The world's population could swell to 10.9 billionby the end of the century, a new United Nationsanalysis found, raising concerns that adding morethan 3 billion people to the planet could furtherdeplete natural resources and accelerate globalwarming.
The increase, up from the current count of 7.7 billion people, is expected despite a continueddecline in the global fertility rate, which has fallen from 3.2 births per woman in 1990 to 2.5 births per woman this year. Experts say the global fertility rate will continue to decline, butthe world’s overall population will still rise, hitting 9.7 billion by 2050.
The new report predicts slower population growth than the UN's last assessment, released in 2017. That estimate projected that the world population would reach a staggering 11.2 billion by the end of the century. The revised figures reflect the downward trend in theglobalfertility rate, which means the populations of more countries are shrinking.
The fastest growth, according to the new report, is most likely to occur in sub-Saharan Africa, which is expected to double its population in the next 30 years. The report also projectedthat India would become the world's most populous country by about 2027, surpassing China. Over the next 30 years, 54 other countries are expected to see population declines, includingLithuania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Japan.
The United States is estimated to grow from 329 million people in 2019 to 434 million peopleby the end of the century, with most of that projected increase owing to migration.
According to the UN, many of the fastest-growing regions are among the poorest, which couldexacerbate issues of hunger and displacement.
Scientists are also concerned about the effect of population growth on climate change. As theglobal population increases, so will humanity's footprint on the planet.
"Our impact on the climate is tied up with population in lots of different ways — whatresources people are using, how much industrial production is going on, how much energy isneeded for heating, cooling and transportation," Amy Snover, director of the University ofWashington's Climate Impacts Group, said. "All of these things affect greenhouse gasemissions, so the more people we have and the more resources we use, the harder it will be tocope with the risks and impacts of climate change."
But population growth is just one of the factors driving climate change. Consumption habitsalso matter, and they're far from uniform across countries.
"There's a massive disconnect between where the most population growth is happening andwhere the greatest consumption is happening," said Corey Bradshaw, director of the GlobalEcology Laboratory at Flinders University in Australia. In other words, the average person'slifestyle in the US is more detrimental to the environment than the average person's in sub-Saharan Africa. That means rapid population growth in Africa won't be as damaging to theenvironment as a similar population increase would be in the US.
In some regions, the increasing population means more people will be vulnerable to risingseas, extreme weather and the spread of infectious diseases, which can all be intensified byclimate change.
"People in the least-developed countries already tend to be at higher risk of climate change, sodepending on how population growth unfolds across the globe, there's going to be morepeople in hazardous areas," Snover said.
She added that one of her biggest concerns is whether the planet will have enough resources tomeet people's basic needs. Population growth, combined with climate change, could strainagriculture and access to clean drinking water even more.
"These are all big things," Snover said. "We don't have the luxury of picking only one problemto focus on because they're all coming and they're all coming together."
Scientists say it's difficult to know whether there's a limit to the number of people the planetcan sustain — or when we could be approaching it. Still, according to Bradshaw, the 7.7 billionpeople who inhabit Earth now may already be pushing the planet to a breaking point.
"Even if we maintained the current status quo and not a single other carbon molecule wasreleased because of human activity," he said, "we'd still see the effects of climate change for atleast 300 years from just the emissions that are already in the system."