Reducing unintended fertility will have little impact on emissions

By Joseph Chamie, February 22, 2008

Few would disagree that helping women and men who want to avoid or delay pregnancy is a laudable
goal that contributes to the well-being of individuals, families, communities, and nations. The
international community acknowledged this as a fundamental principle of population policy in the
Report of the
International Conference on Population and Development
(PDF) (also known as “The Cairo
Consensus”) which states, “All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and
responsibly the number and spacing of their children, and to have the information, education, and
means to do so.” However, fulfilling this ideal is unlikely to significantly impact overall
greenhouse gas emissions.

Fred Meyerson uses the cautious term “unintended fertility” to reference the unintended half of
all U.S. pregnancies and the 200 million women in developing countries who would like to avoid or
delay pregnancy. But he erroneously conflates the idea of contraception, which is largely
a matter of timing, with the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, which is a function of absolute
human numbers–
and the distribution of those numbers among more- and less-developed nations.

Fertility surveys
have found that most
couples worldwide want at least two children. In many less-developed countries in Africa, Asia, and
South America, people tend to want at least
three children (often
with a preference for sons). This is to say that even with family planning resources in place,
reducing “unintended fertility”–i.e.
unplanned pregnancies–will not necessarily lead to replacement level fertility in
less-developed regions, nor reduce average family size in more developed regions.

The average global birthrate is 2.6 children per woman, equaling approximately 136 million
births per year. Minus annual deaths, that’s a net growth of about 78 million people per year. If
all nations instantly reached replacement-level fertility, thereby eventually stabilizing the
population as Fred and others advocate, the total global number of births would fall to about 120
million annually, about a 12-percent reduction.

But the Devil is in the details: The net reduction in births matters less than the distribution
of regional demographic shifts. Nearly all of the more-developed nations have
below replacement fertility levels. Many of these countries, such as Germany, Italy,
Japan, and Russia, are actively seeking to
raise fertility levels for reasons of economics and social welfare. In fact, if all
more-developed, industrialized countries reach replacement-level fertility, their total number of
annual births would
increase by 30 percent, or about 4 million births.

Other dynamics are at work, as well. In the United States, where fertility is already at the
replacement level, and in Europe, where fertility is well below replacement, immigration is the
primary driving force behind most of the projected population growth. While immigration does not
contribute to an increase in the absolute number of humans on Earth, it does shift people into
relatively higher consumption brackets. In the unlikely event that immigration were to cease, U.S.
population by mid-century would be
percent smaller than projected
, a much greater demographic impact than reducing unintended

The vast majority of the 200 million women Fred cites are in Africa and Asia. The greatest
demand for reducing unintended fertility is in Africa, where per-capita emissions are already so
low that lower birth rates would not make a noticeable dent in total global emissions. This tactic
could work better in China and India. China, the largest country in the world, is expected to soon
overtake the United States as the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gasses–if it hasn’t
already. If current trends continue, some experts believe that China’s greenhouse gas emissions
will likely exceed that of
all industrialized countries combined
during the next 25 years. This is due to both increasing
local consumption and massive exports of commodities like steel and concrete.

But again, the fertility level in China is already 1.7. Reducing unintended fertility in China
would have little effect on the country’s production of greenhouse gasses. Moreover, if China were
to relax its one-child policy and fertility increased to replacement level, the country’s annual
number of births would increase by nearly 30 percent, or approximately 5 million additional

To be fair, annual births in India would drop by about 4 million if it were to reach
replacement-level fertility, and the birth rates in the populous nations of Brazil and Indonesia
would also drop by 5 and 2 percent, respectively, as their fertility levels are already near
replacement level. But as is widely acknowledged, these and the other less-developed countries are
only responsible for one-fifth of the global carbon dioxide buildup that has accumulated in the
atmosphere during the last century.

Given these circumstances, focusing on reducing unintended fertility to address climate
change–in particular to decrease global greenhouse gas emissions– strikes me as a delay tactic.
Instead, the focus should be on significantly and immediately reducing damaging patterns of
production and consumption. That’s where we can make the real difference.


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