Explained | Decoding the UN report on population trends, estimates

India projected to overtake China in population by 2023, Covid-19 pandemic impacted all components of population change: UN World Population Prospects 2022 report

Updated - July 15, 2022 05:56 pm IST

Published - July 15, 2022 01:54 pm IST

India’s population stands at 1.412 billion in 2022, compared to China’s 1.426 billion.

India’s population stands at 1.412 billion in 2022, compared to China’s 1.426 billion. | Photo Credit: File Photo

The story so far: The 2022 edition of the World Population Prospects (WPP) of the United Nations has projected that India may surpass China as the world’s most populous country next year. The report estimates that India will have a population of 1.66 billion in 2050, ahead of China’s 1.317 billion around that time. In its previous estimate, the UN had projected that India would overtake China by 2027.

The report, released on July 11, cites declining levels of mortality, reflected in increased levels of life expectancy at birth, as one of the reasons behind population growth. It also mentions findings of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which project that India will continue to witness a decline in total fertility rate— the average number of children borne by a woman in her lifetime.

What is the new WPP report on the global population? 

On World Population Day, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs released the World Population Prospects 2022, the 27th edition of official UN population estimates and projections prepared by the department’s Population Division. The WPP has been preparing the biennial report since 1951.

The report includes demographic data to assess population trends at the global, regional and national levels. According to the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, revisions of the WPP provide a consistent time series of population estimates from 1950 by taking into account updated national data. These estimates and projections are further used to calculate development indicators used by the UN system.

In the latest report, the WPP has given projections up to the year 2100 and provides an analysis of demographic trends. It includes population estimates starting from 1950 for more than 200 countries. The report uses data from national population censuses conducted between 1950 and 2022, information from registration systems and representative sample surveys.

What are the main highlights of the WPP report?

Here are some of the key points from the report:

Population growing at slower pace

The world population will reach eight billion by mid-November this year, growing to around 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion in 2050. The global population is expected to reach 10.4 billion during the 2080s, where the levels are likely to stabilise until 2100. 

The pace of growth, however, is slowing down. Over the one hundred years from 1950 to 2050, the world population was growing the fastest in the period 1962-1965, when it was increasing on average by 2.1 per cent per year. Since then, the pace of population growth has slowed by more than half owing to reduced levels of fertility. But for the first time since 1950, the growth rate fell under one per cent in 2020.

The population of 61 countries or areas is likely to decrease by one per cent or more between 2022 and 2050 due to sustained low levels of fertility and, in some cases, elevated rates of emigration. The report estimates women to equal the number of men by 2050. At present, the world counts slightly more men (50.3 per cent) than women (49.7 per cent).

Disparate population growth rates

According to the report, rates of population growth vary significantly across countries and regions. While some countries continue to experience population growth, others are stabilising or beginning to see a decline in population size. In 2022, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia represented 29 per cent of the global population with 2.3 billion people, while Central and Southern Asia was representative of 26 per cent with 2.1 billion. China and India accounted for the largest populations in these regions, with more than 1.4 billion each.

According to the WPP, more than half of the projected increase in global population up to 2050 will be concentrated in eight countries — the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania. India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country in 2023 due to the difference in population growth rates. It is projected to have a population of 1.668 billion in 2050, compared to China’s 1.317 billion people.

“In the next three decades, the regions of the world will experience different growth rates of their populations. Consequently, the regional distribution of the population in 2050 will significantly differ from that of today,” the report says.

Elderly population

The global population of people aged 65 years or above is projected to rise to 16 per cent in 2050 from the current 10 per cent. By 2050, the elderly population will be more than twice the number of children under the age of five and about the same as the number of children under the age of 12. As per estimates, one in every four persons in Europe and Northern America is expected to be aged 65 years or over by 2050. Women outnumber men in older ages at present, but this elderly population will decline slightly to 54.5 per cent by 2050 from 55.7 per cent in 2022.

Life expectancy, fertility and mortality

The report shows that global life expectancy at birth reached 72.8 years in 2019, an improvement of almost nine years since 1990. Life expectancy at birth for women exceeded that for men by 5.4 years globally, with female and male life expectancies at 73.8 and 68.4, respectively. However, the gap in life expectancy at birth in some countries remains wide. In 2021, life expectancy for the least developed countries lagged seven years behind the global average. High levels of child and maternal mortality, and conflict in are some of the reasons for low life expectancy at birth. The WPP estimates average global longevity to be around 77.2 years in 2050 due to further reduction in mortality levels. 

