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Eight billion humans on Earth: are we too many?  - Economic policy

Eight billion humans on Earth: are we too many? – Economic policy

On November 15, the world population is expected to exceed 8 billion. It only took 11 years to reach the additional billion. By 2050 we should even reach 9.7 billion. Is the planet able to accommodate so many people?

According to UN models, the world population will exceed 8 billion on November 15. In just over 200 years, the number of human beings will have multiplied by 8. This explosion owes a lot to vaccination and the drop in infant mortality. The phenomenon has even accelerated over the last century since since 1974 the number of human beings has simply doubled.

A peak at 10 billion

And this figure will increase further since population growth, although less significant in recent decades, remains on the rise. It is estimated that in 2050, if nothing changes, the population should reach 9.7 billion. Nevertheless, according to the latest United Nations projections, the peak of this population wave should however be reached as early as 2080 with 10.4 billion, before gradually falling again as of 2100.

It should be noted, however, that other projections announce different figures. Thus that of the American Institute of Health Statistics and Evaluation (IHME) rather announces a peak in 2064 with 9.73 billion people and then drops to 8.79 billion in 2100. Another projection from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the European Commission estimates that there should be a maximum of 9.8 billion humans in 2070-2080. A third projection dating from this summer “by a young economist from HSBC bank, James Pomeroy, announces a peak from 2043 with 8.5 billion people, to drop to 4 billion in 2100, i.e. the level of the years 1970”, further specifies Le Monde. These different projections with sometimes diametrically opposed figures are explained by the fact that modeling the future world population depends on several parameters and data that can change quickly and radically depending on the context. Among these data (and not counting a possible nuclear war or an extremely deadly pandemic), there is the age of people, an estimate of life expectancy, mortality or even the fertility rate.

One less child to save the planet?

It is on this last point that the projections most often differ. It is indeed very difficult to estimate the desire to give birth to future generations.

Today, it is estimated that there are 2.3 children per woman in the world. If this rate is falling almost everywhere in the world, it still seems to be stabilizing for 70% of humans a little below the generation renewal threshold which is 2.1, mainly for socio-economic reasons. To curb climate change, should we therefore curb the birth rate even more, particularly in Africa, practically the only continent to experience strong demographic growth and which would be home to a third of the world’s population in 2100? The answer is not so simple.

First, the choice to have a child today remains an intimate choice and a fundamental right. It cannot be coerced, unless it finds itself in a dictatorial regime, which is not really desirable. The one-child policy, beyond the taboo, is in any case not very effective from an ecological point of view. She forgets what is called demographic inertia, ie the fact that there are still far too many women capable of having a child to reduce the population. For this demographic decline to materialize, it takes several decades. Even if we imposed, for example in Belgium, the only child, it will be necessary to wait about 2100 to divide the population by two. Knowing that emissions will have fallen by then, this would only represent a reduction of between 5% and 10% of cumulative emissions depending on whether the law is applied more or less strictly.

What is the climate cost of a child?

In 2017, a Swedish study led by Kimberly Nicholas caused a stir when it announced that having one child less was more good for our carbon footprint than giving up air travel or meat. She estimated at 60 tons of CO2 equivalent per year and per child the “climatic cost” of a birth. Since then, this theory has nevertheless been nuanced, even treated as fanciful since this estimate was based on the average emissions of an individual over the long term and which would not decrease. But today, how do you know how much CO2 will be produced by hypothetical great-great-great-grandchildren? If no human life will ever have an absolutely zero ecological impact, a more realistic projection would be that the impact of a child will be around one ton per year, specifies Emanuel Pont author of the book “should we stop doing children to save the planet”.

Secondly, more than a question of numbers, it would above all be a question of lifestyle. We note that population growth is generally strong in poor countries, but it is not there that we pollute the most. Thus, countries with a high birth rate, i.e. those with more than three children per woman, represent 20% of the world’s population, but only 3% of CO2 emissions. Nor is it that part of the world that most exploits our planet. Today, if we take into account all the countries, it would take, according to the NGOs Global Footprint Network and WWF, 1.75 Earths to meet the needs of the world’s population. But this number changes depending on where you are in the world. Thus, it would take 5 planets for an inhabitant of the world who lives in the United States and barely 0.8 if this same person lives in India.

