For the original Opinion article published in one of Sweden’s largest morning newspaper (Svenska Dagbladet), and for 47 mainly positive comments (in Swedish) click here!
In the discussion about the environment and our future, overpopulation should also be highlighted. The issue is often avoided in the debate – even though it is central. We urge the Swedish and other governments to act in the UN.
The United Nations established in 2015 seventeen global targets for Agenda 2030. These goals are commendable, and Sweden and other countries have a commitment to live up to them. The goals include, for instance, eliminating global poverty and hunger, and sustainable consumption by 2030. We highlight here one missing goal which is required to fulfil many of the other goals; to curb population growth.
The Swedish society typically avoids the issue of population growth – one reason is that it is a slow change that does not appear in the headlines of newspapers. But at the same time, media and journalists want to convey information relevant for our society and the environment, such as long-term climate change. As a primary contributing factor, global population growth is just as relevant as greenhouse gases.
Many Swedes know that there are 7.6 billion people on Earth. Fewer people are familiar with the UN’s forecast for 2100: an increase to 11.2 billion people (the “medium variant” from UN demographers). If we exclude China (1.42 billion people, possible decline from 2030) and India (1.34 billion, possible decline after 2062), there is an alarming population increase in West Asia and Africa. For West Asia (presently 271 million), the United Nations forecast is 400 million in 2050, and 480 million in 2100. For Africa (presently 1.3 billion), the forecast is 2.5 billion in 2050, and as many as 4.5 billion in 2100. On the World Population Day (July 11) it was estimated that 214 million women in developing countries want contraceptives but cannot not use them for social and cultural reasons. About 25 million unsafe or dangerous abortions occur each year according to the WHO, almost all of them in developing countries.
But would fertility (number of children per woman) drop as countries in Africa are developing, lowering population growth? Note that the UN has in its forecast model an assumption of gradually decreasing fertility in the future – around 2075 it is assumed to be 2.1 children per woman. However, parts of the world have until today failed to follow the UN’s assumption of falling fertility; due a variety of factors, birth rates decrease slower. Nigeria is one of many examples. Religious beliefs and social norms (patriarchal and traditional family formation) are associated with high fertility. The message from Turkish and Iranian leaders about desirable increase in population in their countries also means that automatic fertility decline cannot be taken for granted.
In addition, the UN reports a forecast with “constant fertility”, assuming no change in the current fertility in the future. For West Asia, the population forecast is 1.1 billion in 2100. For Africa, the figure is 16.3 billion for 2100. These figures are unlikely but need careful thought. If we consider instead the constant fertility forecast for 2050, a potential increase of about 1.9 billion people in Africa in just 30 years is certainly worrying. The migration wave to Europe between 2015-2016, which had major political and societal consequences, included only 1.3 million people from Western Asia and Africa. What would happen until 2050, under a “business-as-usual” fertility scenario in this part of the world? Developmental optimists emphasize humanity’s progress, for example increasing longevity and reduced extreme poverty. But a balanced description of our current situation requires that, in addition to advancements, we identify key problems, among them increasing unsustainable consumption, also per capita in many countries. The extent of this consumption in rich countries is evident from the fact that an extra child there leads to skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions compared to other climate choices that individuals or couple can make. The two global forces, increasing population and consumption, lead to more greenhouse gases, fewer natural and resilient ecosystems, more conflicts, and likely, less happiness.
We want to emphasize a positive scenario: the UN’s “low variant” forecast, where the average global fertility drops relatively quickly with 0.5 child per woman, and remains at this lower level. The result for 2100 would be the same total population as today. If this scenario were realized, millions of women would give birth to fewer children, and would have greater opportunities for education and employment. Unwanted pregnancies would be reduced by many millions. Note that in “poor Sweden” just over 100 years ago, a new pregnancy was frequently a disaster for women who did not know how to feed the next child. The term family planning must, once again, be emphasized by the government and its agencies, as well as by the EU for action in Africa. An old truth is that family planning programs are able to lower birth rates in high-fertility countries, thus benefiting both people and the environment. Scientific studies in Bangladesh, Iran and other countries provide evidence of this. However, “family planning” has been replaced by “sexual and reproductive health and rights” (SRHR, see, for example, the Swedish government’s website). This (in essence also urgent) concept does not inform policymakers about the clear goal and concrete measures needed to slow down population growth. Without clear words and concepts, politicians do not see the problematic population increase, its effects, and solutions reported in the leading scientific journals Nature and Science.
Excluding very small countries, 78 countries have an annual population increase of 2 percent or more – it may sound minute, but it means that at this rate the population will double in 35 years or less. Interestingly, as many as 50 of these countries, many in Africa, have reported to the UN a national policy to reduce the population growth. Resources and support are required in order for these policies to succeed. We are aware that certain sub-goals and actions within the 17 global goals may contribute to the reduction of global population growth. But to inform and underline the urgent need for action, the UN would need a clear global goal number 18, “Slow down population growth”. Another option would be a population conference, to follow up the UN conference on population and development held in Cairo 1994. We urge the Swedish, and other governments to act now, for the sake of people and the environment in all countries.
Professor of Ecology, University of Gothenburg, researcher in “The Overpopulation Project”
Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm
Retired ambassador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment
Retired general practitioner and environmental commentator
Professor, Research Institute of Industrial Economics
Lecturer in Ecology, University of Umeå
Retired ambassador, with responsibility for development assistance
Formerly IPPF, OECD and UN, sustainability and population work.