Following some recent work reviewing long-term risks and opportunities in the construction industry I came across a publication from the European Environment Agency (2015) on the assessment of global mega trends. These are basically major shifts in economic, social or environmental circumstances which have the potential to change societies and impact on people and the environment to a huge scale.
These trends are important as they can significantly influence individuals and businesses, impacting on the availability and price of natural resources and energy. It is also clear that many of these trends do not respect national boundaries, for example climate change, and therefore require a multi-lateral response.
My research showed that many of these trends were covered piecemeal and that businesses and governments were not really assessing the risks and opportunities posed by these mega trends and planning for them. With this in mind I will be writing 11 short articles on the trends identified in the EEA report in an easy to digest form.
Diverging Global Population Trends
There are three key trends going on at present:
The global population has more than doubled since 1960 and is projected to reach 10.9 billion by 2100 according to the UN. Almost all of this growth is projected to occur in the cities of developing countries whilst developed countries are projected to stagnate or only increase slightly as a result of immigration.
Changing Age Structures
The world is experiencing a decline in fertility levels and an increase in life expectancy resulting in an increase in the world’s median age. This is expected to rise from 28 in 2010 to 36 by 2030 whilst the percentage of over-65s will increase from 8% to 16% of the global population by 2050.
However, some developing nations will see youth “bulges” where the largest number of young adults of working age is still to occur. These nations will face significant employment and education challenges in the future as a result.
Shifting Migration Patterns
Since the 1960s there has been a general migration direction from developing to developed regions driven by higher wages and better living conditions. However, what we are now beginning to see is an increasing trend of migration between developing nations. Indeed, countries and regions such as China, India and South America could continue to attract more as working age growth slows in their own populations and wages rise.
Migration is now also occurring as a result of environmental degradation and the initial impacts of sea-level rise. Future projections suggest this will continue to increase as a result of the population trends described above and the carbon-emitting assets already “locked in” to our energy and transportation systems.
Increasing populations will almost certainly result in an increase in demand for global resources and increased pressure on natural ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and the oceans. Environmental damage will be particularly high in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of South East Asia where high population growth rates coincide with a direct dependency on natural resources such as wood for fires and water for drinking and fishing. Businesses will need to decide how best to protect their supply chains or find alternative sources of resources required as they are diverted to domestic populations or degraded by them.
The population changes described will also drive economic growth and an increase in population with access to health and education. China is projected to have more educated people of working age than Europe and North America combined by 2030. The economic output from developing countries will also increase with the BRIICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa) increasing from 32% of global output in 2010 to 56% by 2050.
Socially, the youth bulges in the developing countries will create pressures to supply this group with the health, educational and work opportunities they will desire. Failure to do so could lead to political and social instability. The developed nations’ ageing, stagnated populations may well reduce their environmental impacts but would threaten social security, taxation and public health systems.
Many of the global population trends discussed above are already “locked in” by the demographics and policies occurring today. Populations are going to increase and much of this growth will be in already environmentally-stressed regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.
This really underlines the importance of reducing our resource use today and ensuring that developing nations are supported to supply their growing populations with renewable energy, clean water and a decent education aligned with STEM careers that will detach economic growth from resource intensity.