Climate Change

The Challenge of 11.2 billion Lifetimes - Addressing Booming Global Population and Urban Growth through 2100

Crowded scenes like this market in Seoul are going to become the norm for cities worldwide. Photo Credit:  Crowded by  Craig Nagy, via Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Crowded scenes like this market in Seoul are going to become the norm for cities worldwide. Photo Credit: Crowded by Craig Nagy, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you realize it or not, the survival of the human race is going to depend on its ability to feed and provide for itself in the next hundred years. Every hundred years, someone makes this case. And every hundred years, they are right. So far so good -- as the saying goes.

Global Population Has Always Been Increasing, What’s Different Now?

First, a history lesson, in the late 19th century Thomas Malthus theorized that there would soon come a time when humanity would not be able to produce enough food to feed the growing population. Lucky for us, we have been proving him wrong year after year. But the problem, like hunger itself, has never been fully solved. Population growth is constantly challenging our ability to feed ourselves.

The world population is growing at an exponential rate. Over the last two centuries, the world population has swelled from 1 billion in the early 1900s to 7.6 billion today. That kind of growth requires massive changes to our food system to keep up. Which is exactly what happened during the Industrial Revolution and the Green Revolution. Global population is still growing at these rates, causing new challenges that will require more innovative solutions.

Unprecedented Growth Leads to Unprecedented Challenges

It’s not all bad news. We have much to celebrate as the accomplishes of science and technology are the reason we have so many more people able to live healthier, longer lives. Life expectancy is increasing across regions and income levels and will continue to increase. Across the world, fertility rates are decreasing and stabilizing, the only exception being in Europe where they are actually increasing after years of being below the refresh rate for a stable population.

These are undoubtedly achievements worth celebrating, but they have unintended side effects. Lower fertility rates and longer life expectancies lead to less able-bodied young people to care for aging populations. These effects are already being noticed in countries with extremely low fertility rates and high life expectancies, such as Japan. Globally, the number of persons over the age of 60 is expected to double by 2050 to 2.1 billion and triple by 2100 to 3.1 billion people. The major impact of such great healthcare and improving living standards is that more people will stay alive and grow older than ever have. And that is what will spur our massive population growth.

By 2050, the United Nations projects that global population will grow another 2.2 billion to reach 9.8 billion -- that is the entire current population of Africa and all of the Americas combined -- added on top of our current population in 33 years. Half of this increase will be in Africa alone, where 26 African Countries are expected to double in population. Food is already an issue on the African continent, which as a whole is a net food importer.

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, half of all population growth into the next century will be attributed to nine countries -- in order of expected contribution to population growth: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia. By 2024, India will surpass China to become the most populous country on Earth and is estimated to grow further to 1.7 billion inhabitants by 2050. Nigeria will grow faster than the rest of this group to become the third most populous country, behind India and China, by 2050.

Another effect of massive concentrated population growth is migration from low-income countries to middle and high-income countries will increase. This migration could (and truthfully, should) be viewed as a blessing, not a curse, as this is the only way many developed countries will continue growing their populations and economies. However, immigration, no matter how beneficial, has always posed challenges and fierce debate, which will only intensify as populations grow and migrate.

Cities Are Leading in Growth

Population growth is not the only world-changing trend to watch for in the next few decades. Human civilization is rapidly urbanizing, which means that the majority of population growth worldwide is going to be concentrated in urban areas. Migration from rural to urban areas will continue to increase as people search for better jobs and opportunities. Today, the global average is split about 50-50 between urban and rural populations, and developed countries currently have around 75% of their population living in cities.

The United Nations Population Fund projects that rural growth has already plateaued but urban growth globally will add 1.5 billion urban dwellers in the next 15 years and then double to 3 billion by 2050. More people are going to be living in megacities, with 10 million residents or more. The Population Reference Bureau projects the number of megacities will increase to 27 by 2025, an increase from 16 in 2000.

Cities are already the economic powerhouses of the world, generating 80% of global economic activity. Cities represent better jobs and opportunity, better access to healthcare and education, and are the engines of innovation and economic growth. They will also grow like never before.

Rapid Growth is a Challenge, but also an Opportunity

Rapid population growth is a complex issue with many ethical concerns attached to even discussing solutions on the nature of the problem. The issue should not be thought of in isolated terms of decrying overpopulation in certain places and solving how to stop people from procreating. Birth control is only part of a multifaceted solution, an intricate component of a much larger paradigm shift in empowering and educating women to have more control over their reproductive health and family planning.

And that alone would not address the issue. As mentioned before, fertility rates are declining in most of the world. More people are living longer and healthier lives than ever in the history of humankind. The progress made on that front is undeniably good. We just have to deal with the externalities of more people living and consuming resources and the reality of our constraints.

At the current rate of global resource consumption, we use 1.7 times what the Earth can sustainably renew each year. With the global population expected to increase another 3.6 billion people over the next 83 years, the pressure on Earth’s resources will grow that much more intense.

This is the real challenge and opportunity over the next century: How do we manage to sustainably feed, shelter, provide healthcare and prosperity to everyone on the planet, both those here today and coming soon?

The great economic opportunities of the next century will be linked to adapting to and creating innovative solutions for all of these issues, whether it is finding more efficient ways to feed people, to finding creative ways to build homes for people in greater density and efficiency, to creating new industries to employ or provide income for new urban dwellers, to providing power and goods using fewer resources and more sustainable sources. All of these are opportunities to build the next new industries and leaders in a world that will have more people.

All people -- every one of us alive today and everyone one of us that will be born in the future, have the same right to live. Populations will grow and there is nothing that states and multinational actors can do to prevent it. They do not and should not have the power to decide on those matters. However, they do have the power and necessity to better address how they will handle providing for opportunities people to eat, live, and work and creating economic prosperity in the face of a rapidly changing, aging, moving, and most of all, growing population.

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References and Suggested Further Reading