Can Condoms Curb Climate Change?

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Family planning, an important but often overlooked idea in the expanding arsenal of policy needed to address global warming, is the subject of a new report released by the Worldwatch Institute this week. It’s not a new concept — the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers population growth to be one of the most consistent factors contributing to climate change — but technology based (and market driven) solutions continue to get more political will and attention.

They shouldn’t. Improving women’s access to contraception and better family planning methods could have a drastic impact on the levels of carbon dioxide emissions humans release into the atmosphere. Since the beginning of the industrial age — the benchmark widely used as the historical moment when carbon emissions began to skyrocket — the earth’s population has increased sevenfold. Right now, we’re growing at an average of about 80 million more people per year, and most of that growth is happening in areas where pregnancies are unplanned and often unwanted. Every year 190 million women get pregnant, and a third of those women did not plan their pregnancy, according to the UN.

Not only does this population surge in developing nations impact the immediate environment through degradation and inhibiting better city planning, it contributes significantly to how we’re changing the chemistry of the planet. The combination of all our post-industrial technology and so many people has pushed the planet to its limits, and Worldwatch argues that controlling further rapid population growth at this critical juncture will be as important a factor in combating climate change as finding cleaner energy resources.

According to the reports findings, if the world’s population leveled off at 8 billion by 2050 (the U.N.’s low-growth estimate) instead of reaching the more often projected 9 billion (it’s medium growth estimate), CO2 emissions would be reduced more than if global deforestation were completely eliminated, or to put it another way, by the equivalent of if the fuel efficiency of 2 billion cars were doubled from 13 kilometers per liter to 26 kilometers per liter.

Those are impressive statistics, but getting governments to capitalize on that vast potential requires a radical shift in the way that population growth is thought about in policy circles. Report author Robert Engelman, Worldwatch’s Vice President for Programs, writes:

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.

It’s an elegant argument because focusing on better family planning has a host of positive side effects aside from its environmental potential.  Lower fertility rates are directly related to economic development, and since the 1960s, thanks to contraceptives, the birth rate in developing nations has gone from six births per woman to three. The social and health benefits of this are obvious: it reduces poverty, prevents women from getting unsafe abortions, improves the quality of life for families and communities, and generally promotes better equality for women in society.

From a climate change perspective, it’s also helping the very people who will need it the most: women and children living in developing nations are the most vulnerable to the worst effects of climate change – flooding, drought, unpredictable crop yields (in southeast Asia, 90% of rice growers are women!!)  – despite the fact that they have the least to do with creating it. As the governments of developing nations are very well aware, the wealthiest countries, with less than 20% of the world’s people, eat up 86% of the world’s natural resources and produce most of the world’s emissions.

By assuring that women have better access to and freedom to use family planning to increase the proportion of planned births, the gradual resulting decline in population offers both an in immediate benefit for the people closest to them, and for millions more who they will never meet.

Read more about population growth and climate change from the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).