Reducing unintended fertility should be a top international climate priority

By Frederick A. B. Meyerson, February 15, 2008

There is agreement in our discussion about the need to provide family planning, reproductive
health services, and related education to everyone on the planet in a noncoercive way. There’s also
general agreement that doing so would reduce unintended births, slow population growth, and reduce
greenhouse gas emissions, thereby helping with climate change mitigation and adaptation. One
difference is that several of us, myself included, feel that stopping emissions growth and climate
change will be
unattainable without universal, effective family planning programs and population

The international community should restore the goal of universal access to family planning as a
top-tier priority, to protect both the climate and human wellbeing. How can we satisfy current
unmet need for contraception and reproductive health services? It is a matter of both political
will and money.

About 200 million women in developing countries would like to prevent or delay pregnancy but
can’t because they lack access to effective contraception. Reaching and helping these women and
their partners is critical for climate and human development policy. A consensus of population and
health care scientists and organizations estimates that developed nations would need to donate $5
billion per year (almost ten times the current levels) to reach these women with family planning
services. (See ”
Family Planning and
Reproductive Health: The Link to Environmental Preservation”
[PDF] for more). While this is a
significant amount, it’s small in comparison to other expenditures. For instance, the United States
spends more than $5 billion on the Iraq war every two weeks, and the same amount on Medicare
programs every few days.

The United States should take the lead. The largest and most effective international family
planning program in history was pioneered by the
United States Agency for
International Development
(USAID) in the 1960s. The United States continues to be the largest
donor globally to international family planning efforts. However, since the 1980’s, decay in
funding levels, quality of programs, and political support–along with inflation–has caused the
U.S. international family planning programs to fall behind in constant dollar terms and in relation
to the needs of a global population growing by more than 75 million people per year.

If the United States were to increase its assistance for population programs by $1 billion
annually, and other donor countries contributed their share, it should be possible to satisfy the
global unmet need for family planning within five years. As a result, the population growth rate
could be reduced by about 30 percent, with a similar decrease in the growth of greenhouse gas

Much of the technical knowledge about family planning resides in U.S. institutions
(nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and universities), and U.S. political and technical
leaders could quickly revitalize this field. The United States could work closely with the
U.N. Population Fund; the World Bank; European
organizations, and other donor countries; as well as NGOs such as the
International Planned Parenthood Federation,
Planned Parenthood Federation of
Pathfinder, and the
Population Council to quickly and strongly
push forward on international family planning. Past efforts have shown how effective noncoercive
programs can be, even in extremely poor countries such as Bangladesh and Kenya; and these programs
have many other social and developmental benefits.

Developed countries, beginning with the United States, also need to improve their reproductive
health services and education. For instance, the United States should be able to lower its
unintended pregnancy rate from nearly 50 percent to around 20 percent, the current rate in several
European countries, as discussed in my earlier comments. If the Netherlands can do it, the United
States can, too. Decreasing unintended pregnancy rates in America would slow population growth and
greenhouse gas emissions.

Universal access to family planning is no panacea, nor is it sufficient on its own to achieve
population stabilization. We should discuss population education and media programs that affect the
demand for services and their effectiveness in subsequent rounds of this debate. But lowering
unintended fertility is the necessary first step toward population stability–and the climate
mitigation and adaptation benefits that come with it.


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