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Voluntary Birth Control Is a Climate Change Solution Nobody Wants To Talk About

A growing population means greater environmental strain. The solution could be rooted in women's rights.

Ocon/AFP/Getty Images

In Ethiopia, environmental activism might appear a little uncustomary to some. Health workers can be seen going door-to-door delivering pamphlets about restoring the country’s forest—and they might be handing out condoms while they’re at it.

The effort is part of Population Health Environment - Ethiopia Consortium’s (PHE) initiative to show residents the intractable link between overpopulation and its toll on the environment. The nation has experienced population growth and land depletion caused by drought but is now focused on reforestation efforts, which also includes family planning. 

Access to voluntary birth control—which typically means pills, condoms and IUDs—to reduce the 40 percent of unintended pregnancies per year worldwide will cut our collective human carbon footprint, and an increasing number of countries are factoring this in to their climate change plans, experts point out.

“More population pressure is creating a lot of burden on the environment—as well as on health care systems, education systems and unemployment,” Yetnayet Asfaw, vice president of Strategy and Impact at EngenderHealth, PHE Ethiopia’s umbrella group, told The Huffington Post. “And more and more governments are recognizing the interrelationships. We see family planning as one response.”

Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

The reality is that while most of the world’s population growth is taking place throughout Africa and India, industrialized countries’ energy consumption levels take a larger toll on the environment. 

A 2009 study from Oregon State found that a child in the U.S. emits more than 160 times the carbon emissions than that of a child from Bangladesh. And in the U.S., reducing unwanted pregnancies can cut emissions by far greater margins than efforts such as recycling, making homes more energy efficient and cutting down on travel.

The Los Angeles Times pointed out that conversations about population and climate change can come across as if developed nations are telling developing countries to have fewer children. But countries like the U.S. have a large amount of culpability.

“In developed countries, there are also reductions in consumption that are beneficial globally to environmental change,” Jason Bremmer, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, told HuffPost. 

He points out that it’s essential we have these conversations and make these connections as long as we frame it properly.

A Women’s Rights Moral Imperative, First And Foremost 

In principle, experts point to the fact that providing people worldwide with access to voluntary birth control is chiefly a moral issue that incidentally has a positive environmental effect.

“We ought to be doing family planning, female empowerment and reducing child marriage to reduce the fertility rate because that is right for individuals. And on top of that, they will have an environmental benefit,” Bremmer said.

Any kind of connection between population and climate change often boils down to issues rooted in gender equality and poverty, Asfaw said. She offered exemplary scenarios in the developing world in which a woman might not use birth control because culturally, she is not empowered to ask a man to use a condom. Or she might live in a country that does not have roads by which she can reach a providing clinic.

Asfaw’s group, EngenderHealth, also works in other locations such as Texas to provide information on voluntary family planning for students who might receive abstinence-only education.

Relax, This Isn’t About Abortion. So Why Doesn’t Anyone Want To Talk About Population’s Toll On The Environment?

Experts point to the undeniable fact that climate change, reproductive health and family planning are politically charged issues.

When politicians and experts talk about voluntary family planning, they have been called “eugenicists” and “Nazis.” In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said we should be linking climate change to overpopulation. She was quickly skewered in the media

What’s more, there is a perception issue.

Bremmer pointed out that one large misconception is that reducing the birth rate includes abortion. But voluntary family planning assistance has regulations that ensure funding is not used for pregnancy termination or for advocacy related to the issue.

“The U.S. is a unique case in which we’re still stuck on the politics of the issue,” he said. “Whether or not we have a favorable administration determines whether we tend to see support for family planning. There is simply usually less money and more restriction on its use under a Republican administration. But the rest of the world does not operate that way.”

Bradshaw emphasized the fact that giving women choices related to reproductive health, education and avenues out of poverty is foundational to any solution—climate change and otherwise.

“Giving women equal rights in terms of salary and general treatment in developing countries is not something we have achieved yet,” he said. “It’s a good way to start.”

That’s Not To Say Family Planning Is A Magic Bullet In The Fight Against Climate Change

While there is discussion over which environmental strategies are the most effective and least costly, voluntary family planning alone isn’t enough to make a huge dent.

Bremmer says the focus should be on multiple strategies en masse, including long-terms solutions such as removing fossil fuels from electricity and transportation networks, and short-term solutions such as reducing everyday waste and consumption.

With a current global population at about 7.3 billion people and end-of-the-century projections slated between 7 billion and 17 billion people, depending on fertility rates, no one solution can be labeled a magic bullet. 

Experts say every climate solution must be on the table, as population trajectories are uncertain. Worldwide population has swelled due to more people surviving to reproductive age, higher fertility rates and migration patterns in general, the U.N. states.

Corey Bradshaw, a professor at the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Adelaide, has crunched the numbers for family planning and says that alone—birth control’s impact on climate change is just a small component.

“Family planning is not a huge gain relative to technological innovation,” Bradshaw said. “If we keep everything else equal and just rely on family planning, we would make some reductions, but we would still be increasing our emissions.”

He conducted a study last year that concluded family planning will help, but only in the long term. He outlined a number of scenarios in “Human Population Reduction Is Not a Quick Fix for Environmental Problems” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Bradshaw used the “danger zone” of a 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperature as a benchmark. He stated that in order to cut emissions to keep the planet below this level, we would be forced to not only reduce new unwanted pregnancies—but also lessen the human population by 60 to 80 percent.

“That’s obviously unfathomable,” he said.

He continued that if we were to rely solely on family planning, the fight against climate change would be like taking one step forward and two steps back.

“It wont be as bad, but it will still be very bad. I don’t want things to just be slightly less awful.” 

This story was originally published by The Huffington Post and is reproduced here as part of our Climate Desk collaboration.