Problems with the UN’s 2019 population report

The Cooperative Society Newsletter
June 2019, Issue 16
by E.G. Nadeau

The United Nations “World Population Prospects 2019” is hot off the press. But it is lukewarm in terms of some key methodological and strategic issues – in particular, long-term trends of overestimating population growth and underestimating people’s willingness to change their reproductive health practices.

The report projects that the world’s population will rise from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 10.9 billion by 2100. It states that: “Global population trends are driven largely by trends in fertility – especially in the average number of live births per woman over a lifetime – which has fallen markedly.”

The UN issues periodic population reports. The last one was in 2017. As Rick Gladstone pointed out in The Globe Is Going Gray Fast, U.N. Says in New Forecast (NYT, June 17, 2019): The 2017 report projected a world population in 2100 of 11.2 billion. That’s 300 million more people than the 2019 report projects.

Why the difference? As the UN itself observed: Birth rates have “fallen markedly.”

Unfortunately, the UN’s population projections have a long history of being on the high side. For example, its 1958 projection for the world’s population in 2000 was overestimated by more than 200 million people.

A key reason for these population projection problems is a bias toward underestimating the decline in birth rates.

Which brings us to the second major problem with the UN report: Although it cites the relationship between population change and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it downplays the critical roles that reproductive health education, access to birth control, and improved economic well-being play in long-term decreases in birth rates.

For example, in a 2018 report, The UN Population Fund estimated that there were more than 200 million women in developing countries who “want to prevent or delay pregnancy but do not have access to contraceptives.”

Thus, the UN population report is methodologically flawed in its projection of birthrates, and strategically flawed in its failure to take into account the ability of women, couples, communities, countries, and international bodies like the UN to “bend the population curve” downward.

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