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Using Family Planning to Combat Climate Change

Population growth is one of the most important factors contributing to climate change and environmental degradation. An effective solution to this environmental challenge comes from outside of the environmental sector. One of the most cost effective uses for the $100 billion in climate financing promised at COP 21 is ensuring that every woman has access to voluntary family planning services.

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (COP21) was a tremendous step forward for climate negotiations. Among its pledges is the commitment by industrialized countries to assist the less developed countries through providing $100 billion in climate financing by 2020 for sustainable economies and adaptability to the consequences of climate change. While often overlooked in climate change strategies, financing universal access to family planning services could be the most cost-effective way of following through on this pledge.

At the beginning of 2016, almost 7.3 billion people called the earth home. In the 2015 update to its biannual population projections, the United Nations (UN) predicted that the global population would likely reach anywhere between 9.5 billion and 13 billion people by the end of the century. This potential global population is one of the most important questions in the twenty-first century: Sustainably eradicating poverty while averting climate change is far more feasible in a world of 9.5 billion people.

Slowing the population growth significantly reduces carbon emissions over time. Researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration found that universal access to family planning services could potentially provide a quarter of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 to avoid a global temperature increase of more than two degrees Celsius. Additional research from the Worldwatch Institute estimates that if the world population reached just 8 billion people by 2050 rather than 9 billion, it would reduce annual carbon emissions by 5.1 billion tons. This would provide a greater reduction than halting deforestation.

In addition to the mitigation benefits, universal access to family planning also helps countries to be more adaptive and resilient to climate change. Under the right circumstances, a decline in fertility can lead to a demographic dividend, a period of economic growth due to a high ratio of workers to dependents. With high gross domestic product (GDP) and GDP per capita, countries that have realized the economic potential of the demographic dividend have greater financial resources for their own climate adaptation and mitigation strategies and are able to invest more in their citizens. Even at the local level where population growth has been linked to the depletion of natural resources and deforestation, development organizations have paired family planning services with sustainable livelihoods to reduce pressure on ecosystems and build community resilience.

The only thing more remarkable than the benefits of universal family planning access is how cost-effective it is. In a landmark 2009 study, the Guttmacher Institute and the UN Population Fund found that creating universal access would cost an additional $3.6 billion annually on top of the $3.1 billion already spent on family planning services annually in 2008. Adjusted for inflation, this comes to $7.4 billion per year to achieve universal access to family planning services. This is a modest amount compared to the $100 billion already pledged by industrialized countries for climate financing by 2020.

When compared to the costs of other climate mitigation options, the value of family planning is clear. The cost of each ton of carbon dioxide emissions avoided, through the use of family planning, is estimated to be $7 compared to $32 per ton for low-carbon energy production technologies.

It must be noted that contraceptive access alone will not be a panacea. It is the personal choice and right of every woman to decide how many children to have.  However, as of 2012, about 222 million women globally had an “unmet need for contraception.” This includes not only women who do not have access, but also women who have access, but either choose not to use contraceptives or use ineffective forms of contraceptive. There are many reasons why women do not use modern contraceptives in spite of access, including a lack of knowledge, health concerns, and cultural norms.

However, when women are empowered and have access to basic health services, their choices around fertility and family planning change. Research from the World Bank found that increased education and reduced infant mortality led women to choose to have fewer children. This suggests that financing and development programs for family planning will be most effective when used in conjunction with education, maternal, and child health programs.

The first step, however, is ensuring that family planning services are an option at all. Based on its impact on carbon emissions and cost effectiveness, universal access to family planning is one of the most effective uses for climate financing. Pledges from industrialized countries for climate financing in the past have either failed to materialize or included significant amounts of pre-existing aid relabeled as climate aid. The breakthrough of the COP 21 Paris Agreement is the ideal opportunity to change that record and follow through on the pledge of $100 billion by 2020, with increased access to family planning services globally being an excellent use for the funds.

Benjamin Dills is a Staff Writer for Charged Affairs. He is a program assistant with the Wilson Center’s Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (GWLI) and holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Image: Family Planning Pamphlets (credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Flickr)


Benjamin Dills

Benjamin is a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. He focuses his work on international climate, energy, and sustainable development policy, and he has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for three years. Benjamin holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can connect with him on Twitter @Ben_Dills.
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