Family Planning is a Green Technology

This article was originally published in Salon.

Recent research has demonstrated that among the many strategies that
need to be brought to bear to reduce global warming, one of the most
humane and cost-effective would be meeting the global need for
contraception. Two hundred million women worldwide are without it as
they try to prevent becoming pregnant.

But if President Obama
tries to include family planning in any attempts to address climate
change, he’s likely to face another thorny battle with the religious
activists who supported his election. Religious leaders, even
evangelicals, have jumped on the climate-control bandwagon but remain
at best unwilling to admit the important role that family planning
could play in achieving a smaller human footprint on the environment.
At worst, they are actively opposed to expanding contraceptive
possibilities for women in the developing world.

A study by Thomas Wire of the London School of Economics, "Fewer
Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost," commissioned by the U.K.’s
Optimum Population Trust, demonstrates the impact that improved access
to birth control could have on the planet:

[E]ach $7.00 spent on basic family planning over
the next four decades will reduce CO2 emissions by more than a ton. To
achieve the same results with low carbon technologies would cost a
minimum of $32.00. If we just meet that need that women have already
expressed for fewer children and access to contraception, we will save
34 gigatons between now and 2050, equivalent to nearly six times the
annual emissions of the US.

Were this 1960 or
even 1990, there would be understandable and widespread opposition to
the idea that the way to solve environmental problems is through
contraception. During that era, conventional wisdom held that the world
faced imminent crisis unless we drastically reduced the number of
people competing for land and food, and it became easy to justify
draconian measures to control female fertility. Women’s rights
activists, for example, had long reported on the negative effects that
an obsession with reducing population had on women.

In 1983, the
United Nations awarded China its first annual Population Prize,
willingly overlooking the massive human rights violations that
accompanied China’s one-child policy. Massive forced abortions,
sterilization following the birth of the first child, houses bulldozed
to find and punish those who violated the policy offended the
conscience of women’s rights advocates. Less draconian policies in
Peru, Indonesia, Bangladesh and India were cited by human rights
advocates as examples of what happens when having "too many people" is
defined as the problem — and reducing their numbers is seen as an
easier solution than compelling those of us in the developed world to
reduce our consumption, or forcing corporations to stop clear-cutting

Family-planning programs in many developing countries
that received foreign assistance from the developed world were often
sub-standard, offering women no choice but whatever contraceptive was
being pushed at the time, usually a long-acting method that women could
not control. Developing country governments, eager for the funds, set
targets that poorly paid family-planning workers had to meet in order
to get a bonus. If they could convince a woman or her husband to get
sterilized the bonus was even higher. After all, the experts admitted,
consumption and corporate greed were responsible for a hell of a lot
more environmental degradation than poor people having kids — but
stopping Japanese and American lumber companies from chopping down
trees in Brazil was too difficult. And, even if population programs
were occasionally coercive, many believed they were in poor people’s
interests as fewer babies meant less poverty and more opportunity for
women and families in the developing world.

But the other side of
the coin, even in those early years, was always the undeniable fact
that women wanted family planning. It improved their lives. As
individual family size dropped, families were able to send girls as
well as boys to school, girls got married later, women entered the
workforce and their physical health improved.

Steve Sinding,
former director of USAID’s Population and Reproductive Health program
and an ardent advocate of rights-based family-planning programs,
stresses that such programs have been a global success story,
comparable to the Green Revolution and the eradication of smallpox.
Along with four former USAID program directors, he issued a recent
report that describes successes between 1965 and 2005. Excluding China,
they note that during those 40 years, the use of family planning by
women of reproductive age in the developing world rose from 10 percent
to 53 percent and average family size from six children to just over

A major paradigm shift in the population and development field has
achieved great changes in the quality of family planning programs over
the last 15 years. The U.N. Population Fund and women’s health
activists shifted the conceptual frame for family planning from
demographic imperatives to human rights, resulting in the end of
officially sanctioned targets for sterilization and family planning and
to a basic women’s health approach in which choice and voluntarism were
key values. Population control was out and reproductive health was in,
and many of the objections to past family programs were mooted.

the shift in paradigms, while it improved the quality of many services,
did not solve some stubborn problems. Certain statistics remain
constant. Half a million women a year still die in childbirth and 200
million women who don’t want to get pregnant still do not have access
to family planning. And the change in emphasis also came at a stark
economic price. When we started framing reproduction as a health and
human rights issue instead of a population, environment and national
security issue, the money dried up. The funds moved to other issues.

