15th of November, The 8 billionth person on the planet was born. Well, more or less. This date was chosen UN demographers at the moment when the world crossed its last demographic frontier. The exact date is probably wrong—perhaps by a few months or more—but there are about a billion more people alive today than there were 11 years ago.
I didn’t pay close attention to Day 8 Billion. Milestones are 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. Here are two examples. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has steadily declined over the past decade. (In 2010, 16.3 percent of the world’s population lived on less than $2.15 a day, whereas today only 9 percent people live on such a paltry sum.) And in India and China, which have produced the largest number of newborns in the past decade,GDP per capita and life expectancy grew even as the population grew. Simply put, more people are living better lives today than at any time in human history.
As the Day of 8 Billion approached, my inbox was constantly flooded with press releases a warning that a milestone is planetary crisis point. I have an idea why they sent me these stories. A couple of months before, I wrote an article about why Elon Musk is wrong about worrying about population decline. In the short term, as demographers have pointed out to me, the world’s population will only increase. Coping with this increase is a real challenge facing the planet right now. In the eyes of the NGO press staff and some angry people on Twitter, this put me firmly in the camp of “journalists who believe we should be less afraid to talk about ‘overcrowding’ and its impact on the environment.”
Many online reports about 8 Billion Day came from the same point of view. “There should be no objection to the claim that a population of 8 billion people will have a serious impact on the climate,” read a headline in one of the newspapers. The keeper. At a basic level, this is absolutely true. If everything else stays the same, an increase in the number of people on the planet will mean an increase in carbon emissions. Climate solutions charity Project Drawdown estimates that better family planning and education will help avoid 68.9 billion metric tons CO2 emissions by 2050 equivalent to two years emissions from fossil fuels and industry.
We need to be careful when we talk about population and climate change. It’s easy to look at a world of 8 billion people 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 emitting about 15 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. But in the eight countries where most of the population growth will be concentrated by 2050, emissions per capita just a fraction of the US level. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose population is projected to grow by over 120 million over the next 20 years, each person produces just 30 kilograms of CO2 yearly. Emissions are a consequence of consumption, not just population.
The richest people in the world are the biggest contributors to emissions. One study by the World Inequality Lab found that as middle-class emissions in wealthy countries declined, emissions from top 0.001 percent increased by 107 percent. “When I see rich people with large families, I think, no, we have no way to increase the number of 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 cut emissions, the smartest place to start is by reducing consumption in developed countries where the population is not changing.