World population hits 7 billion – what next?

On Monday, a baby born somewhere will tip the world’s population over 7 billion — and that will be both good news and bad news, according to a United Nations Population Fund report released this week.

Though many people are living longer and leading healthier lives, there are concerns that the Earth may not have enough food and water to sustain rapidly growing populations.

Though Monday’s tipping point is a symbolic one — created from census data, surveys and population registers, and earlier than the 2009 projection for the landmark to be reached in 2012 — the implications are real, the United Nations claims in a new report: People and Possibilities in a World of 7 Billion.

Even though fertility rates are lower than in the past, the population is still expected to rise naturally through what is known as population momentum.

Dirk Jena, the Fiji-based Pacific director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is in New Zealand to address the cross-party New Zealand Parliamentarians’ Group on Population and Development as well as Government agencies.

Mr Jena comments:

“The symbolic baby will be born on October 31, and most countries in the world have some special event to mark that demographic milestone of planet Earth.

“When you look at the successes of the [UN population control] programmes, they are mostly associated with changes in lifestyles, (such as by the aspiring middle classes). When people become more interested in material goods, there is often a trade-off in terms of the number of children they have. That’s certainly a phenomenon which we count on”.

“For ageing societies, there is a great opportunity to make intangible gains from having generations living together and learning from their inter-generational dialogue – an increase in life expectancy can bring immaterial gains”.

“And with nearly half the world’s population made up of young people it is very important to keep investing in youth employment schemes — their knowledge and energies can be channelled into meaningful employment, and having a fulfilling life, and perhaps marrying later and having fewer children”.

“It’s not likely that the world population will double again — the global trend is for dropping birth rates — though there are parts of the world where the pace of the fall is less than had been expected.

“One can wonder why there is still such a high fertility rate in Africa. Maybe we need inerventions that are bit more inclusive, we have to look at gender equality and to empower women and to step that up”.

From the UN report:

– Global population growth became exponential after reaching a total of 3 billion at the end of World War 2. It is expected to start to decline after hitting 10 billion. Parts of Asia still have high fertility rates, but the main area of population growth is in Africa, where the population will triple this century from 1 billion to 3.6 billion by the end of the century. Population growth is slowing in China and India, and former Soviet Union countries.

– Of the world’s 7 billion, 1.8 billion are young people between the ages of 10 and 24, and Mr Jena said:”In certain countries, the young people make up almost 60 percent of the total population .. globally almost half the world’s population is under 25 years old. The report recommends that governments continue investing in education and employment schemes to empower youth in a positive way”

– By the middle of this century there will be 2.5 billion people over the age of 60, and some countries are having to find ways to deal with both an ageing population and a “youth bulge”.

Our colleagues at the UK Science Media Centre gathered the following comments from UK-based experts:

Prof Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development at Imperial College London, comments:

“Nearly 1 billion of the 7 billion are chronically hungry. That is a disgrace. It is technically feasible to produce enough food for an extra 2-3 billion, but diets in emerging countries are changing. More people eat livestock products and that requires more grain production. There is increased demand for biofuel crops, fertiliser prices have skyrocketed, land and water are become scarcer and degraded, and global warming threatens food production in the developing countries.

“To cope with these challenges and to respond to the extreme weather events caused by climate change means we have to double food production by 2050. Most important of all, we have to ensure the poor have access to the extra food. A tall order indeed. But perfectly possible, given the political will.”

Prof Guy Poppy, Director of Multidisciplinary Research and Professor of Ecology at the University of Southampton, comments:

“The birth of the 7 billionth citizen is evidence of human ability to successfully continue to adapt. However the challenge of continuing to have food, energy and water security whilst minimising our environmental footprint is great. The solutions will only come from using knowledge from many disciplines being pieced together to allow informed and objective decision making by individuals, organisations and governments.”

Prof Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College London, comments:

“We must treat the UN warning of 15 billion by 2100 with caution. Such predictions are notoriously inaccurate, and their call for urgent action to reduce population is scientifically somewhat dubious.

“By far the most important things to ensure for stability and health of future population are better education, better rights for women, stable government, improved hygiene, and clean and reliable water supplies.

“It is therefore essential that the developed world, including Britain, does not reduce its overseas aid. I find extremely worrying David Cameron’s recent indication that he might do just that.”

Prof Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, comments:

“Although population appears at one level to be a problem of too many people, it is actually their consumption patterns that threaten the planet’s limited resources. The Earth cannot supply enough if all 7 billion people were to consume at the levels currently enjoyed by the rich countries. Yet aspirations are converging on consumption that is unsustainable. A prosperous and contented future for all is possible – but only if the affluent find new ways of consuming that have a low impact on the environment.”