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People commute during a morning rush hour at Shinagawa station in Tokyo on July 18, 2019. Last year, Japan's population dropped by more than 640,000 people.BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations, in its reluctant trudge toward reality, has removed 800 million people from the face of the earth. But that’s not enough.

In World Population Prospects 2022, released this week, the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) projects that the global population will reach 10.4 billion by the end of this century. That’s 800 million fewer than the 2017 edition projected.

“The UNPD has removed the equivalent of two United States of Americas from its projections,” says Darrell Bricker, chief executive officer of the polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs. Mr. Bricker and I co-authored the book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline.

“Once they remove a couple more Americas, they’ll be getting it right.”

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Many demographers believe the latest UN projection is still too high. They predict that the global population will top out at under 10 billion and then decline to nine billion or less by the end of the century.

Getting the numbers right matters a lot. A global population of nine billion rather than 10 or 11 billion would help reduce carbon emissions and generally improve the environment.

But societies with low fertility, increased longevity and aging populations struggle with labour shortages and overburdened health care systems, which is exactly what Canada is going through today, despite high levels of immigration.

The latest UN revision at least acknowledges the conflicting projections, citing data from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The IHME projects a global population of no more than 8.8 billion by the end of the century.

The difference, the UNPD report acknowledges, “lies in the assumptions on the future level of fertility.” So whose fertility assumptions are correct?

All sides agree that about two-thirds of the global population lives in societies whose fertility rate is at or below 2.1 children per woman, which keeps a population stable. Once the fertility rate drops below 2.1, a country’s population eventually starts to decline.

Canada’s fertility rate is 1.4. China’s is 1.15 and its population is in decline, years ahead of expectations. Those who predict that China will dominate economically in this century fail to account for that stark demographic reality. China is about to become Japan, which last year lost more than 640,000 people and has experienced three decades of economic stagnation.

Crowds pack a market in Mumbai, India, on Jan. 7. Next year, India will become the world’s most populous country, but its fertility rate has dipped to 2.0, also below replacement rate.Rajanish Kakade/The Associated Press

Next year, India will become the world’s most populous country. But its fertility rate has dipped to 2.0, also below replacement rate. Apart from Sub-Saharan Africa, very few places on earth have fertility rates that are above the replacement level.

The UNPD predicts that more than half of all population growth over the next three decades will be concentrated in eight countries: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania.

And this is where the disagreement emerges. Although the UNPD has started to use more up-to-date data, it relies heavily on census and other statistical information from member countries.

But on-the-ground analysis often paints a truer picture. Take the Philippines, for example. Most estimates, including the UN projection, have the fertility rate at around 2.5.

But Juan Perez, the executive director of the Philippines’ Commission on Population and Development, told local media in May that the fertility rate had fallen to 1.8 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last time we had a population growth of 1.5 million was in 2019,” he said. “In 2020, the population grew by only 900,000. In 2021, it only grew by 400,000.”

Will the Philippines be a major driver of population growth in the years ahead? Not according to the latest data.

Developing countries are rapidly urbanizing. When women move from the countryside to the city, they are more likely to find paid work and receive education. Religious authority and clan pressures weaken. As a result, they invariably choose to have fewer babies.

The speed of the shift is still subject to debate. But that debate is hugely important. Population growth or decline will shape the future of our societies, our economies, our environment. And there are a lot of us who believe the UN still isn’t getting it right.

Editor’s note: (July 14, 2022): An earlier version of this article included an incorrect figure for the IHME's global population by the end of the century. It is 8.8 billion.

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