Our crowded planet


BLINK AND there’s 4.4 more of us on this overcrowded planet. That’s every second; 267 every minute; 16,006 every hour. A staggering 140 million a year, bringing us some time in 2010 to more than 7 billion. And, by 2050 the world’s population could be some 9.5 billion, according to new projections from the US-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

Much of the increase will come from India, which will overtake China, with its one-child policy, to become the highest-populated country in the world, its population swelling half a billion to 1.7 billion. China’s population will rise by a tenth to 1.48 billion, the report predicts. But Africa’s will grow most quickly of all, doubling to 2.1 billion. With population growth largely stalled in the developed world, what increases there are here will mostly arise from migration from the still expanding less-developed countries. Indeed, Eurostat reported this week that two-thirds of the 1.4 million increase in the EU population last year was migration-related.

Europe will soon be the first region “where the population will decline long-term due to low birth level, first of all in eastern Europe and Russia,” the research says. Currently there are 738 million Europeans, by 2050 probably only 702 million. The population of western Europe will remain static but the UK will by then have grown by a quarter to overtake both France and Germany as the largest state in the EU.

The PRB figures reflect what the report calls a “transition point” in world demography – rapid population growth in the second half of the 20th century has slowed, but continuing improvements in mortality and slower-than-expected declines in birth rates will ensure overall growth for decades.

In reality the quadrupling of the world population during the 20th century to more than 6 billion is almost entirely attributable to the decline in mortality rates in the less-developed world, where achieving the sort of successes that took Europe centuries took just decades. The less-developed world has also seen dramatic declines in total fertility rates (TFR, the average number of children women have) from 6.0 in the early 1950s to 2.5 today. Excluding China, some 47 per cent of women in Asia now use a modern form of contraception. But Africa’s TFR remains at 4.7.

The critical effect of such changes on developed countries – and coming soon to the less-developed – will be to raise the proportion of elderly (65+) to working-age (15 to 64), hugely increasing pressures on pensions and long-term healthcare. Worldwide that ratio is expected to go from nine-to-one to four-to-one by 2050, while in the developed world the changes will be even more dramatic – in the EU, from four-to-one to two-to-one, and Japan, from three-to-one to one-to-one.

Put another way, the number of older people is rising twice as fast as the general population. And four out of five have no retirement income from pensions or the state, forcing most to remain economically active. For those on pensions, rising retirement ages are becoming the norm. That trend, the report argues, is irreversible.