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Europe's role to shrink in world of 7 billion people

Video by Siobhán SILKE

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-10-31

The world is expected to welcome its seven billionth inhabitant on Monday, according to UN estimates. FRANCE 24 asked Oxford University demographer David Coleman to discuss Europe's diminishing position on an ever more crowded planet.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) says that the world will count seven billion people on October 31. According to UN estimates, that number will rise to eight billion by 2025 and 10 billion before the end of the century. But while populations in such areas as Sub-Saharan Africa are growing sharply, in other parts of the globe, such as Eastern Europe, they are in decline.

David Coleman is a professor of demography at Oxford University and the author of over 100 publications on demography and population trends. FRANCE 24 asked him how demographers work and what the latest figures say about Europe.

FRANCE 24: World population figures are based on national censuses, but is arriving at seven billion people as simple as adding all of them up?

David Coleman: Not in the least. While some countries provide accurate censuses, even those studies can be off by quite a lot. There was uncertainty in the UK census in 2001 of nearly one million – that is, out of a population of 60 million. There was uncertainty in the previous census in the order of 1 million as well. That’s unusual, and it has to do with problems counting immigration. Nonetheless that’s the kind of mistake you get even in developed countries. In less developed countries, like Nigeria, it’s very difficult to hold a census for all sorts of political and cultural reasons. The official figures are not likely to be right. There’s no doubt we have reached about seven billion, but the idea that one can pinpoint exactly when the population is going to reach seven billion to the day is not possible. Neither is it possible to say in which country that person might be born. They might be born in Paris, they might be born in Greenland, they might be born in Oxford. It’s quite impossible to say. A lot of nonsense is being said about the “seven-billionth person", even though clearly it is happening sometime around this year.

FRANCE 24: Demographers seem to be slightly obsessed with the term “replacement level”. Can you explain what it means?

D.C.: Replacement fertility is the birth rate level which, in the long run, will replace the living population in a particular country or area. That level depends on the death rate. If the death rate is low, as it is in developed in countries, in France, England, the United States and elsewhere, then [the replacement level] is only just above two children per woman – to replace both the parents [when they die]. If the death rate is high, as it is still in some parts of tropical Africa, then the replacement level of fertility may be three or even four. In the past it was probably up to about five. What is also important to understand is that reaching the replacement level doesn’t generate a stable population immediately. It doesn’t stop the population growing immediately or prevent it from declining immediately because it’s a long-run phenomenon. It’s perfectly possible to have replacement level fertility and for the population still to be growing. For example, if women in Niger decided to have no more than two children each from tonight onwards, the population of Niger will still probably double before it had ceased to grow… True replacement can take two generations.

FRANCE 24: Some estimates show that Europe’s population will shrink from about 740 million today to about 725 million in 2050. Is this inevitable, and is it troubling?

D.C: It’s highly probable, though not inevitable. Quite a lot of that decline is driven by one particular region. If you include the countries of the former Soviet Union in Europe, and of course you have to include Central and Eastern Europe, then that is the region where most of the decline comes from. Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania are already in population decline, so is Germany. These are not likely to reverse any time soon. On the other hand, other European countries, like France, Scandinavian countries and Britain, are growing quite vigorously. Mostly through high levels of migration, but also because of quite a robust birth rate.

It obviously looks problematic if you have a Europe whose population is not increasing or is actually declining. Especially compared to the United States, which has already passed 300 million, is going to surpass 400 million by midcentury, and may reach half a billion by the end of the century. Other things being equal, Europe’s position in the world is going to be diminished in terms of its economic, political and military clout. That is particularly true compared to other parts of the world, to China and India, and all the usual countries one thinks of in this context. That is a problem, but it is inevitable. There is nothing really that can be done to stop Europe’s population from declining from about 20% of the world’s population – which it was in 1950 or so – down to about 7% by midcentury. But I think that population growth is not desirable in countries which are as densely populated as England or most parts of Western Europe. [Population growth] of course increases GDP, but that is rather a weak measure of welfare. What matters for a country’s welfare is GDP per head. There is no evidence that population growth in European countries increases GDP per head. What it does is increase congestion, overcrowding and, in my view, reduce the quality of life.

Date created : 2011-10-28