We will be fewer and older

Crecimiento demográfico

Current global population growth is unsustainable and threatens the ecological niche that sustains us. It is that clear. From one million people worldwide 12,000 years ago, when cities were invented, we went from 200 million at the time of Jesus, to 1 billion in 1800, 2.5 billion at the end of World War II, 6 billion in 2000, and 7.6 billion today. Anyone in their 70s has seen the world's population triple in their lifetime. It is an outrage, though fortunately there are signs of a reversal as living standards and education rise. Even so, in the short term, the population will grow by two billion over the next 30 years, and of these, 1.3 billion will be born in Africa, which will double its demography. Egypt is gaining one million inhabitants per year and Nigeria, with 190 million, will approach 400 million by 2050 and overtake China by the end of the century. I fear that the era of great migrations is just beginning.

This growth has a major impact on the ecology, destroying the environment by increasing greenhouse gases and depleting resources that are not unlimited. Already "ecological refugees" are being driven from their homes by drought in the Sahel, and by rising waters in Kiribati, an island nation that will have disappeared under water by the end of the century. Its few inhabitants are looking for a place to relocate. Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Nauru, the Maldives and Solomon Islands may suffer the same fate. Competition for scarce resources is also growing. It is estimated that by 2050 food consumption will grow by 50 per cent, energy consumption by 60 per cent (600 million Africans today have no electricity), and water consumption by 50 per cent, the most serious short-term problem. According to the UN, one in three people (2.2 billion) do not have access to safe drinking water and in ten years' time half of the population will be living in areas with water shortages, especially in Africa (Sahel, Horn of Africa), the Middle East (Afghanistan, Yemen, Tajikistan) and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Myanmar).

It is therefore good news that socio-economic development is altering fertility, which will cause the world's population to begin to decline towards the end of the century. Alongside this decline will come a general ageing process that will shatter the demographic pyramids as we know them because in Europe the population over 65 will rise from 9% today to 19% in 2050, and worse in China, where by the end of the century there will be the same number of people aged 18 as 85. According to The Lancet, 183 out of 195 countries will have fertility rates below replacement level, estimated at 2.1 children per woman, by 2100. In some places the process has already begun and China with a rate of 1.6 is expected to drop from 1.4 billion today to 730 million in 2100 and is now encouraging three children per marriage. In South Korea, with the lowest fertility rate in the world (0.92 in 2019) universities are fighting for students, in Japan more nappies are sold for adults than for children, in Italy maternity hospitals are closing, in Sweden resources are being diverted from schools to old people's homes, and in Spain, with a rate of 1.3, the countryside is emptying and the retirement age is being raised. And while a growing population can mean higher wages, less carbon emissions into the atmosphere and perhaps a higher standard of living, it also poses many other problems such as the maintenance of pensions and the social welfare state, less dynamism and creativity, even affecting the very international weight of the state. This is why Germany and France have begun to take fiscal (subsidies) and social (childcare) measures to stimulate births, and other countries such as Canada are trying to attract immigration.

There is no doubt that this change in trend will cause its own problems that will have to be solved. But we should welcome it because the planet could not long continue to endure the insane population growth experienced since the first industrial revolution.

Jorge Dezcallar

Ambassador of Spain.