COMMENTARY: Population, gender, and climate change

Posted: 26 November 2009

Improving access to family planning services and promoting sexual equality are a priority in dealing with climate change says Karen Hardee in an editorial for the Britsh Medical Journal, reproduced here.

The 2009 State of the World Population report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) tackles what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has termed the greatest challenge facing humanity. The report, "Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate," is published just weeks before representatives of the world's nations arrive in Copenhagen to forge a new climate treaty.

The treaty will hopefully include agreements to reduce emissions globally and equitably, and ways of adapting and building resilience in countries most vulnerable to the effects of the changing climate. The UNFPA report should convince negotiators to pay more attention to women's crucial role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and to ensure that population factors stay on the table - within the rights based framework of the programme of action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.

Women and men are affected and respond differently to the challenges of climate change. The UNFPA report highlights the vulnerability and disadvantaged position of women as the global temperature rises - women fare worse than men as a result of chronic food and water insecurity as well as natural disasters. In Malawi, Mozoe Gondwe, a farmer, says she can no longer predict when the rains will come. "I grew up in the area and I know how the system is changing." Within the next 40 years, average temperatures in Malawi could rise by at least 1 degree C, with a substantial fall in agricultural yields. In addition, Malawi's population is estimated to triple almost, from 15 million to 42 million by 2050.

Better stewards

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai is an environmentalist and social activist who founded the Green Belt Movement in Africa.
At the same time, the report shows that women, as the world's primary farmers, tend to be better stewards of the earth than men. Women are also the most sustainable consumers, and their participation is crucial to navigate climate change successfully. The presence of women's organisations in low income countries may help protect forests against destruction. In India, a collective of 5000 women in 75 villages in Andhra Pradesh is working on chemical free, non-irrigated, organic agriculture as a response to global warming.

Examples such as this are found across the world from Bolivia to Nepal to Kiribati. Wangari Maathai of Kenya won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work through the Green Belt Movement she founded in Kenya to rejuvenate the environment by planting trees. Monique Barbut is executive director of the Global Environment Facility, which among other things, administers funding for programmes on climate adaptation.

How many people the earth has to sustain is also important, as well as where they live, what they consume, what types of household they live in, and their age patterns. The UNFPA report states that if the world's population remained at 300 million as it was 1000 years ago, rather than the 6.8 billion it is today, "greenhouse gases would not be accumulating so hazardously."

Similarly, whether the world's population reaches the United Nations Population Division's "low variant projection" of 8.0 billion in 2050 rather than the high estimate of 10.5 billion will make a difference to carbon emissions, and our ability to cope with climate changes. One study suggests that achieving the low variant projection for 2050, rather than the medium growth scenario of around nine billion people, could result in one to two billion fewer tons of carbon emissions.

Population pressure

Of the 41 least developed countries that have prepared National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA), 37 note that population pressure is exacerbating the effects of climate change.7 Yet few of these programmes include family planning and reproductive health as priorities, partly because the global architecture for tackling climate change favours technological solutions over actions to strengthen human capital.

A family receives family planning advice at Kivunge Hospital, Zanzibar.
A family receives family planning advice at Kivunge Hospital, Zanzibar.
A family receives family planning advice at Kivunge Hospital, Zanzibar. Photo © Sala Lewis/UNFPA
In NAPA countries with relevant data, around 20 per cent of women say they have enough children and want to stop or wait to have their next child, yet are not using contraception. Around the world, more than 200 million women have an unmet need for family planning. In the United States, half of all pregnancies are unplanned.

Strengthening rights based voluntary family planning programmes along with education and livelihood programmes, and integrating them with projects designed to tackle food and water insecurity, is a "no lose" strategy for Mozoe, Malawi, and the world. Such integrated approaches will help meet the expressed needs of individuals to plan their families, slow population growth, alleviate pressure on limited food and water resources, and help reduce carbon emissions. Investments in voluntary family planning and girls' education are cost effective ways to reduce carbon emissions, compared with other strategies including nuclear energy and wind energy.

In the lead-up to Copenhagen, the UNFPA report highlights the need for governments to expand access to voluntary family planning and reproductive health, and to achieve equality between the sexes. Taking these steps and ensuring that women have a strong voice in all aspects of the climate discussion - as scientists, advocates, and policy makers - will contribute to the global challenge of reducing carbon emissions and helping people adapt to climate change.

Source: BMJ 2009;339:b4703. Karen Hardee is , vice president for research of Population Action International,Washington, DC.().

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