Should we be concerned about the falling global fertility rate?

Should we be concerned about the falling global fertility rate?
Source: Reuters

On July 14, a study published in The Lancet medical journal revealed that global fertility rates and population growth were both expected to drop by 2100. The study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, cited “female educational attainment and access to contraception” as two of the main contributing factors to this trend.

The study was picked up by multiple news agencies, with BBC News publishing an article on July 15 entitled, “Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born.” While a reduced human population could have ecological benefits for the planet, the study suggests that many countries will face economic difficulties because of their dwindling population.

Fertility, mortality, migration and population scenarios

The Lancet study’s full title is “Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study.” The study, which forecasts the world population from 2018 to 2100, was conducted by two dozen researchers.

The forecasts in the study involved calculating increased life expectancy and the total fertility rate (TFR) for individual countries. These two factors combined with expected mortality rates and migration patterns provide a snapshot of all 195 world countries and territories (196 if Taiwan is counted separately from China).

The findings of the study conclude that globally, by 2100, the TFR will drop to 1.66 children per woman. This falls well below the 2.1 rate necessary to maintain the population “replacement level.” In other words, not enough children will be born to compensate for the number of deaths, resulting in decreased populations.

The global population is projected to peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion. After that, it will begin a steady decline, reaching 8.79 billion in 2100.

Country and region forecasts

Not all countries and regions will experience the same rate of decline.

The forecasts predict that Spain, Japan and Thailand will see major drops, experiencing “population declines greater than 50% from 2017 to 2100.” In the projections, Spain’s current population drops from 46 million to just under 23 million. Japan would drop from 128 million to 60 million and Thailand falls from just below 71 million to less than 35 million.

The United States, which currently has a population of roughly 330 million people, is projected to experience a decline in the TFR over the next century. Nonetheless, with increased life expectancy, it shouldn’t reach its population peak of 364 million until 2062. After that, the population is expected to fall to 336 million in 2100.

When grouped into regions, vast differences are apparent. The three countries grouped together as “High-income North America” (Canada, Greenland and the US) are expected to follow a similar pattern as the US on its own. Its population, roughly 367 million now, will peak in 2064 at 408 million and fall to 380 million in 2100.

Taken together, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are projected to reach a peak population of 418 million in 2023 (currently 416 million). By 2100, it is expected to drop to 324 million.

Yet, taken on its own, central Asia is projected to see continued growth throughout the 21st century, growing from its current 91 million inhabitants to a high of 139 million in 2100.

Likewise, North Africa and the Middle East are expected to grow from their current 600 million inhabitants to 978 million in 2100, peaking in 2084 at 996.5 million.

Is a decreased fertility rate bad?

“A sustained TFR lower than the replacement level in many countries,” the study says, “including China and India, would have economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical consequences.”

One of the study researchers, Professor Christopher Murray at the University of Washington, explained to the BBC that lower fertility rates can be a serious issue, even if the actual population isn’t decreasing.

Murray warns an inverted age structure – “more old people than young people” – will have major social and economic impacts on countries. It creates a system where there aren’t enough taxpayers to pay for health care and social security programs for the elderly. In such a situation, people won’t be able to retire.

Furthermore, relying on immigration to bolster the work force and tax base isn’t an option if the global population is in decline.

Why is this happening?

For a country like Spain, this isn’t a new concern. As reported in El País in 2018, the country’s negative population trend began in 2015 as the number of childbirths dropped and deaths increased. The reason given for this trend was couples deciding to hold off having children until later in life, leaving fewer reproductive years for women.

The Lancet study likewise found that this was one of the main factors leading to the global trend. Greater access to and education about contraceptives has made family planning easier.

Despite the dire consequences of the trend, though, the authors state that greater access to contraceptives is overall a net positive and is something worth maintaining.

“Policy options to adapt to continued low fertility, while sustaining and enhancing female reproductive health, will be crucial in the years to come.” How can this be done? One way, the study suggests, is for nations to create “a supportive environment for females to have children and pursue their careers.”

Is a low fertility rate good for the environment?

In 2017, a study in the Environmental Research Letters concluded that the most impactful way to mitigate a climate disaster was for people to choose to have fewer children. The study determined that a couple deciding to have one less child would result in a far greater reduction in CO2 emissions than recycling, going vegan and living without a car combined.

The authors of the Lancet study acknowledge, “Our forecasts for a shrinking global population have positive implications for the environment, climate change, and food production.”

Yet, despite these possible benefits, the authors warn, “population decline and associated shifts in age structure in many nations might have other profound and often negative consequences.”

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