Family planning: The quick carbon payoff

By Alisha Graves, February 17, 2016

In so many realms of national policy, the interests of the entire population must be balanced against the rights of individuals. And so it would seem to be with climate mitigation and family planning—how can nations reduce their carbon dioxide emissions if nothing prevents individuals from having as many babies as they want? But the truth lies deeper than that. Because so many individuals have more babies than they want, providing them the means to plan their families can help nations contain their total carbon emissions.

In Round One, Alex Ezeh wrote that "the greatest culprits in the race to destroy the planet are the countries with the heaviest carbon footprints." As an American, I admit that my country is guilty as charged. In 2011 (the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available), per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States were 17 metric tons. That is more than double the global per capita average. Meanwhile, about half of the pregnancies in the United States are unintended—and as of 2008, 60 percent of those pregnancies ended in birth. Under such circumstances, the United States should demonstrate much greater political commitment to family planning—and should make family planning an explicit element of national climate policy. By failing to promote family planning vigorously enough, the United States is both missing a large opportunity in climate mitigation and denying people the ability to make individual decisions about the size of their families.

Wang Haibin, meanwhile, focuses his climate mitigation ideas on "good carbon governance," writing that "the best way to limit carbon dioxide emissions is through altering [people's carbon-related] behavior—not through limiting population." It's thoroughly understandable that Wang might look suspiciously on pursuing climate mitigation through family planning. After all, China's one-child policy—in place for 35 years until it was replaced by a two-child policy late last year—was a coercive policy. It resulted in some tragic consequences for Chinese families, especially infanticide and forced sterilization, as well as national challenges in ensuring social services for the elderly.

But when Wang writes of "limiting population," he seems to imply that fertility cannot drop unless human rights are infringed upon. That is not the case, as demonstrated by examples from Thailand to Iran to Tunisia. Indeed, the entire paradigm of "limiting population"—which suggests outside control—ought to be replaced by a paradigm of freedom and personal choice (issues that Ezeh addressed eloquently in Round One). A woman who uses contraceptives doesn't merely limit her childbearing; she also exercises her individual right to determine the size of her family. When she does so, she realizes health benefits for herself and her children and eases pressure on the environment. It will be a great day when feminists, environmental advocates, and public health professionals can work together to seize the opportunity that universally available family planning represents.

Wang has written about the key role that governance plays in encouraging the use of clean energy. Where delivery of family planning services is concerned, good governance is nice—it makes things easier and cheaper—but it is not a necessary condition. To be sure, the countries with the highest fertility also tend to be among the least developed countries, the most corrupt, and the worst governed. But that is no excuse for delaying family planning until good governance emerges—to the contrary, appalling rates of maternal and infant mortality in the least developed countries demand that family planning be delivered now. Where good governance is lacking, a woman's ability to separate sex from childbirth can be a life-and-death issue. When public health programs provide women that ability, they not only empower women to exercise their right to determine the size of their families—they also make a meaningful contribution toward lowering emissions in the near future.

What do I mean by "the near future?" Well, if contraception prevents an unintended pregnancy today, the world will have one fewer carbon emitter in just 40 weeks' time—about the length of a full-term pregnancy.


Topics: Climate Change


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