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The world population reaches 8 billion, posing challenges for climate change

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, a baby was born whose arrival signifies something about our planet, the birth of its 8 billionth resident. The United Nations is celebrating today as the day of 8 billion, the first time the global population has hit that mark. Humans are living longer because of advances in public health and nutrition, but they're also putting an unprecedented strain on our planet. We're going to go now to what may soon become the world's most populous country, India. Our correspondent Lauren Frayer is based in the biggest city there, Mumbai. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So where was that baby born today?

FRAYER: So it's impossible to know. It's kind of a symbolic thing. But experts say that baby, he or she, is likely born today in the global south, probably in a city like where I am. I'm in a city of many more than 20 million people - we don't actually know - Mumbai. You might hear the cacophony of traffic behind me. And cities like mine are becoming the norm in places like India. India has had the biggest population growth in real numbers. Next year, it will overtake China or is forecast to do this as the world's most populous country. Both countries are right around 1.4 billion people. But China's population has already stabilized and will probably reach a peak next year, according to some estimates. India's growth is slowing, too, not because it's had a one-child policy like China did, India has not. But it's seeing declining birth rates due to rising female education, family planning and rapid migrations to cities like mine. And so India is stabilizing, too. And actually, the U.N. sees the fastest population growth in sub-Saharan Africa.

CHANG: And what's driving this burgeoning population? Like, what factors contribute to population growth or decline?

FRAYER: Yeah. So populations grow when there's less war, famine, less humanitarian catastrophe, but also when people have access to health care and medicine. And so that's why the U.N. is celebrating today. I spoke with Andrea Wojnar. She's the India representative for the U.N. Population Fund, and she calls this a triumph of human development.

ANDREA WOJNAR: The number of human beings is more than ever due to increasing life expectancy, but also declining infant and maternal mortality. So for us, that's a mark of progress in medicine and in health systems. So this is a landmark in human survival.

FRAYER: But, you know, populations also grow when there's a lack of family planning and a lack of education and empowerment of women. And so won't Wojnar and her U.N. organization say that's something to work on for countries where population growth is high.

CHANG: And then what are the specific challenges associated with population growth? I imagine that there's an impact when it comes to climate change, right?

FRAYER: Yeah. So population growth can be a strain on resources. Slower growth can help mitigate environmental degradation. But population growth is also concentrated primarily in poorer countries that happen to have lower emissions. So U.N. says actually, the bigger threat to the environment is consumption in Western developed countries, where populations are stable or even declining. I mean, the average American has a much larger carbon footprint than the average Indian. And yet Indians suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately.

I want to mention that some demographers are actually excited about this population growth because of what they call demographic dividends. So whereas China and much of the developed world have aging populations and, you know, increasingly smaller workforces, India is one of the best examples of a population with a huge youth bulge. So a huge working age population, ages roughly 15 to 29, that can help fuel economic development and growth and lift millions more out of poverty. So the question is whether India, you know, can invest in infrastructure in order to take advantage of these dividends and maximize its human potential. And, you know, we're just going to have to wait and see.

CHANG: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thank you so much, Lauren.

FRAYER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.