UN's world population estimates raise questions on sustainability Special

Posted Dec 14, 2010 by Michael Krebs
With population estimates from the United Nations ranging anywhere from 8 billion to 10.5 billion by 2050, there is a need to understand the numbers and the implications of population growth or decline.
As human population figures worldwide are continuing to reflect widespread growth, the United Nations recently released a 240-page report that examines and projects trends over a wide period of time from 1950 to 2300. By 2050, according the UN Population Division analysis, there could be anywhere from 8 billion of us at the low end of the projection to 10.5 billion at the high end.
The impact of these figures on ecological sustainability is not known.
The United Nations has been assessing global populations since the 1950s. As the world settled into a relative postwar tranquility, populations began to expand - and this expansion prompted the UN to begin implementing family planning measures where appropriate.
"The United Nations has a very long history of leading the discussion of population issues at the world level," UN Population Division Director Hania Zlotnik said. "It started in the 50's. It culminated in the 70's with the first intergovernmental conference on population - the the 1974 World Population Conference - where governments got together and for the first time they legitimized at the universal level the fact that governments could make policies regarding population and specifically that they had a responsibility to enable couples and individuals to have the number of children they desired - specifically by the rise in family planning programs. And it's that movement of family planning that has had a major impact on world population trends."
Global population trends are also influenced by societal and economic conditions.
Women's rights - and particularly reproductive rights - have emerged over the years as a platform for governments worldwide to address and to encourage. However, the question of reproductive rights in family planning has gone down two different channels - one of providing contraceptives for fertile couples and one of providing infertile couples with resources to either adopt or to pursue other options. A recent Wall Street Journal feature examines the worldwide nature of the markets available to infertile couples.
But the overpopulation issue is not evenly dispersed. According to Ms. Zlotnik, the countries that have "relatively high fertility" account for just 15 percent of the global population. This 15 percent also resides in the least developed countries on the planet, where poverty is rampant and infrastructure is barely existent. They are "fragile states," with strapped governments that cannot provide the necessary family planning outreach that other more developed countries have enjoyed.
"That 15 percent of the population could repopulate the world several times over if given enough time," she said.
On global terms, the last two decades have seen a huge population expansion - but Ms. Zlotnik believes that the global growth rate is slowing. While a population figure of 9 billion by 2050 represents the UN's medium-rung projection, it remains unclear whether or not this is an ecologically sustainable figure.
"If the world hasn't collapsed now that we have 7 billion, it's less likely to collapse if it goes back to 7 billion after having increased," Zlotnik explains.
But the numbers on both sides of the spectrum present different questions on sustainability.
"The question everyone has is: what is more sustainable: 2 billion or 31 billion? These are the results of our low and high population projections to 2300, which are obtained by keeping fertility at about 1.75 and 2.3 children per women, respectively, over nearly 200 years," she said.