As we see progress in women’s reproductive rights and access to education, this leads to an unpredicted problem for the global population.
With women in many countries having fewer children, the population is predicted to crash at the end of the century. A study published in The Lancet, expects the population to peak at 9.7 billion in 2064 before dramatically falling to 8.8 billion in 2100.
Currently, the global fertility rate is about 2.4 but if this falls below 2.1 the population size starts to decrease. This rate of 2.1 is known as the replacement fertility rate – the number of children women need to have, considering birth mortality, to maintain the population size. Researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, have predicted that by 2100 this will fall to 1.7, resulting in a fall in population that we aren’t prepared for.
So, what is the cause of this predicted fall? Women globally have increasingly greater access to education and contraception. More countries are improving the reproductive rights of women which gives them more autonomy over their sexual health and when they want to have children. Moving from an expected role as mothers, caring for children at home, to pursuing their education and careers; women are putting off having children or choosing not to have them at all. We already see in Singapore a fertility rate of 1.3, with other countries’ rates falling too.
But isn’t a drop in fertility rate good for climate change? We would expect the decreasing population to help reduce our carbon emissions and cause less strain on food systems. However, this doesn’t remove the need for drastic action to combat climate change now – waiting for population decrease is not enough. On top of this, the impact on our social structure will require huge change. With researchers predicting the number of people over the age of 80 will grow from 141 million in 2017 to 866 million in 2100, we will have to prepare societies to deal with an aging population.
Professor Stein Emil Vollset, the author of the Lancet paper, explained: “With more old people and fewer young people, economic challenges will arise as societies struggle to grow with fewer workers and taxpayers, and countries’ abilities to generate the wealth needed to fund social support and health care for the elderly are reduced.”
Dealing with this will require countries whose birth rates are drastically falling to increase migration. The study predicts that in some countries, including Japan and Spain, their population will fall to half of what it is now. However, sub-Saharan countries like Nigeria, are predicted to increase in population: half of babies being born in 2100 are expected to be in Africa. This will allow for some migration to countries with lower fertility rates but Professor Murray of the IHME warns that “global recognition of the challenges around racism are going to be all the more critical if there are large numbers of people of African descent in many countries.”
However, migration is only a solution while the population of some countries are still increasing. If a point is reached where every country has a falling population, we will have to think of more creative solutions, while making sure we aren’t undermining the progress of women’s education and reproductive rights. Countries like France and Sweden, where fertility rates are already low, have tried to combat it with increased parental leave (that can be shared between parents as they wish, rather than set maternity/paternity leave), subsidised childcare, and greater benefits for families with more children.
Professor Murray agrees that part of the solution is “social policies supportive of families having their desired number of children”, but stresses that governments should not step backwards on women’s rights as a solution.