"The population is rapidly living longer. The question is whether we have enough people to care for the older population going forward," Professor Torkhild H. Lyngstad says.

The planet is now home to 8 billion people

How many people can our planet sustain?

The UN estimates that the global population will reach 8 billion in November 2022.

The previous milestone was in 2011, when this figure hit 7 billion for the first time.

What will characterise the global population going forward?

Demography researcher Marianne Tønnessen at OsloMet and Professor Torkild H. Lyngstad at the University of Oslo have compiled the most important aspects of what we know about the world’s population in the upcoming decades.

The global population

Each year, the world’s population grows by around 80 million.

This figure has dropped somewhat in recent years and is far lower than at the end of the 1980s, when the growth some years was over 90 million people.

The annual percentage population growth, however, was biggest in the 1960s, corresponding to around 70 million people a year.

Since then, the percentage growth has fallen, but the growth in actual numbers remains high.

1. The global population will continue to grow – and quickly

There is nothing to indicate that the number of people on Earth will stabilise in the near future.

"The global population is still growing rapidly. Even though the percentage of growth has fallen, population growth figures remain high," Tønnessen explains.

In terms of percentage, population growth has seen a significant reduction since the late 1960s. There was major concern about a population explosion at that time.

It is difficult to say exactly when the population will stop growing.

According to the UN population projections from 2019, this will not take place until towards the end of the century. By then, we will be closing in on 11 billion people.

2. Strong growth in Africa, drop in Europe

The population growth in the time ahead will be very different in different parts of the world.

"Whilst the population in Africa will increase, Europe’s population will continue to drop," Lyngstad says.

Over the last hundred years or so, Europe’s share of the global population has gone from a quarter to a tenth. This share will likely continue to decrease going forward.

At the same time, Africa is the continent with the fastest population growth. The UN expects the population of Africa to double over the next 40 years.

3. There are increasingly more older people – especially in Europe and East Asia

There is little doubt that population growth will be greatest amongst older people in the future.

"The population is rapidly living longer. The question is whether we have enough people to care for the older population going forward," Lyngstad says.

The UN expects the number of people over 65 years of age to double leading up to 2050. At the same time, the number of children and young people is not expected to increase to any notable degree.

The ageing population will particularly affect Europe and East Asia going forward. Several countries in these areas are seeing low fertility and a stagnation or decline in the population.

4. Two giants will soon swap places

China has been the world’s most populated country for a long time, but this is soon to change.

"The two demographic giants, India and China, will soon swap places on the list of the most populated countries," Tønnessen says.

The age composition of these two countries is very different. While fertility is relatively high in India, it has long been a problem in China due to the former one-child policy.

"China will soon face a substantial boom of elderly people. They risk becoming old before becoming rich, which could pose a massive challenge for them," Tønnessen points out.

It will be interesting to see the geopolitical consequences of India taking over as the most populated country.

"A country’s population is just one of many factors that decides its geopolitical power. But as we have seen in connection with the war in Ukraine, economic power and military power are just as important," Lyngstad says.

5. How many people can our planet sustain?

But what are the Earth’s limits? Will population growth stop before this limit is reached?

According to the UN population projections, we will exceed 9 billion people in around 2037 and 10 billion around 2056, although these figures are uncertain.

"The question of how many people can live on Earth has been asked many times and there is considerable disagreement about it," Lyngstad says.

"Only a minority of the world’s population consumes a great deal of its resources. If everyone on Earth consumed as much as the rich countries, things would clearly go wrong," Tønnessen says.

However, if the richer countries of the world consumes less and finds technical solutions to reduce our footprint, the Earth might be able to sustain more people.

"The fear that the Earth will be unable to sustain more people has been around for a long time, but so far we have always found solutions," Tønnessen concludes.

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