Better access to family planning could slow global warming

Posted: 23 November 2010

A new report from the Worldwatch Institute argues that assuring all women have access to contraception and taking steps to improve women's lives should be among key strategies in the fight against global climate change.

Population, Climate Change and Women's Lives

The report examines United Nations projections for population growth out to 2050, citing evidence that slower population growth through better family planning would mean huge reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. If the world's population leveled off at 8 billion by 2050 instead of reaching the more often projected 9 billion, for example, this would reduce CO2 emissions by more than if global deforestation were completely eliminated.

"Despite its key contribution to climate change, population and the role of women are largely ignored in the political and public debates on how to address the challenge," said report author Robert Engelman, Worldwatch's Vice President for Programs. "Population is associated with sensitive issues like sexuality, contraception, abortion, migration, and religion. But increasing women's reproductive rights should be at the heart of the climate discussion, in the same basket as strategies like increasing energy efficiency and researching new technologies."

The report draws on new studies that document the environmental pressures from soaring population growth. It also reports on the unique role that women can play in alleviating those pressures, even as women are disproportionally affected by the adverse effects of climate change. Finally, the report argues that humanity ultimately will need to slow population growth to tackle rising global temperatures, and that the only way to do this is by improving the well-being of women worldwide.

Findings at a glance

  • Annual CO2 emissions would be 5.1 billion tons less under the UN's low-growth population estimate of 8 billion people by 2050 as compared to its medium estimate of 9 billion people. Annual CO2 emissions in the world today are 23 billion tons.
  • For comparison, the annual emissions savings today would be just short of 4 billion tons of CO2 if deforestation were eliminated globally or if the fuel efficiency of 2 billion cars were doubled from 13 kilometres per litre to 26 kilometres per litre.
  • The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies global population growth as a consistent contributor to growth in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
  • As the prevalence of the use of contraception has grown in recent decades, family size and population growth rates have fallen in close correlation. 

New policies needed

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 crafting policies, population change should be viewed as one element of the historic effort to bring women into equal standing with men. Women and children in poverty are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, despite their disproportionately low contribution to the problem. Removing the obstacles that hold back more than 3 billion potential agents of change — women and girls — is both pragmatic and necessary.

Women manage a broad range of consumption and production decisions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As farmers and foresters, they pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in soils and vegetation. Through cooperative and future-oriented approaches to leadership, as well as a tendency to manage risk more conservatively than men do, they contribute powerfully to social resilience and can help societies adapt to climate change. Increasingly, women also are acting directly on climate change as policymakers and negotiators.

These contributions can advance more powerfully and quickly as women approach legal, economic, and behavioural equality  - including sexually and reproductively — with men. The strategies to bring this about this fall into three categories:

  • Eliminating institutional, social, and cultural barriers to women’s full legal, civic, and political equality with men;
  • Improving schooling for all children and youth, and especially increasing educational attainment among girls and women; and
  • Assuring that all women and their partners have access to, and full freedom to use, reproductive health and family planning services so that the highest proportion possible of births results from parents’ intentions to raise a child to adulthood.

Making significant progress in all of these areas will require educating the public and policymakers about the real foundations of population change. It also will require concerted action to improve women’s status, maternal and child health, and access to comprehensive, client-focused family planning services—all while vigilantly protecting the right of women to make their own decisions about childbearing. If we achieve this — and also tackle climate change seriously and directly, recognizing that no human being has more right than any other to alter the global commons of the atmosphere — we will accelerate the transition to population dynamics that help sustain a supportive climate for humanity’s future.

 More on the Report here .