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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 09/29/2009

Wear a Condom... Save the Planet?

By Andrew Freedman

* Our Full Forecast | NatCast | Reflecting on Hurricane Gloria *

As if the climate debate wasn't hot enough, now sex is part of it too.

According to recent studies, family planning programs such as distributing condoms could be a more cost-effective way to fight climate change than investing in solar panels, wind turbines and other clean-energy technologies. Does this make any scientific (or common) sense?

At first glance, family planning may seem like an awkward and tangential topic for a climate change discussion. But after delving deeper into the issue, I've come to see the merits in the idea that, as it would for other environmental problems, reducing population growth would make the climate challenge a more manageable one. At the very least it should be discussed as one of the many approaches to tackling climate change.

The claim that reducing population growth can also help curtail greenhouse-gas emissions is sensible, albeit simplistic. Basically, the thinking is that the more people there are, the more potential emitters there are.

So higher population growth = more people = more cars, trucks, planes, power plants, etc. = more emissions.

That formula is more complicated than it seems, however. It makes a huge difference whether population growth occurs in the developed world -- where per capita greenhouse-gas emissions are high -- or in developing nations, where individuals are responsible for far fewer emissions.

According to a recent study by researchers at Oregon State University (OSU), each extra child born to a woman in the United States would increase her "carbon legacy" by an amount that is about seven times that for a woman in China.

Leading carbon dioxide emitters per capita in the industrial world In 2000. Courtesy Koshland Science Museum.

Further complicating the picture, however, is the fact that although per capita emissions are lower in developing countries such as China compared to the United States, their total emissions per year are increasingly similar. In fact, China now out-emits America.

Consider some other basic population figures. There are currently about 6.8 billion people on this planet, or to be more precise, an estimated 6,787,055,992 people according to the U.S. Census Bureau's World Population Clock at the time of this writing. The United Nations estimates that the world will reach 9.1 billion inhabitants by the year 2050, with most of the population growth occurring in the developing world.

Trends in population, developed and developing countries, 1750-2050 (estimates and projections). Courtesy UNEP/GRID-Arendal. See enlarged version and more information.

The U.N. found that its estimate for global population levels in 2050 is dependent in large part on declining fertility in so-called "least developed countries," where access to family planning and family planning education is limited. "Without further reductions of fertility, the world population could increase by nearly twice as much as currently expected," the U.N. report stated.

Yet despite the importance of addressing fertility rates, the Worldwatch Institute found that spending on family planning programs has declined significantly during the past decade. According to Worldwatch, global spending on contraceptive supplies and services totaled just $338 million in 2007, less than half that of 1995.

Population growth is a key source of uncertainty in the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, with different scenarios of population growth having significant effects on the likely course of future emissions. According to the OSU study, the IPCC has projected that under an optimistic scenario of emissions cuts, the world would reduce emissions by about 85 percent between 2000 and 2100. This would mean that, based on the U.N.-projected population of 9.1 billion in 2050, annual per capita emissions would have to fall to an average of just 0.5 tons of carbon dioxide, compared to the current average of 4.5 tons per person per year.

To put that into more perspective, consider that in poor African nations, per capita emissions were still about 1.2 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year in 2005, the OSU researchers found.

Even if population growth was to stay flat (which is not going to happen), reducing worldwide emissions would still be a major challenge. For example, a recent study in the journal Nature concluded that humanity has already busted the "planetary boundary" of greenhouse-gas emissions, pushing the climate system into risky territory.

Recent studies show that family planning could be a money-saver compared to other ways of mitigating climate change. One of the studies, from the London School of Economics, concluded that every seven dollars spent on family planning would reduce more than one ton of carbon dioxide emissions, whereas it would take $32 in investments in low-carbon energy technologies to reduce the same amount of emissions. The study, which was commissioned by the group Optimum Population Trust, recommended that family planning be included among a range of climate policy solutions.

But because the issue is a political lightning rod, family planning has been largely excluded from the climate change discussion. For example, the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold wrote an article on Sept. 15 that quoted David Hamilton, a spokesman for the environmental group Sierra Club, as saying, "I don't know how to say 'No comment' emphatically enough."

