As countries negotiate climate change solutions in Copenhagen, family planning and reproductive health should be among the adaption strategies on the table. At the same time, the world should not shy away from addressing population as a factor related to carbon emissions. Over 200 million women around the world are having more children than they say they want to have, partly because they do not have access to contraception. Giving women the means to have the number of children they prefer will help them and their families prosper, which is good for women, for the environment and for climate change.
While the world is focused on reaching agreement on targets for emissions reductions, people in the least developed countries are already facing a changing climate. Rising temperatures are already resulting in food and water shortages, which affect livelihoods and health. Population Action International released a country case study that details these effects on the ground in Ethiopia.
Women suffer the most from the effects of climate change – and women are also the best agents of change. With food shortages, they have to find ways to feed their families. As water becomes scarcer, women have to travel longer distances to find it. Faced with their own health issues, including the possibility of unintended pregnancy women have to care for their children, who are highly susceptible to illnesses related to rising temperatures. Most importantly, women express the need for family planning. In the Ethiopia study, one young woman from the Southern Region said, “… if a family has limited children, it will have enough land for its kids and hence we can protect the forests.” A new UNFPA report, Women, Population and Climate Change shows that women are the earth’s best stewards and they should be more involved in finding solutions to climate change in their families, communities, nations and in global fora.
Rapid population growth rates are inhibiting countries from building resilience through strengthening human capital – through education, health, and providing livelihoods. 37 of the existing 41 National Adaptation Programmes of Action prepared by least developed countries identify population pressure as a factor exacerbating the effects of climate change. The contribution of rights-based, voluntary family planning and reproductive health is clear, yet none of the 41 countries includes a funded project that includes family planning. That is a huge missed opportunity to improve the lives of women, families and communities and to build resilience to climate change.
Investments in voluntary family planning and girl’s education have also been shown to be cost effective ways to reduce carbon emissions – in addition to being critical for reaching the Millennium Development Goals. Recent analysis by the Futures Group shows that for every dollar invested in family planning, there would be a return of between $2 and $7 related to five MDGs (education, child survival, maternal health, malaria and water/sanitation).
Whether the world’s population reaches the United Nation 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 people’s ability to cope with climate change. One study suggests that if the low variant population projection for 2050 is achieved, it could result in one to two billion fewer tons of carbon emissions than from the medium-growth scenario of 9 billion people. Built into the UN’s population projections is the assumption of strong family planning programs, which are not a reality in much of the developing world. Even in the United States, which has the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, half of all pregnancies are unintended.
Strengthening voluntary family planning programs that respect the rights of women, along with education and livelihoods programs, and integrating them with projects designed to address food insecurity and water scarcity will be critical moving forward in finding solutions to climate change. A promising model for adaptation exists through a community-based integrated “PHE” approach that integrates population, health and environment interventions. Linking clean technological advances with the community-based adaptation approaches, that include access to family planning and reproductive health, will enhance people’s ability to cope with the changes in climate they are already experiencing. Reaching 2050 with 8 billion people on the planet rather than 10.5 billion is also important for addressing climate change.