TED Conversations

Hans Rosling

Director, Gapminder Foundation


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Why do so many think that population growth is an important issue for the environment? Don't they know the facts of demographics?

We face many environmental challenges, but the foremost is the risk for a severe climate change due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

I meet so many that think population growth is a major problem in regard to climate change. But the number of children born per year in the world has stopped growing since 1990. The total number of children below 15 years of age in the world are now relatively stable around 2 billion. The populations with an increasing amount of children born are fully compensated by other populations with a decreasing number of children born. A final increase of 2 billion people is expected until the world population peaks at about 9 billion in 2050. But the increase with 2 billion is comprised by already existing persons growing up to become adults, and old people like me (+60 years). So when I hear people saying that population growth has to be stopped before reaching 9 billion, I get really scared, because the only way to achieve that is by killing.

So the addition of another 2 billion in number constitutes a final increase of less than 30%, and it is inevitable. Beyond 2050 the world population may start to decrease if women across the world will have, on average, less than 2 children. But that decrease will be slow.

So the fact is that we have to plan for a common life on Earth with 7-9 billion fellow human beings, and the environmental challenge must be met by a more effective use of energy and a much more green production of energy.

The only thing that can change this is if the last 1-2 poorest billion do not get access to school, electricity, basic health services and family planning. Only if the horror of poverty remains will we become more than 9 billion.

So my question is: Are these facts known? If not, why?

It is important because placing emphasis on population diverts attention from what has to be done to limit the climate crisis.


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  • Dan F 50+

    • +1
    Feb 24 2011: Nice to have the human population discussion front and center.

    It seems to me the dynamics of not just of the explosion of the human populations in modern times is mind boggling, but also the dynamics of the explosion of the cultural evolution and how that has effected how we have thrived in numbers and improved the standard of living around the world. All this has resulted in an extended and more delicate reliance on man made or designed products, ideas and the exploitation and alteration of natural resources for our benefit. The question in my mind is whether the quality of life is bound for extensive unpleasant outcomes.

    Not just the world and countries, but large modern mega city of hundreds of thousands and even millions of residences relies on incredibly sophisticated political, economic, social, biological, etc., systems to function and operate as planned. Am I the only one that senses how things could really degrade if cooperation turns more toward survival in these densely populated urban areas?

    The assurance that aspects of the world population trends give reason for optimism because it is peaking out misses the central issue in my mind. I don't dispute these trends just the assumption of the stability of the current and projected general human population situation.

    Cause and effect can spoil models and often do. When it comes to such matters there is often a lag affect between the things that can and do bring about correction(s). We have plenty of warnings in a variety of areas that suggest that it's only possible to claim so far so good.

    I am not a doomsayer, but one who thinks the miserably index for vast numbers of people could go up - way up!
    • Feb 25 2011: Certainly, I don't think anyone is optimistic enough to think all the billions at the bottom of the food chain can develop in the American way... or in the European way for that matter. Expectations of material wealth will have to be curved.

      I am particularly interested in your misgivings about cities... In fact, I should think that it is easier to provide services for people when they congregate in high density population centers: schools, hospitals, public transport, libraries, housing, sanitation... If anything I think that cities are part of the solution not the problem.

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