Want to Save the Planet? Invest in Family Planning.

Written by Hannah Evans, Population, Health, and Environment Specialist | Published: June 17, 2019

Universal access to the full spectrum of reproductive care is both a human right and a sustainability imperative.

Research shows that slowing global population growth has substantial implications for mitigating climate change, by reducing future carbon emissions by 16-29%. In fact, the impacts of slower population growth are so expansive that they have the potential to help achieve all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

The best way to reduce population growth? Voluntary access to family planning.

The fact that access to high quality family planning services yields a multitude of social and economic benefits is well known. Indeed, comprehensive reproductive health care increases the health, welfare, and life expectancy of both women and children, advances individuals’ rights, reduces poverty, and slows population growth, which has implications for environmental sustainability and state stability. From an environmental perspective, family planning is increasingly being identified as a “critical, human rights-based, and cost-effective approach” to climate change resilience and adaptation strategies. Recent estimates show that family planning, together with girls’ education, could prevent around 120 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050—more than large-scale innovations in onshore and offshore wind power combined (99 GT).

The links between family planning and the environment are fairly straightforward. Because family planning enables women to autonomously manage whether and when they become pregnant, one significant outcome is increased education rates for women and girls throughout the world. And, because higher levels of education afford more options for sustained employment and ultimately increase livelihoods, women who are educated tend statistically to have fewer, healthier children. Results from the World Bank’s analysis on the relationship between fertility rates and education in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya show that “the difference between 0 years of schooling and 12 years is almost 4 to 5 children per woman.” This is a good indicator for many other developing regions, where fertility rates generally remain high due to lack of access to resources such as education and comprehensive health care, among others. As Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institute argues, “It is education, or more specifically girls’ education, that is far more likely to result in lower carbon emissions than a shift to renewables, improved agriculture practices, urban public transport, or any other strategy now being contemplated.”

The UN projects that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050—but without investments in family planning and increased adoption of reproductive health care, this number will be much larger. While per capita greenhouse gas emissions are of course substantially lower in low-income regions, future demographic trends, specifically in terms of population growth, will undoubtedly influence the environment greatly. In fact, by the end of the century, the effects of slower population growth could reduce total emissions from fossil fuels by 37-41%. As a solution, family planning is also incredibly cost-effective—both in terms of upfront cost and return on investment: The emissions averted through investments in family planning are much cheaper (about $4.50 per ton of carbon dioxide) in comparison to other options such as solar power ($30 per ton) or carbon capture and storage from new coal plants ($60 per ton).

Currently, there are over 214 million women in developing regions alone who want to avoid pregnancy but have an unmet need for contraception—resulting in around 74 million unintended pregnancies each year. Fully addressing the unmet need for family planning services will help address a variety of global issues, ranging from development and human rights to climate change mitigation. Most strikingly, empowering women to lead autonomous lives, become educated, and manage their reproductive health inevitably makes the world a better place. Paul Hawken puts it perfectly:

“Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about centralized governments forcing the birth rate down—or up, through natalist policies. Nor is it about agencies or activists in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. It is most essentially about freedom and opportunity for women and the recognition of basic human rights.”

International aid for family planning programs represents less than one percent of global development aid, and there is currently a $5.3 billion funding gap for meeting family planning needs worldwide. Work with us to address this unmet need, and help us ensure that people everywhere have access to high quality, comprehensive health care.