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5 January 2022

The people and the planet

What impact will Africa’s young and fast-growing population have on the world?

By Philippa Nuttall

Population is an emotive and contentious subject, often discussed in alarmist or Panglossian terms, or batted away as an irrelevance. In Youthquake, Edward Paice, a historian and director of the London-based Africa Research Institute, analyses the data in order to alert global policymakers of Africa’s surging and youthful population, and the implications of this demographic trend for the continent and the rest of the globe – particularly the impact it could have on the climate.

Population predictions vary. A study published in the Lancet in July 2020 anticipates that the global population will peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion people, before declining to 8.79 billion by the end of the century. The UN forecasts that the number of humans on the planet will top the extraordinary figure of 11 billion by 2100. Yet in parts of the world, including Europe, people are having fewer children and populations are ageing. Paice’s interest is in Africa’s bucking of this trend. “While the rate of global population growth has slowed to 1 per cent a year, the number of African citizens is growing at 2.5 per cent a year” and “that rate will not fall below 2 per cent until mid century”. According to Paice, Africa is expected to account for 40 per cent of the global population by 2100, while virtually all of the 3.2 billion increase between 2020 and 2100 will be attributable to the continent. This population will continue to be comparatively young: “Since the 1960s, children under the age of 15 have accounted for at least 40 per cent of all Africans; they will still make up one-third in 2050.”

[See also: How Kenya’s illiberal president wooed the West]

The demographic shift is, in Paice’s telling, cause for neither celebration nor doom. He refutes the Kenyan businessman Jimi Wanjigi’s simplistic assertion that bigger populations equal greater economic strength, citing the experiences of India and China in the second half of the 20th century, when these populous ­ countries “were among the poorest in the world”. But Paice also rejects the apocalyptic thesis of The Population Bomb. The 1968 bestseller by the evolutionary biologist Paul Ehrlich posited that “the planet was so overpopulated and overconsumption so extreme, that it was only a matter of time before it was engulfed by mass starvation and environmental collapse”. “I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000,” Ehrlich wrote.

Today’s environmentalists tend to take less extreme positions on population. Some do not see it as a major issue for climate change, insisting that growth is slowing and everybody simply needs to lead more sustainable lives. But a softened Malthusianism persists. “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people,” says David Attenborough. The UK naturalist and broadcaster is a patron of Population Matters, one of the few environmental organisations to overtly claim that the world’s growing population is unsustainable. Every additional person increases carbon emissions, it argues – although the group acknowledges that the rich have a greater impact on the environment than the poor.

[See also: How forests are helping Rwanda heal the climate and its communities]

Paice emphasises the relationship between income and consumption, too: “Population growth is concentrated in regions and countries that contribute the least to carbon emissions… so stopping growth of their populations – even if such a thing were possible, which in the short term it is not – would arguably make little difference over the next few decades to climate change.” To “stabilise” the world’s population in the longer term would be a fraught endeavour, laden, Paice notes, with “suspicion of racist undertones, and a danger of coercive or harmful implementation”.

Paice’s attempt to end the hysteria and ignorance surrounding demographic trends, and to remind us that how we respond to them is above all a political question, will increase understanding of the possibilities and challenges facing the world. Most importantly, “it is very important we understand Africa better, treat it better and stop marginalising it”, Paice told the New Statesman. He sees both Cop26 and the Covid pandemic as recent examples of Africa’s marginalisation: the continent’s leaders were not at the centre of global decision-making despite being significantly impacted by the issues at stake. Cop27 in Egypt next November would seem the ideal moment to start putting Africa at the centre of climate politics.

[See also: Ethiopia’s capital under threat as Tigrayan rebels advance]

Youthquake: Why African Demography Should Matter to the World
Edward Paice
Head of Zeus, 432pp, £25

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance