ANALYSIS | Does two plus two equal five when linking global population numbers to climate change?

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According to current UN predictions, 1990 was the last year in which there were as many births as there will ever be.
According to current UN predictions, 1990 was the last year in which there were as many births as there will ever be.

With the 8 billionth person born recently, fears are mounting that a growing global population could worsen the climate crisis, poverty, and overcrowded cities. Does the world have too many people? The answer is not so simple, writes Lisa Esterhuyzen.


Vinice Mabansag, born on 15 November 2022 in Manila, was given the symbolic title of the 8 billionth person born on our planet by the United Nations (UN). This is seen as a sign of success as people around the world are living longer and healthier lives. It has been reported that most of the fast global population growth isn't caused by births but rather by most of us living longer. 

According to current UN predictions, 1990 was the last year in which there were as many births as there will ever be. There were 8.5 million fewer births worldwide in 2022 than there were in 1990, even though there are many more people who could become parents now. 

According to the late Swedish physician, academic, and professor of international health Hans Rosling, the environmental activists who believe "we have to stop population growth at 8 billion" are lacking in facts.

Firstly, these environmental activists are oblivious that the global population has reached "peak child." "Peak child" refers to the moment in global demographic history at which the number of children in the world stops increasing. Secondly, they are also unaware that most of the remaining population growth, expected to reach 10 billion around 2060, is an inevitable fill-up of adults. 

This is evident when looking at the world population's age distribution.

Globally, about 25% of the world population is under 15 years of age and 10% is over 65. In other words, as this young 25% of the population grow up and become adults, it is expected that the number of children in the world will remain unchanged. Due to these two fundamental facts, the UN is expecting a 'slowing down' and evidently end of fast population growth. 

Myth busters

One common myth is that an increase in population will automatically increase carbon emissions.

READ | ANALYSIS: As 8 billionth person is born, here’s how Africa will shape future of world's population

The same might be said for shoes. The myth goes that as the world population increases, so too will the number of shoes. Twenty-two billion pairs of shoes were produced globally in 2021, which is 9% less than in 2019. 

Population numbers are not the whole story. Focusing on the numbers obscures the actual issues at hand, like how wealthier people, a global minority, are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions. And that lower emissions, not fewer people, is a key factor in combatting climate change.

As American conservation activist, Tom Butler, puts it: 

In the developing world, the problem of population is seen less as a matter of human numbers than of western overconsumption.

The reckless overexploitation of resources in the poorest countries is caused by the unsustainable economic models used by most of the world's wealthy countries. It is this excessive reliance on natural resources that has contributed to some of the world's worst environmental problems, including extreme weather events, food insecurity, and military conflicts. As economist Peter Bauer once said, "Poverty has no causes, wealth has causes." 

Call into question

As the population growth rates indicate, a significant share of the population increase will happen in Africa, where extreme poverty is present. Extreme poverty exacerbates illiteracy and high child mortality and also leads to many babies being born per woman. The world's poorest countries are the most vulnerable to damages caused by climate change even though they contribute the least to global emissions compared to their wealthy neighbours.  

English novelist George Orwell's infamous quote "two plus two equals five" notes that we only 'know' things that have been taught to us, and thus our reality can be changed. Debunking the notion that reducing population numbers in poor countries is a key factor in combatting climate change is a crucial first step in addressing the actual issues at hand.  

For a swift end to extreme poverty and meaningful action towards combatting climate change, governments around the world must provide the 'right' help. For hard-working communities living in extreme poverty, aid in the form of schools, health services, vaccines, roads, electricity, and contraceptives are needed to sustainably enhance their livelihood. 

Finding a collaborative course of action to use resources and energy at a level that can be shared fairly and wisely between poor and rich countries is also required as soon as possible. Only then can we create a world that works for a human family of 8 billion 

*Lisa Esterhuyzen is a junior lecturer in the Department of Business Management at Stellenbosch University. She writes in her personal capacity.


Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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