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Defusing The Population Bomb
Adam Stein, 11 Sep 09

Study suggests family planning is one of the lowest-cost ways to reduce CO2.

People may be the problem, but what’s the solution? Although energy use is driven by demographic trends, we don’t seem to have many tools readily at hand for addressing population as a root cause of climate change. But a new study suggests that a simple investment in family planning services might save an enormous amount of carbon emissions at very low cost.

Specifically, the report claims that the world can spare 34 gigatons of CO2 emissions — the amount the entire U.S. produces in six years — over the next four decades at a cost of $7 per ton. According to the report, these reductions can be achieved simply by fulfilling the current “unmet need” for family planning, an ungainly phrase that refers to the population of couples who are married or “in union” and want contraception but lack access. Because unmarried people experience unwanted pregnancy as well, presumably demand for contraception is even greater than the study suggests.

If all this unmet need is filled, the projected population in 2050 drops from 9.1 billion to 8.7 billion. 8.7 billion, of course, still represents substantial growth from today’s level. That’s always been the problem with focusing overly much on population as the key driver of climate change: the number of people on the planet seems likely to hit roughly 9 billion no matter what we do, so ultimately clean energy and efficiency are going to be the primary way we solve the resource puzzle.

Nevertheless, 34 gigatons is a lot of gas, and $7 is a nice price, and providing family planning services to people who want them has meaningful humanitarian benefits, so this seems like a fruitful (ha!) area to explore. Of course, family planning is also an insanely fraught topic, so don’t expect much progress on this front anytime soon, at least in the U.S.

Update: I’ve realized that I worded this post in a pretty misleading way. The primary benefit to providing better access to contraception occurs in the developing world, not in the U.S. My crack about the U.S. at the end was meant to apply more to foreign aid and foreign policy than to domestic policy.

Of course, birth rate in the U.S. matters a lot, and reducing unwanted pregnancies here would have the single biggest effect of reducing them in any individual country — about 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide, according to the study. But in aggregate, reducing unwanted pregnancy in China, India, Russia, South Africa, and Mexico would reduce about 16 gigatons. Contrary to what some commenters have suggested, the developing world matters a lot. One giant question mark is how immigration affects the balance of emissions. The study doesn’t address this issue at all.

Finally, this post has nothing to do with people’s personal decisions about children. It’s an examination of the impact of providing contraception to couples who want it but aren’t currently using it, primarily in developing countries. This is one of the few non-coercive ways I know of to reduce population pressures, and the study is interesting because it’s the only attempt I’ve seen to actually quantify the benefit.

Related posts in the Worldchanging archive:
Designing with Peak Population in Mind
Family Planning, Population, and Global Warming

This piece originally appeared in the TerraPass Footprint.

Photo credit: Flickr/ James Cridland.

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There are lots of non-coercive solutions to overpopulation. Providing access to condoms. Reducing infant mortality.. especially with cheap means like mosquito nets and vitamin supplements.

Perhaps most dramatically (and most expensively), education, especially of women, is highly correlated with reduced fertility rates.

Also, I tend to think as people's means to provide for themselves increases, the become less pressured to have children. Thus, a good way to improve the situation is by decentralizing the means of production with solar panels, lifestraws, open source technologies, the OLPC, and so forth. All of these give people the luxury to do things besides becoming baby vessels. India is trying to increase TV adoption to lower fertility rates, though the Internet could serve a similar function. The point is to give people enough knowledge, opportunity, and entertainment to realize that there are better things to do than simply being a baby factory.

Being a baby factory is one way to divert attention from suffering, not to mention the use value of added laborers on the family farm. Thus the problem of underdevelopment and overpopulation are one and the same.

Posted by: Edward on 11 Sep 09

"we don’t seem to have many tools readily at hand for addressing population as a root cause of climate change"

It's overconsumption, not over-population, that is driving climate change. One Hummer, or one Prius for that matter, causes much more climate change in it's production and use, and other environmentally destructive impacts, then many generations of many people around the world.

Adam, this is a very dangerous argument. The best savings would come from family planning in the richest communities of the richest countries, since they are the ones overcconsuming, and therefore overpopulating.

Posted by: ludovicspeaks on 11 Sep 09

Yeah... but this doesn;t seem to be the solution according to me.... We should find a way to be able to accomadate all the people on Earth...
Honestly, I feel that humans have no idea as to what is going to happen to the Earth because of their devastating activites.

Posted by: Vishal on 11 Sep 09

Hi, I live in Mexico City. Those of you who say that family planning is not neccesary, or is dangerous have clearly not visited cities like this one.

It is increadibly overcrowded (people average two and a half hours of traffic per day) there are huge water issues, the city is ugly and its footprint is enormous for the rest of the states in Mexicos central valley. The majority of it's inhabitants do not own hummers, or have mansions, but we are to many.

I believe a lot of people that have not been to a third world country think that they are a bunch of huts. Well I have not been to India but I am sure it's big cities resemble Mexico city much more that a African Village from Nat Geo.

Posted by: red on 12 Sep 09

Glad to see Worldchanging approaching a "3rd rail" issue, like population, which happens to be one that can either make or break sustainability. Debating whether it's technology, consumption or population that is the *real* driver of unsustainability, is, I think, pretty unproductive and divisive.

We have to figure out all 3.

The twin problems of ecological decline and poverty are WAY too complex and interlinked to be approached with the "silver bullet" mentality.

Posted by: Scott Gast on 13 Sep 09

"People are the problem, but what's the solution?" - That seems to be the central matter, and maybe more specifically, what energy solutions can be found or developed that would allow for near zero impact.

I found this (possible solution?) on an interesting new website earlier today and was wondering if any heard anything about this. I find it hard to believe someone could build one of these with a $100 of raw materials as the site stats,but even if it was more, and actually worked, it would be way more than worth it.

Posted by: Tim on 14 Sep 09

Population growth is a significant factor when addressing energy needs whether you hold a Malthusian or Cornucopian population view. We all need energy if we wish to sustain the lifestyle we have created. However, the throw-away lifestyle we are so accustomed to needs major altering and is currently unsustainable. Therefore, the amount of people is not the only issue, it's the way we chose to lead our lives and our actions on the environment.

For example the average US household consumes about 11,000 kWh per year (US DOE) this includes microwaves, ovens, televisions, computers, air conditioner, washing and drying machines, refrigerator, pools, spas, dishwashers, etc. not to mention all the energy wasted through inefficient lighting.

There is no question that this earth cannot sustain 9 billion people living like Americans by 2050, and as this article states, family planning is a touchy subject for many socieities. Should we focus then on the energy debate and not the population debate?

Thank you for bring up this issue Mr. Stein.

Posted by: Michelle on 14 Sep 09

Thank you for posting this article. This is a topic that hasn't seen a lot of discussion, despite a fairly obvious need for discussion.

Posted by: Alyssum Pohl on 15 Sep 09

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