Population Matters

9.5 Billion?

July 28th, 2010

Officially, World Population Day occurs every year on July 11.  But for those who track the world’s changing demographics, another  population day occurs a few weeks later when the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) publishes its annual World Population Data Sheet, which is widely considered to be the most accurate source of information on population.  And today’s the day.

So let’s look at the latest numbers, and let’s start with the global numbers.  PRB estimates world population for mid-2010 is now 6.9 billion (6,892,319,000 to be exact) and that it will reach the 7.0 billion mark next year, just twelve years after the 6.0 billion mark was reached.  PRB’s population clock estimates that world population is increasing at just over 83 million people per year.  

PRB now projects that world population will be 9.485 billion by mid-2050, just shy of 9.5 billion. That number is slightly higher than last year’s projection (9.421 billion), and notably higher than the U.N.’s current medium variant projection (9.149 billion), as reported in World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision.

PRB latest data sheet  indicates a very slight decline in the world’s total fertility rate (the average number of children that a woman has in her lifetime), but it’s not uniform.  Europe’s estimated TFR increases slightly (from 1.5 to 1.6), while Eastern Africa’s goes down slightly (from 5.4 to 5.3), as does the TFR for the United States (from 2.1 to 2.0). 

Some of the changes from last year are more striking.  Last year, PRB estimated that the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo would jump from 68.7 million to 189.3 million in 2050.  That mid-century estimate was lowered this year to 166.2 million.  Some of that is accounted for by a drop in the birth rate, but more significantly perhaps the death rate is rising in the DRC:  from an estimated 13 deaths per thousand to 17 deaths per thousand.  On the other side of the population coin, the projected decline in Russia’s population has eased.  Last year, PRB projected that Russia’s population would decline from142 million to 116.9 million by 2050.  This year, the 2050 projection was increased to 126.7 million.

We should be careful to not read too much into the year-to-year changes.  But this much is clear. Contrary to the claims made by Fred Pearce and others who have declared that population growth no longer poses a challenge, the projected increased in the world’s population has important implications for the future of the planet and the welfare of humankind.  

If PRB’s projection is realized, we will be adding about 2.6 billion people to the planet over the next 40 years, considerably higher than the “2 billion” figure that’s often thrown about.  No one knows, of course, whether PRB’s population projection will be realized.  Much depends on how fast fertility rates fall, and whether death rates start rising again, as is presently happening in the DRC.  But if global population continues to grow in line with PRB’s current projection, we have a lot of work cut out for us.  Meeting our rising demand for food, energy and water, while simultaneously addressing the challenges posed by climate change, will not be easy.  It may be impossible.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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