than originally predicted and begin declining by mid-century. By 2100, the researchers predict that the world population could be as much as 2 billion below current United Nations forecasts. While it will undoubtedly alleviate humanity’s strain on the planet’s resources, such a drastic fall will present new societal problems, from the drop in working-age populations to migration and women’s reproductive rights.
According to a new study, which was published in the Lancet journal on Wednesday (July 15) and conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, the world’s population is to peak at 9.7 billion in 2064 and will tumble to 8.8 billion by the end of the century. It finds that the global fertility rate has been reduced by almost half to 2.4 in 2017, and it will go onto fall below 1.7 in 2100.
Some 23 countries, including Japan, Thailand, Spain and Italy, will see the biggest downturns, with populations expected to halve in 80 years time. Another 34 countries, including China, will see a drop of more than 25%.
Only a few countries will buck the trend, most of them in the sub-Saharan African region, whose populations are expected to triple, due to falling death rates and the rising number of women reaching child-bearing age.
This evaluation used a different model to calculate population projections. Unlike the 2017 United Nations report that suggested a global population of 10 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by 2100, University of Washington researchers focused more on the changes to the drivers of fertility instead of extrapolating only from past trends.
It represents one of the few studies challenging the assessments made by the United Nations, a key indicator of the global governance body’s waning influence in recent months, particularly amid the coronavirus crisis which has seen the UN-led World Health Organisation (WHO) face far greater criticism, perhaps most notably by the Trump administration who have made the decision to pull out of the WHO altogether.
The projected decline will mean that the number of older people will rapidly overtake the young. By the end of the century, 2.4 billion people will be over the age of 65, while the number of people under the age of 20 will stand at 1.7 billion.
Some of the main reasons behind the population decline include increased access to contraception and improvement in female education and employment.
Although the decline in population will help reduce humanity’s unsustainable resource extraction from the planet, researchers say that it will present new challenges as a consequence of the ageing population.
“While population decline is potentially good news for reducing carbon emissions and stress on food systems, with more old people and fewer young people, economic challenges will arise as societies struggle to grow with fewer workers and taxpayers, and countries’ abilities to generate the wealth needed to fund social support and health care for the elderly are reduced,” explained author of the paper, Professor Stein Emil Vollset from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
According to the researchers, the best governmental policies ahead must focus on open borders and embracing immigration.
“For high-income countries with below-replacement fertility rates, the best solutions for sustaining current population levels, economic growth, and geopolitical security are open immigration policies and social policies supportive of families having their desired number of children,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the IHME and lead author of the research.
Additionally, researchers warned that with these findings, there is a danger now that governments will try to limit women’s freedoms regarding reproductive health rights, as opposed to other logical policy solutions to welcome migration in the age of rising populist politics.
“However, a very real danger exists that, in the face of declining population, some countries might consider policies that restrict access to reproductive health services, with potentially devastating consequences. It is imperative that women’s freedom and rights are at the top of every government’s development agenda.”
The authors of the paper had considered the potential effect of the coronavirus crisis, and found that it would have an insignificant impact on population size in the long-term. The researchers also noted that the paper did not take into account climate predictions, which they mentioned could have a major effect on migration patterns.
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