You don’t have to fear a world of eight billion people

on November 15 the 8 billionth person on Earth was born. Well, more or less. That was the chosen date United Nations Demographers as the moment when the world passed the last population milestone. The exact date is probably wrong, maybe months or more, but there are about a billion more people alive today than 11 years ago.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the Day of the 8 Billion. Milestones make good headlines, but focusing on a few big numbers can obscure more revealing trends that really explain how the world has changed since we were just 7 billion people. Here are two examples. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been falling steadily over the past decade. (In 2010, 16.3 percent of the world lived on less than $2.15 a day while only today 9 percent of people live on such a meager amount.) And in India and China – which accounted for the most new births in the last decade –GDP per capita and life expectancy have risen even as the population boomed. Simply put, more people are living better lives today than at almost any other time in human history.

As the 8 billion day rolled around, my inbox filled with a steady trickle of press releases warning that represents the milestone a planetary crisis point. I have a hunch why I got these stories on my path. A few months earlier, I had written an article about why Elon Musk has false concerns about declining populations. In the short term, demographers pointed out to me, the world’s population will only increase. Managing that increase is the real challenge facing the planet right now. In the eyes of NGO press officers and certain angry people on Twitter, I landed firmly in the camp of “journalists who are convinced that we should be less afraid to talk about ‘overpopulation’ and its effect on the environment.”

Much of the online coverage of the Day of the 8 Billion came from the same perspective. “It should not be controversial to say that a population of 8 billion will have a serious impact on the climate,” read a headline The protector. On a basic level, that is absolutely true. All else being the same, more people on the planet means higher carbon emissions. The climate solutions charity, Project Drawdown, estimates that providing better family planning and education will help prevent 68.9 billion tons from CO2 emissions by 2050 – approx equal to two years of fossil fuel emissions and industry.

We have to be careful 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 tons of CO2 emissions per year. But in the eight countries where most of the population growth will be concentrated by 2050, per capita emissions only a fraction of the US level. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is expected to grow by more than 120 million in the next 20 years, each person produces only 30 kilograms of CO2 every year. Emissions are a result of consumption, not just of population.

The richest people in the world are the biggest emitters. A World Inequality Lab study found that as emissions for the middle class in rich countries have fallen, those of the top 0.001 percent have increased by 107 percent. “When I see rich people with huge families, I think, ‘No, we don’t have the capacity to have more rich people on the planet,'” said Lorraine Whitmarsh, a psychologist at the University of Bath who studies behavior and climate change. If we really want to reduce emissions, it makes sense to start by reducing consumption in the developed world, where the population is stagnant.

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