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The 2012 UN Report on the State of the World Population contains good news. Global population growth is slowing down. For the period 2010-15 the UN expects an annual increase of only 70 million additional human beings compared to 80 millions around the turn of the century. Total fertility will decline to 2, the level of demographic stability.

Europe leads the way. 10 European countries already experience a decline in population, however small. With the exception of Germany, all countries are situated in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, with Bulgaria and Ukraine experiencing the severest decline of 0.7 and 0.5 per cent respectively during 2010-15.

This is excellent news for the planet. The fewer the number of human beings the better the prospects for a sustainable future.

It is therefore encouraging that Jorgen Randers, author of the new Report to the Club of Rome forecasts a stabilisation of global population at 8.1 billion in the early 2040s, thanks to a rapid decline of family size following accelerating urbanisation. This will substantially reduce the human footprint on the planet. Until a few decades ago, projections for the global population still advanced figures 10-12 billion for the middle of the century.

The slower population growth goes in parallel with an approximation of basic demographic data across the world:

  • Fertility rates in more developed and less developed regions tend to balance around two. They are no longer linked to religion but to educational level of women and socio-political environment. Iranian and Indonesian fertility rates of 1.6 and 2.1 have fallen to levels of Catholic Portugal (1.3) or Protestant Sweden (1.9)!
  • Life expectancy in less developed regions has come closer to that of more developed ones, especially for women (69 versus 81).
  • In more developed regions 62 per cent of women use modern contraceptives against 56 per cent in less developed regions.

Only Sub-Sahara Africa remains a dark spot in this overall bright picture.

On fertility, population growth, life expectancy and use of modern contraceptives the 850 million people living in Sub-Sahara Africa are lagging far behind the rest of the world. Their population is therefore expected to rise to 2 billion in the coming 40 years, unless governments attach much more attention to population and education.

This is no good for Sub-Sahara Africa, Europe and the planet. African governments and EU should, as a matter or urgency, take three major steps to slow down demographic growth:

  • Boost the number of girls attending secondary schools. This will raise the marriage age, lift female educational standards and reduce birth rates. Only a quarter of Sub-Sahara girls attend secondary schools, compared to more than half in all less developed regions and nine tenths in more developed ones.
  • Offer free access to modern methods of contraception. Women with secondary education are more likely to respond to such an offer.
  • The EU and other donors should make female education the top priority in their future development assistance and discuss these issues in informal talks at the top political level.

Whatever the African drawback or the difficulties of mature societies adjusting to stagnant or declining population, Humanity should rejoice at the prospect of a stable and declining population in the second half of the century around 8 billion people. That is still more than five times the population 100 years ago; but the planet suffices to supply eight billion human beings provided they practice more sustainable life styles.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels

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