Discussions about family planning tend to get dicey rather quickly, in large part because of the controversial nature of draconian population control measures and abortion (neither of which I am advocating here). But there's no reason this has to be such a taboo subject, at least in the context of climate. The idea discussed in these studies is to distribute more condoms and other contraceptives, and educate people -- especially women -- about family planning, not to fund abortions or impose limitations on family size, for example.

As the world approaches the 9.1 billion mark, the tasks of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change will only get harder. Controlling population growth may not be the most important tool in combating climate change, but scientists, policymakers and others should not duck the issue, either.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | September 29, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science  
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Mr. Rogers,

In your last global warming column, where you gave your "Top 10" list, I commented about how those pushing the catastrophic man made warming hypothesis hide data and methods. I truly think that should go everyone's top 10 list. There is a reason they aren't forthcoming with the data and methods.

And look what just happened. They have been hiding this data for 14 years!!

--begin quote--
The sheer effrontery and gall appears to be breathtaking.

The Briffa temperature graphs have been widely cited as evidence by the IPCC, yet it appears they were based on a very carefully selected set of data, so select, that the shape of the graph would have been totally transformed if the rest of the data had been included.
--end quote--

Source of the above quote.

Now if Dr. Jones would just let the world see his raw data. I wonder why he won't. ;)

But none of this will make one iota of difference to the true believers. They will simply ignore it and instead talk about stuff like condoms.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 29, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

This gives Virginians one more reason to elect Creigh Deeds Governor. Bob McDonnell opposes contraception EVEN FOR MARRIED COUPLES!

It doesn't matter whether or not McDonnell sponsored legislation to that effect as a member of the Virginia legislature, he's taking a position supported mainly by the Roman Catholic Church if anybody. It should not be State law or policy.

McDonnell also want to trash our excellent network of hiking/cycling trails with that harebrained scheme to widen I-66 here in Arlington! That warms the climate in two ways; first with increased carbon dioxide emissions, second by adding more heat-island pavement to our area.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | September 29, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, that was a well-written article and it's nice to see some of those updated data/analyses. But the basic tenet here, that we need to curb our exponential population growth to have a chance at a sustainable existence on this planet, is nothing new. The environmental movement has been talking about this for years. Strange to see the head of Sierra now feeling gagged over it.

I guess it is hard enough getting the conservatives on board with constructive solutions in this area, given their deep distrust and fear of science, without bringing into question their sacred Bronze Age dictum from the almighty volcano god to fill up the planet with as many people as possible. I didn't realize it had reached a point of the Sierra Club being intimidated away from talking about population though - when in fact it is at the root of nearly all our environmental challenges.

I have to add though, as someone who is quick to call our country on being the epicenter of the GHG problem, that the "weighted" analyses that show population growth here as having an outsized per capita impact moving forward may be a tad misleading. Twenty years ago I believe China and Thailand were considered "developing" countries, and now they are big industrial economies. I wonder if those studies included a natural progression of other currently developing countries toward a later "high emission" state. I suppose that's a little tricky to do, as some countries haven't "progressed" in the same way that some of the Asian countries have, so you can't be sure what kind of nations they'll be later.

It's something to keep in mind. We need to clean up our own house, but we shouldn't give everyone else a pass in the process either.

Posted by: B2O2 | September 29, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

B2O2 - you are exactly right that the notion that population growth is at the epicenter of much of the globe's environmental challenges is nothing new. However, it does seem to be the case that for climate change, it is not being discussed by policy makers as one of the many issues to address. As for China's emissions pathways, no analysis that I have seen shows the Chinese coming close to the per capita emissions of the U.S. within the next half century at least, but their total emissions are likely to continue rising. Last week at the U.N., China's president announced a new (not yet clearly defined) goal of reducing the carbon intensity of China's economy, which could slow the growth in emissions there.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | September 29, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Sort of off-topic but of all places, ESPN with a climate-change related tidbit.

The actual climate related portion is about halfway down the page.

Posted by: Brian-CapitalWeatherGang | September 29, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse


What policies or courses of action do you advocate to reduce CO2?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 29, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I think everyone should just stop breathing. That'll cure global warming!

Posted by: suntan | September 29, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Just in case anyone is interested in a layman's explanation of Briffa's hockey stick subterfuge - you can find it here.

Happy reading!

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | September 30, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

The London Guardian reported on yet another new population/climate change study that came out, this one challenging the idea that more emphasis should be placed on population growth in order to benefit the climate.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | September 30, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

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