The notion of “Earth Overshoot Day” is another telling example of the fact that it is above all the behavior of humans that has an impact on the planet. Humanity as a whole has consumed all the resources that the planet can regenerate in one year from July 28, 2022. But if we all had the same ecological footprint as Jamaica, this day would not be reached until December 20, 2022. According to these figures, the planet would therefore, a priori, be quite capable of providing enough resources for everyone, even if there are ten billion of us, provided that all the inhabitants of the planet consume responsibly. If today 10% of the population still does not have enough to eat, it is mainly for climatic and political reasons, and not demographic ones.

According to UN models, the world population will exceed 8 billion on November 15. In just over 200 years, the number of human beings will have multiplied by 8. This explosion owes a lot to vaccination and the drop in infant mortality. The phenomenon has even accelerated over the last century since since 1974 the number of human beings has simply doubled. And this figure will increase further since population growth, although less significant in recent decades, remains on the rise. It is estimated that in 2050, if nothing changes, the population should reach 9.7 billion. Nevertheless, according to the latest United Nations projections, the peak of this population wave should however be reached as early as 2080 with 10.4 billion, before gradually falling again as of 2100. It should be noted, however, that other projections announce different figures. Thus that of the American Institute of Health Statistics and Evaluation (IHME) rather announces a peak in 2064 with 9.73 billion people and then drops to 8.79 billion in 2100. Another projection from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the European Commission estimates that there should be a maximum of 9.8 billion humans in 2070-2080. A third projection dating from this summer “by a young economist from HSBC bank, James Pomeroy, announces a peak from 2043 with 8.5 billion people, to drop to 4 billion in 2100, i.e. the level of the years 1970”, further specifies Le Monde. These different projections with sometimes diametrically opposed figures are explained by the fact that modeling the future world population depends on several parameters and data that can change quickly and radically depending on the context. Among these data (and not counting a possible nuclear war or an extremely deadly pandemic), there is the age of people, an estimate of life expectancy, mortality or even the fertility rate. It is on this last point that the projections most often differ. It is indeed very difficult to estimate the desire to give birth to future generations. Today, it is estimated that there are 2.3 children per woman in the world. If this rate is falling almost everywhere in the world, it still seems to be stabilizing for 70% of humans a little below the generation renewal threshold which is 2.1, mainly for socio-economic reasons. To curb climate change, should we therefore curb the birth rate even more, particularly in Africa, practically the only continent to experience strong demographic growth and which would be home to a third of the world’s population in 2100? The answer is not so simple. First, the choice to have a child today remains an intimate choice and a fundamental right. It cannot be coerced, unless it finds itself in a dictatorial regime, which is not really desirable. The one-child policy, beyond the taboo, is in any case not very effective from an ecological point of view. She forgets what is called demographic inertia, ie the fact that there are still far too many women capable of having a child to reduce the population. For this demographic decline to materialize, it takes several decades. Even if we imposed, for example in Belgium, the only child, it will be necessary to wait about 2100 to divide the population by two. Knowing that emissions will have fallen by then, this would only represent a reduction of between 5% and 10% of cumulative emissions depending on whether the law is applied more or less strictly. Secondly, more than a question of numbers, it would above all be a question of lifestyle. We note that population growth is generally strong in poor countries, but it is not there that we pollute the most. Thus, countries with a high birth rate, i.e. those with more than three children per woman, represent 20% of the world’s population, but only 3% of CO2 emissions. Nor is it that part of the world that most exploits our planet. Today, if we take into account all the countries, it would take, according to the NGOs Global Footprint Network and WWF, 1.75 Earths to meet the needs of the world’s population. But this number changes depending on where you are in the world. Thus, it would take 5 planets for an inhabitant of the world who lives in the United States and barely 0.8 if this same person lives in India. The notion of “Earth Overshoot Day” is another telling example of the fact that it is above all the behavior of humans that has an impact on the planet. Humanity as a whole has consumed all the resources that the planet can regenerate in one year from July 28, 2022. But if we all had the same ecological footprint as Jamaica, this day would not be reached until December 20, 2022. According to these figures, the planet would therefore, a priori, be quite capable of providing enough resources for everyone, even if there are ten billion of us, provided that all the inhabitants of the planet consume responsibly. If today 10% of the population still does not have enough to eat, it is mainly for climatic and political reasons, and not demographic ones.

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