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Battle for the planet

John Vidal

The world is heading for wildly uneven population swings in the next 45 years, with many rich countries "downsizing" during a period in which almost all developing nations will grow at breakneck speed. A new report predicts that at least an extra 1 000-million will be living in the world's poorest African countries by 2050. There are more people on Earth than ever before, and fewer resources to support them.

The world is heading for wildly uneven population swings in the next 45 years, with many rich countries “downsizing’’ during a period in which almost all developing nations will grow at breakneck speed, according to a comprehensive report by leading United States demographers released last Tuesday. They predict that at least an extra 1 000-million will be living in the world’s poorest African countries by 2050. There will be an extra 120-million Americans, and India will leapfrog China to become the world’s most populous country. One in six people in Western Europe will be older than 65 by 2050. But the populations of some countries will shrink.

Britain is expected to grow faster than any other major European country. It is expected to overtake France as Europe’s second- or third-largest country, depending on whether Russia is classified as being part of Europe or Asia.

The changes, considered inevitable given present trends, will transform geo-politics and fundamentally affect the world’s economies, people’s lifestyles and global resources, suggest demographers with the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. Countries such as Nigeria and Japan, which today have similar-sized populations of about 130-million people, could be unrecognisable by 2050. By then, Nigeria is expected to have more than doubled its numbers to more than 300-million people. But Japan, which has only 14% of its current population under the age of 15, may have shrunk to about 100-million people.

The US is expected to reach a population of 420-million by 2050, an increase of 43%. But Europe is expected to have 60-million fewer people than today and some countries could lose more than a third of their populations.

The projections are based on detailed analysis of infant mortality rates, age structure, population growth, life expectancy, incomes and fertility rates. They also take into account the numbers of women using contraception and HIV/Aids rates, but do not allow for environmental factors. Climate change and ongoing land degradation are widely expected to encourage further widespread movements of people and pressure for migration away from rural areas towards cities and richer countries.

Former World Bank economist Herman Daly believes globalisation and the uncontrolled migration of cheap labour could put potentially catastrophic pressures on local communities and national economies. “The sheer number of people on Earth is now much larger than ever before in history. Some experts question whether Earth can even carry today’s population at a “moderately comfortable” standard for the long term, let alone three billion more’‘.

While the world’s few developed countries are expected to grow about 4% to more than 1,2-billion, population in developing countries could surge by 55% to more than eight billion. Overall, says the report, world population is growing by about 70-million people a year, and will likely reach 9,3-billion by mid-century from 6,3-billion today.

However, a separate report, to be published soon by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, will argue that fertility rates in poor countries could drop if there is a world fuel crisis.

Increases in food production per hectare, it will say, have not kept pace with increases in population, and the planet has virtually no more arable land or fresh water to spare. As a result, per-capita crop land has shrunk by more than half since 1960, and per capita production of grains, the basic food, has been falling worldwide for 20 years. — Â

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