New study forecasts world population to peak and decline in good news for the environment

Earth has a number of forecast futures/Shutterstock Images

A study commissioned by the Club of Rome, forecasts that on current trends the global population will reach a high of 8.8 billion a few years earlier than the middle of the century, then it will decline rapidly.

These forecasts are good news for the global environment—once the demographic bulge is smoothed over, pressure on the natural world and climate should start to ease, along with associated political and social tensions.

But the authors are quick to point out that falling birthrates alone will not solve Earth´s environmental problems—already serious at the current level of 7.8 billion people.

One of the authors of the report, Ben Callegari, said the study forecasts were cause for optimism—but there was a catch. “This gives us evidence to believe the population bomb won’t go off, but we still face significant challenges from an environmental perspective. We need a lot of effort to address the current development paradigm of overconsumption and overproduction, which are bigger problems than population.”

The report is based on a new methodology incorporating social and economic factors that have a proven impact on birthrate, such as raising education levels—particularly for women—and improving income. It sketches out two scenarios depending on the extent to which such policies are pursued.

In the first case, it foresees existing policies being enough to limit global population growth to below 9 billion in 2046 and then decline to 7.3 billion in 2100. They warn: “Although the scenario does not result in an overt ecological or total climate collapse, the likelihood of regional societal collapses nevertheless rises throughout the decades to 2050, as a result of deepening social divisions both internal to and between societies. The risk is particularly acute in the most vulnerable, badly governed and ecologically vulnerable economies.”

In the second scenario, which is more positive—with governments across the world raising taxes on the wealthy to invest in education, social services and improved equality—it estimates human beings could hit a high of 8.5 billion individuals as early as 2040 and then fall by about a third to about 6 billion in 2100. In this projection, they foresee significant gains by mid-century for human society and the natural environment.

The picture looks better here: “By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions are about 90% lower than they were in 2020 and are still falling,” according to the report. “Remaining atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases from industrial processes are increasingly removed through carbon capture and storage. As the century progresses, more carbon is captured than stored, keeping the global temperature below 2C above pre-industrial levels. Wildlife is gradually recovering and starting to thrive once again in many places.”

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