Population Decline and What Lies Ahead
The Present Situation of Population Decline
The issue of population decline in Japan began to attract widespread attention in 2005 when the national census announced a decrease of 20,000 people. In May of this year, Elon Musk’s comments on the population decline in Japan and Italy once again garnered significant attention.
To reiterate, population decline refers to a decrease in the number of people living in a specific country or region over time, resulting from various factors such as aging, migration, birth rates, and death rates.
Population decline is not only a concern in Japan but also in many other countries. Business Insider predicted the top 20 countries with the most population decline over the next 30 years (2020-2050), with Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Eastern European countries ranking high. The main factor contributing to this decline is emigration of the population.
However, population decline has both advantages and disadvantages. With a smaller population, it is possible to distribute more resources to each citizen, potentially leading to an increase in individual wealth. Additionally, population decline can help alleviate pollution, price inflation, and environmental issues caused by overpopulation. On the other hand, it may also lead to disadvantages such as a decrease in the workforce and GDP, as frequently discussed in Japan. This week, we want to explore the future of population decline faced by each country from economic, political, and environmental perspectives.
Justice in Economic Growth
Tokyo’s population recorded a year-on-year decline for the first time in 26 years this year. Japan’s population has been declining for 11 consecutive years, with only Okinawa Prefecture showing an increase compared to the previous year. Regions facing an aging and declining population will have to confront the challenge of population decline in the long run. One of the biggest concerns about population decline is the resulting economic contraction due to a decrease in the workforce. However, finding effective solutions is challenging, as it is not possible to immediately increase the population of the workforce, particularly in the 20 to 30 age group.
Is economic growth really necessary for the future of humanity? Undoubtedly, economic growth has raised people’s living standards by consuming more resources, making money, and spending it. We have been pursuing boundless prosperity. However, under capitalism, it is also a fact that wealth distribution is not carried out equally. Although global income has increased by 700% since World War II, wealth inequality continues to grow. Since 1960, the top 20% of the wealthiest individuals in the world have accounted for 70% of global income. However, at present, 85% of the income is concentrated in the hands of these top 20% of individuals. Furthermore, during the pandemic, while many people lost their jobs, the total wealth of the world’s top 10 billionaires doubled compared to March 2020.
The world economy continues to grow, and there has been a significant reduction in extreme poverty, but the wealth gap is widening rather than narrowing. Who should economic growth serve? Isn’t it a bit premature to be pessimistic about population decline in the face of this fundamental question?
Amid the attention given to the negative aspects of population decline, there is a bright prospect that a “less populated earth can reduce pressure on resources, delay the destructive impact of climate change, and alleviate the household burdens of women.”
According to a prediction by an international team of scientists published in “The Lancet,” by 2100, the birth rate will fall below the replacement level in 183 out of 195 countries and regions. Let’s imagine the society of “longevity and depopulation” that awaits after such population decline. Particularly, with pursuit of gender equality in all aspects, the increasing number of people choosing not to have children raises the question of whether maintaining and even increasing birth rates is a realistic solution to the challenge.
German demographer Frank Swiaczny says, “Each country needs to learn to coexist and adapt to decline.” Looking at politics as well, the focus may shift from “protecting population decline” to “rebuilding society in a smart way.” In fact, in South Korea, where the birth rate is the lowest among advanced countries, the government has spent over 178 billion dollars on child allowances and medical subsidies for women to encourage childbirth in the past 15 years, but the results have been inadequate.
The impact of population decline is particularly significant in Asia and Europe. In response, South Korea is promoting university mergers. In Japan, with the aging and shrinking of towns, local governments are consolidating. In Sweden, there are cities that are shifting resources from schools to elderly care. Germany is also working on plans to downsize cities, with about 330,000 housing units demolished since 2002.
In this way, as we consider the transition from the development achieved through population growth in history to a smart ecosystem, this will be an essential indicator for examining future policies.
Population Decline and the Environment Going Forward
From population explosion to the era of population decline.
A research team at Washington University estimates that the world population will reach its peak of 9.7 billion around 2064. This is driven by the increased social participation of women and the resulting decrease in birth rates.
While population decline is often talked about negatively from the perspective of economic growth, there are voices that expect it to mitigate global warming.
For example, in the United States, there is an estimate that for each child, the carbon footprint of parents increases by about 9,441 tons. This is significantly higher (5.7 times) than the parents’ lifetime emissions. (Source: Mongabay).
Indeed, the decline in birth rates is expected to contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the idea that a decrease in population will automatically lead to a decrease in carbon emissions may be somewhat optimistic.
The “World Inequality Report 2022” by the Wealth Inequality Lab points out that 47.6% of total CO2 emissions are caused by the top 10% wealthiest individuals. In contrast, the emissions of the bottom 50% account for only 12% of the total. Looking at such data, it appears that lifestyle has a larger impact than the number of people. So, how should we achieve sustainable living?
One of the keys seems to be urban planning. For example, in Barcelona, they have implemented a zoning system called “superblocks,” where car access is restricted, and green areas and pedestrian/cyclist priority zones are expanded. In the area, a 33% reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution has been confirmed. (Source: Time Out Tokyo)
As it is predicted that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, the importance of urban designs that are friendly to both people and the environment will only increase.