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UNCTAD -Now 8 billion and counting: Where the world’s population has grown most and why that matters

The world’s population growth has become increasingly concentrated in developing countries, highlighting the need to address inequalities and ensure a just transition towards a low-carbon future.

According to UN estimates, the world population passed the 8 billion mark on 15 November. Over the past 25 years, the number of people on the planet has increased by one third, or 2.1 billion. Humanity is expected to grow by another fifth to just under 10 billion around 2050.

In the last 25 years, almost all the growth happened in developing economies, mainly in Asia and Oceania (1.2 billion more people) and Africa (an additional 700 million individuals). This trend is expected to continue, with half of the projected increase in world population between now and 2050 expected to occur in a few larger countries in Africa and Asia.

As the population has grown, the share of people living in developing countries has increased from 66% in 1950 to 83% now and should reach 86% by 2050. This underlines the importance of tackling the challenges that affect these nations, such as hunger, access to clean water and sanitation and health services, and getting people connected to affordable sources of sustainable electricity and the Internet.

An estimated 828 million people go to bed hungry every night, the vast majority in developing countries. These countries, especially in Africa, are bearing the heaviest brunt of socioeconomic inequalities and poor living conditions, according to UNCTAD’s Inclusive Growth Index. In more than three fourths of African countries, half of the population has no access to clean and safely managed water. And in some developing nations, just one in 100 people have a broadband Internet connection.

Faster population growth in developing countries makes addressing the climate emergency all the more urgent. Developing countries already struggle to find ways to meet increasing food and energy needs and will need support to meet the future demands of a growing population without excessive use of natural resources, pollution and waste generation.

Countries with high economic performance generate twice the amount of waste per capita compared to developing countries. This highlights the need for both developed and developing countries to “decouple” prosperity from CO2 emissions while ensuring a just low-carbon transition. Developed countries should redouble their efforts towards a low-emissions future, while providing developing countries with the technologies, skills and financial support necessary to move their economies towards industries and sectors that are less polluting. This must be a priority at COP27 climate summit.

While fast population growth in developing countries presents many challenges, it can also be a source of new economic opportunities – for instance in Africa where the size of the working age population is increasing relative to younger and older generations. But if the world is unable to break the link between pollution and affluence, the challenges will likely overshadow the opportunities for the entire planet.

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