New UN Population Report Is a Call to Action

7.7 billion today, 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion in 2100

These are the medium population projections, according to new data from the UN, released yesterday as the 2019 Revision of the World Population Prospects.

Regional Variation

Population growth won’t be even across regions. In fact, while Africa’s population is projected to double between now and 2050, Europe and North America are projected to start shrinking in the decade leading up to 2050. A stunning statistic for a region that is currently home to only 14% of today’s world population, sub-Saharan Africa is projected to make up more than half of global population growth through 2050. Another quarter of the total growth will be in Central and Southern Asia.

The current global total fertility rate (TFR) is 2.5 children per woman. Regional variations are massive though: Half the world population lives in countries with below-replacement-rate fertility (2.1 children per woman in low-mortality settings). Meanwhile, in sub-Saharan Africa, the TFR is more than twice replacement rate, at 4.6 children per woman.

Of the 47 least developed countries (LDCs), 32 are in sub-Saharan Africa, two are in Northern Africa/Western Asia, four are in Central and Southern Asia, four are in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, one is in Latin America and the Caribbean, and four are in Oceania. As a group, these LDCs are growing 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world population—LDCs are projected to double in population size between now and 2050. Niger, with the highest fertility on the planet, at 6.95 children per woman, is projected to nearly triple in population by 2050.

It’s important to bear in mind that these projections assume “that high-fertility populations will experience development-related fertility decline similar to past transitions observed in countries that developed earlier.” In other words, they are not foregone conclusions.

A passage in the highlights report spells out the conditionality of these projections:

If the international community does not follow through on its commitment to ensure that all men and women are informed and have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, then future fertility declines may occur more slowly, and future population growth may be faster than what is depicted in the medium variant. Conversely, an accelerated expansion in access to family planning information and services could result in a more rapid fertility decline and a smaller global population in the future than projected under the medium variant.

Population Momentum

If every country worldwide immediately moved to replacement-level fertility, the population would still continue to grow until mid-century. That’s because the current age structure is set up for future population growth via a phenomenon called population momentum. Basically, there are more young people today who are yet to enter their childbearing years than there were in generations past. This large cohort of young people will have their own children as they reach reproductive age.

According to the new UN data, two-thirds (68%) of population growth through 2050 will be due to population momentum. Thus, the population would still continue to grow for another generation or two, even at replacement-rate fertility. However, after 2050, population momentum would cease to be a factor, and the population would peak at 9.3 billion before beginning to decline.

Here again, there are regional differences. In regions with very high fertility, such as sub-Saharan Africa (TFR: 4.6) and Oceania (TFR: 3.4—not including Australia or New Zealand), population momentum will drive “only” 42% and 58% (respectively) of population growth through 2050.

Consequences of Growth

The World Population Prospects 2019 Highlights report has some passages that tiptoe around advocacy statements regarding sustainable development:

Inclusive economic growth is needed to support a growing global population, which could increase by 835 million people between 2019 and 2030, the target date for the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. Many of the fastest growing populations reside in the world’s poorest countries, where population growth is putting pressure on already strained resources and challenging policies that aim to achieve the SDGs and ensure that no one is left behind.

Maternal and child health:

In sub-Saharan Africa, the region that is expected to account for more than half of the world’s population growth over the coming decades, the number of babies projected to be born between 2020 and 2050 (nearly 1.4 billion) exceeds the number born between 1990 and 2020 by more than 50 per cent. A rapidly increasing number of births poses particularly significant challenges for countries striving to expand services for mothers and newborns (SDGs 1, 3 and 5).

And unmet need for contraception:

Many of the countries with the highest levels of maternal mortality and the greatest unmet need for family planning continue to experience growth in the number of women of reproductive age. Programmes to expand access to contraceptives must keep pace with population growth just to maintain current levels of coverage. In all countries and areas, achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women requires eliminating all forms of violence and discrimination against women (SDG 5), promoting female education (SDG 4), and ensuring that women have access to safe and effective means of family planning (SDG 3), as well as equal access to the labour market (SDG 8), social security and the political process (SDGs 8, 5 and 16).

Mr. Liu Zhenmin, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, says the report demonstrates where intervention is needed most:

Many of the fastest growing populations are in the poorest countries, where population growth brings additional challenges in the effort to eradicate poverty, achieve greater equality, combat hunger and malnutrition and strengthen the coverage and quality of health and education systems to ensure that no one is left behind.

And John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division, said at yesterday’s launch:

There has been some progress in reducing the level of the birth rate as access to family planning has increased, but it continues to be the case that a significant number of women in Africa who have an expressed need for family planning do not have access—I believe it’s around one-quarter of those who express a need for family planning who do not actually have access to contraception. So, there is this continuing policy gap in access to the means of contraception that would lead to further reductions of the growth rate.

The UN Population Division collects, analyzes, and reports on data. It is not an advocacy organization, and it does not have a political agenda. It does, however, employ intelligent people who are unable to ignore the policy implications of the data they disseminate. Policymakers would be intelligent as well to read the report for what it truly is: an urgent call to action.

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019. https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/

7 thoughts on “New UN Population Report Is a Call to Action

  1. “while Africa’s population is projected to double between now and 2050,”

    No, it’s sub-Saharan Africa that is projected to double by 2050.

    Africa as a whole is projected to increase from 1,308,064,000 in 2019 to 2,489,275,000 in 2050,

    2,489,275,000 / 1,308,064,000 = 1.903

    Numbers from the interactive tool of the 2019 report. I know it’s close to doubling, but I just can’t say it’s the same as doubling.

  2. It is a considerable slowdown from 2017 edition of the report … almost back to the 2012 edition…

    Population projections for 2050 and 2100 from the
    2012, 2015, 2017 and 2019 UN World Population
    Prospects reports, medium forecasts, in Millions

    Report | ===========2050======= ===========2100================
    Year | World Africa Rest.of.World World Africa Rest.of.World
    ====== | ===== ====== ========== ====== ====== ==============
    2012 | 9,551 2,393 7,158 10,854 4,185 6,669
    2015 | 9,725 2,478 7,247 11,213 4,387 6,826
    2017 | 9,772 2,528 7,244 11,184 4,468 6,716
    2019 | 9,735 2,489 7,246 10,875 4,280 6,595

  3. I see it doesn’t like tables (in contracts a series of spaces into one space, sigh)

    At least it’s somewhat lower projection than the last report (2017 edition):

    2100 Population projection, world, billions:

    2017 report: 11.184
    2019 report: 10.875

    But still higher than the 2012 report’s projection of 10.854 billion

  4. “while Africa’s population is projected to double between now and 2050,”

    No, it’s sub-Saharan Africa that is projected to double by 2050.

    Africa as a whole is projected to increase from 1,308,064,000 in 2019 to 2,489,275,000 in 2050,

    2,489,275,000 / 1,308,064,000 = 1.903

    Numbers from the interactive tool of the 2019 report. I know it’s close to doubling, but I just can’t say it’s the same as doubling. A 90.3% increase is not a doubling.

    • Thanks for reading the post so closely, James. I would argue that 1.9 is close enough to 2.0 to call it a doubling.

  5. At least it’s somewhat lower projection than the last report (2017 edition):

    2100 Population projection, world, billions:

    2017 report: 11.184
    2019 report: 10.875

    But still higher than the 2012’s projection of 10.854 billion

  6. ” I would argue that 1.9 is close enough to 2.0 to call it a doubling.”

    Perhaps, but it would be correct and more honest to say “projected to nearly double”. Africa’s population is a very sensitive subject, and I don’t think we should be exaggerating this or anything else. I’m often baffled why advocacy groups and organizations feel the need to stretch the truth beyond its limits when the truth is all that is needed to make the point. (I’m a retired engineer and it was crucially important in my work that the data I relied on was unbiased).

    By the way, as far as I’m concerned, you can delete comments 1 thru 3. My comments 4 and 5 are essentially a repeat of comments 1 thru 3 because comments 1 thru 3 disappeared, so I resubmitted. Comment 2 has that table, but since it didn’t format properly, is essentially unreadable.

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