Population Growth Steady in Recent Years

Robert Engelman | Sep 17, 2009

The world’s population surpassed 6.8 billion in early 2009, with no significant slowing in the pace of growth in recent years.1 (See Figure 1.) Estimates by the United Nations Population Division indicate that humanity has been consistently gaining more than 79 million people—a population almost the size of Germany’s—each year since 1999.2 During the 1990s, annual additions fell from nearly 90 million people to less than 80 million, feeding optimism that world population might peak not long after the middle of this century.3 But the recent stability of annual population increments adds to the uncertainty and when—and how—world population growth will end.4 (See Figure 2.)

U.N. demographers currently offer eight variant projections for the future, with the median and most cited one placing world population slightly above 9.1 billion in 2050.5 Non-demographers often misinterpret this number, however, as an expert prediction or forecast of what population will be. Rather, all projections are conditional assessments based on current numbers, age structure, and trends and reasonable assumptions about the future.6 Thus the projections the United Nations offers produce a range of 2050 world population from slightly less than 8 billion to slightly more than 11 billion.7 The Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB) recently released its own projections, suggesting a population at mid-century of slightly more than 9.4 billion.8

The recent leveling out of annual population growth increments, which no demographer had predicted, helps illustrate that there is no way to be sure that population is “likely” or “expected” to peak at roughly 9 billion people at mid-century, or indeed at any particular time in the future.

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