Population Connection works at the intersections of global population dynamics (harnessing the demographic dividend), access to vital resources (human rights, bodily autonomy), and environmental sustainability (climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience). At the global level, efforts to slow population growth through rights-based policy, advocacy, and education must recognize that future fertility is contingent upon the advancement of human rights and equitable distribution of resources.
In other words, slowing population growth as a means of creating a more just and sustainable future requires a multi-faceted approach. While it’s true that population pressures can degrade local environments and strain the availability and equitable allocation of natural resources, it’s also true that high fertility rates are positively correlated with high unmet needs for contraceptives, limited access to capital, and a lack of access to resources like health care and education. In low-income regions especially, high fertility can inhibit economic development, increase health risks for women and children, and worsen food insecurity.
In a societal context, slowing population growth is realized by increasing access to vital resources. Historical data show that lower fertility follows many factors of human development, including reduced child mortality, increased levels of education for girls, urbanization, growing labor force participation, and expanded access to reproductive health care services, including family planning.
Considering these interconnected challenges, the importance of community-led, integrated development strategies that promote sustainable development across social, economic, and environmental sectors couldn’t be clearer.
Such methods that recognize the connections among population dynamics, overall health, and environmental conservation are known as Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) approaches. Integrated PHE strategies take many forms and can be applied across diverse geographies. Generally, these methods recognize the interconnected nature of human health, standard of living, and ecosystem health, and thus approach developmental solutions comprehensively rather than in isolation. For example, development efforts focused in areas such as food and water security and natural resource management could be improved by incorporating family planning and reproductive health care—a holistic PHE approach that ultimately enhances climate resilience.
There are clear links between poverty reduction, slower population growth, and environmental conservation. Meeting the global unmet need for family planning is a prime example of an integrated developmental solution, as fosters human rights and sustainable development efforts while reducing global emissions and mitigating climate impacts. The social, economic, and environmental benefits associated with providing women the tools and information to control their fertility include environmental conservation, improved food security, decreased poverty, and heightened community resilience.
The 47 least developed countries are also the fastest growing. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, are experiencing some of the world’s fastest population growth rates while also being among the most vulnerable to climate change. In these regions, rapid population growth increases food insecurity and limits access to resources like health care, education, economic opportunity, and potable water.
High fertility is positively correlated with extreme poverty: many of the fastest growing countries are also the poorest, with annual income per person averaging less than $1,000. Both conditions increase vulnerability to stresses associated with climate change.
Many countries experiencing rapid population growth have a high unmet need for family planning and are increasingly—and most acutely—affected by climate change. The world’s low-income populations are especially vulnerable to future population and climate pressures—both of which are expected to increase significantly in coming decades.
Family planning works to strengthen people’s ability to adapt to environmental changes and climate impacts. By improving the health of mothers and their children, family planning helps build climate resilience at the individual and population levels.
Family planning is vital for meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, particularly health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender (SDG 5), and climate action (SDG 13).
Because family planning enables women to autonomously manage whether and when they become pregnant, one significant outcome of providing access to contraceptives is increased education rates for women and girls. And because higher levels of education afford more options for sustained employment and improved livelihoods, women with higher levels of education tend to have fewer and healthier children.
Meeting the global unmet need for family planning is a prime example of an integrated sustainable development solution, as it holds substantial implications for reducing global emissions and mitigating climate impacts while fostering human rights and sustainable development efforts. By the end of the century, the effects of slower population growth could reduce total emissions from fossil fuels by as much as 41% compared to faster growth scenarios.
Family planning, together with girls’ education, could prevent emissions of 85 gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050–potentially comparable to large-scale development of wind power. The emissions averted through investments in family planning are also much cheaper (about $4.50 per ton of CO2) in comparison to other options such as solar power ($28 per ton) or carbon capture and storage from new coal plants ($95 per ton).
Reducing population growth is also better for the environment. It eases pressures on resource distribution and allocation and can lessen local and regional environmental degradation. Over time, slower population growth also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing access to family planning and reproductive health services is one of many viable solutions for climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience building.
Population and Climate Change
With 2 billion people to be added to our human ranks by 2050 and an additional 1 billion more by 2100, demographic trends and variables play an important role in understanding and confronting the world’s climate crisis. Population growth, along with increasing consumption, tends to increase emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Rapid population growth worsens the impacts of climate change by straining resources and exposing more people to climate-related risks—especially in low-resource regions. Population dynamics will affect both the trajectory of climate change and the number of people subjected to dangerous climate impacts.
Solutions Through Reproductive Health
Download this info brief to explore the connections between sustainable development, women’s empowerment, family planning, and climate change. This resource argues that slowing population growth through rights-based investments in voluntary family planning services can reduce emissions and significantly increase individual, community, and national resilience in a changing climate.
Human Impacts on the Environment
Browse this info brief for an in-depth look into humanity’s ecological footprint. This resource outlines the ways in which resource use, consumption patterns, demographic trends, industrialization, and globalization influence both human development and the future of climate change.