- ON NOVEMBER 15, the 8 billionth person on the planet was born.
- That was the date selected by United Nations demographers.
- There are roughly a billion more humans alive today than there were 11 years ago.
Milestones make good headlines, but concentrating on a few big numbers can obscure more revealing trends that really explain how the world has changed since there were just 7 billion of us. Here are two examples. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has steadily declined over the past decade. And in India and China—which contributed the most new births in the past decade—GDP per capita and life expectancy have risen even while populations boomed.
In the near term, demographers pointed out that the world’s population is only heading upward. Managing that increase is the real challenge facing the planet right now. A lot of online coverage about the Day of 8 Billion came from the same perspective. “It should not be controversial to say a population of 8 billion will have a grave impact on the climate,” read one headline in The Guardian. On a basic level, that’s completely true. If everything else stays the same, more people on the planet will mean higher carbon emissions. The climate solutions charity Project Drawdown estimates that providing better family planning and education will help avoid 68.9 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions by 2050—roughly equivalent to two years of emissions from fossil fuels and industry.
We need to tread carefully when we talk about population and climate change. It’s easy to look at a world of 8 billion and conclude that there are “too many” people on the planet. But who do we really mean when we talk about overpopulation? Someone living in the United States is responsible for about 15 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. But in the eight countries where the majority of population growth by the year 2050 will be concentrated, per capita emissions are just a fraction of US levels.
The Rich Emit More
The world’s richest people are the biggest emitters. One study from the World Inequality Lab found that as emissions have fallen for the middle class in rich countries, those from the top 0.001 percent have risen by 107 percent. “When I see rich people with massive families I think, no, we don’t have the capacity to have more rich people on the planet,” says Lorraine Whitmarsh, a psychologist at the University of Bath who studies behavior and climate change. If we really want to reduce emissions, then starting with reducing consumption in the developed world, where populations are stagnant, makes the most sense.
But reducing people to their per-capita emissions comes with its own problems. Humans aren’t tradable carbon chips, and climate interventions aren’t just about reducing emissions. Giving women access to good education and voluntary family planning is the right thing to do, because it means more people enjoy better lives. In the DRC, women who are educated past secondary level have about three children on average, compared with more than seven children from women who don’t have the same education. “
The Future Of Our Planet
The future of our planet is about way more than the sheer number of humans living here. It’s about whether they will have good lives and live in places with stable governments, access to health care, and basic human rights. “Thinking of a population as a faceless crowd or mass—you really don’t think about people’s identities or humanity in that context,” says Nicholas.
Whether there are 8 billion humans or 10 billion, we should be thinking about how to find ways for everyone to live good lives. “We have this carbon budget to prevent catastrophic climate change,” says Nicholas, referring to the goals of the Paris Climate agreement. “It’s running out very quickly.” Earth has the capacity for more people or for fewer people—it all depends on what those of us who are alive right now are prepared to do to make sure we don’t wreck the place before the next billion get here.
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