Wear a Condom... Save the Planet?
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.
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.
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.
| September 29, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science
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