The report notes that total fertility has significantly fallen for many countries in recent decades. In 2021, the average fertility of the world’s population stood at 2.3 births per woman over a lifetime, having fallen from about 5 births per woman in 1950. 

According to the report, more than 13 million babies — about 10 per cent of the total worldwide — were born to mothers younger than 20 in 2021. “Today, two-thirds of the global population lives in a country or area where fertility is below 2.1 births per woman, roughly the level required for zero growth in the long run for a population with low mortality,” the report says. 

A sustained drop in fertility has also resulted in an increased concentration of the population at working ages, between 25 and 64 years. Global fertility is projected to decline to 2.1 births per woman by 2050.

International migration as a determinant of population change

Population change is significantly affected by migration. As many as 10 countries saw an outflow of more than one million migrants each between 2010 and 2021. While Pakistan topped the list with a net outflow of 16.5 million, 3.5 million moved out of India over the decade. 

“Over the next few decades, migration will be the sole driver of population growth in high-income countries. By contrast, for the foreseeable future, population increase in low-income and lower-middle-income countries will continue to be driven by an excess of births over deaths,” the WPP report adds. The WPP report also acknowledges the impact of COVID on international migration but adds that its magnitude on migration trends is difficult to ascertain due to data limitations.

Impact of COVID on population

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a mark on all components of population change, including fertility, mortality and migration. Global life expectancy at birth fell to 71 years in 2021 from 72.8 in 2019, mostly due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The UN population report notes that the pandemic’s impact on life expectancy has varied across regions. In Central and Southern Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, life expectancy at birth fell by almost three years between 2019 and 2021. By contrast, the combined population of Australia and New Zealand gained 1.2 years due to lower mortality risks during the pandemic. 

The impact of COVID on fertility levels has been mixed. In low and middle-income countries, the availability of and the demand for contraception, as also the reported numbers of unintended pregnancies and births, remained relatively stable. In high-income countries, successive waves of the pandemic may have generated short-term fluctuations in numbers of pregnancies and births, the report adds.

How are the IHME estimates different?

The WPP report mentions alternative long-term population projections by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research centre in the U.S. The IHME has projected the global population to reach 8.8 billion in 2100, with a range of 6.8 billion to 11.8 billion. 

The institute estimates that the global level of fertility will decline faster than under the United Nations medium scenario. The average number of children per woman will decline to 1.66 children at the end of the century while the United Nations projects fertility to be around 1.84 at the same date, according to IHME.

It states that India will have a total fertility rate of 1.29 births per woman in 2100 — well below the replacement rate, which is when the population size begins to shrink. Earlier this year, the Government released the National Family Health Survey-5, a study conducted in 2019-20, which showed that India’s total fertility rate has declined to 2.0. As per the UN, a sustained total fertility rate of 2.1 is necessary for a country to achieve population stability. 

India to become most populous nation: what it means

It has been long known that India will overtake China as the most populous country in the world. The latest WPP report shows that the development might happen sooner than expected. 

In the last few years, China has recorded a steady drop in the birth rate. Last year, the country released its once-in-a-decade census, which noted that China’s population grew at its slowest pace to reach 1.41 billion. Meanwhile, India’s population was recorded as 1.21 billion in the 2011 census. The 2021 census was deferred due to the COVID pandemic.

As the Indian population gradually surpasses China, experts say India shouldwork towards enhancing the lives of its current and future citizens and address challenges plaguing its economy. Demographic dividend needs to be strengthened, for which India must invest in the education and health of its workforce, they add.

Meanwhile, a top official in the United Nations has said India’s claim for permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council may get strengthened once the country surpasses China to become the world’s most populous nation. Population Division Director John Wilmoth was quoted as saying by news agency PTI that India’s emergence as the world’s most populous country could lead to “certain claims on things”.

Responding to a query on the impact of India surpassing China during a press conference, he said, “If India becomes the largest country, they may think that that gives them a claim that they should be part of …they’ve been claiming that they should be part of that group (permanent member of the Security Council) anyway. But, you know, it may strengthen their claim.”

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