the same time period that we dramatically reduced the death rate from
HIV and AIDS, we have made no progress — no progress at all — in
reducing maternal mortality. And, although the cost is minimal, $3.9
billion a year to meet that unmet need for contraception, it is not

Will linking climate change to family planning help women at the
same time it helps the planet? If we can’t convince governments to
support family planning because it is good for women, perhaps the
mounting evidence that contraception is almost five times cheaper than
conventional green technologies as a means of combating climate change
will do the trick. And can we avoid a resurgence of the old order where
women too often became the means to someone else’s ends?

feminist leaders think we can keep providing quality services and
preserve the world’s commitment to the basic human right of women and
couples to decide freely on the number of their children. This is, many
tell us, the century of women.

So where is the remaining
resistance to acknowledging family planning as one of the solutions to
climate change? There is well-placed concern that once again, the
developed world will not deal with its own consumption problem, but
instead put pressure on poor people to have fewer children, even though
we know that all those poor people leave a very small carbon footprint
compared to Americans. We, after all, applaud the one-child policy in
China but would consider a one-car-per-family-of-four policy in the
U.S. a violation of our basic human rights.

But there is also
resistance from antiabortion groups. Supporting family planning has
become a policy liability. American environmental groups bowed out of
advocating for family planning in the 1990s when antiabortion groups
attacked them as "pro-abortion." The environmentalists have stayed
scared ever since.

I vividly remember a press conference where
the then-head of the Audubon Society refused to stand next to Gloria
Feldt, the then-head of Planned Parenthood. More recently, asked by the
Washington Post to react to the London School of Economics report about
climate change and family planning, David Hamilton of the Sierra Club
responded, "I don’t know how to say ‘no comment’ loud enough."

may be why the Obama administration is not biting. When asked by the
Washington Post about the recent studies, the administration declined
to comment. I suspect the president needs to consult with his
faith-based council about whether the religious community that he has
so diligently courted on every issue under the sun, including climate
change, is willing to support family planning — an issue totally
lacking in controversy for most Americans. Over 90 percent of women use
contraception at some point in their reproductive life. In the 50 years
since the pill was introduced, the U.S. fertility rate has dropped by nearly half, from close to four children per woman to two.

would seem to me that increasing funding for international family
planning as well as for low-income women seeking family planning in the
U.S. is a win-win proposition. We could help women avoid pregnancy when
they are not ready to parent, prevent abortions, reduce maternal
mortality worldwide and reduce CO2 emissions. That $47 cost of abating
a ton of CO2 emissions through family planning compares favorably to
$24 for wind power and $451 for solar and $91 for plug-in hybrid
vehicles. This is surely a no-brainer.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

  • notgreen

    It is just silly to think that smaller families use less resources per person… My family of 11 travels in one vehicle together… shares one house together…get to the point of just less people altogether… if theres too many now we’ll have to start killing some to get to less.. unless you want the Gov. involved in your reproductive rights? Or not yours maybe, just others who you will decide for!!

  • suzanne-petroni

    Like you, Frances, I think the conversation about the linkages between population growth and climate change has begun, so those of us who support a rights-based approach must engage in it.  But I also think that we need to be extremely careful about the evidence we put forward, and we - as the emissions bigfoot that we are in the U.S. – need to take responsibility first and foremost for our own actions, which include bearing the children who produce far greater greenhouse gas emissions than those elsewhere in the world. 


    A few points:  First, the estimates in the Optimum Population Trust report cover the cost of contraceptives, but we know that it takes more than contraceptive supply to increase contraceptive usage. Social norms, gender inequality, lack of education and other significant challenges will continue to hamper actual access to family planning services. Money is important, but it’s not the sole solution.


    Second, by speaking in "global" terms, the OPT report (or at least the press release accompanying it) is highly misleading and indeed, enables us to place blame on women in the global South and not consider our own emissions seriously enough.  Let me explain:


    On page 23 of the 45 paged report (and discussed nowhere else in the document), there’s a tiny table that shows that the most significant reductions in CO2 emissions from investing in family planning will come from addressing first and foremost the unmet need for family planning in the United States, China (really), Russia and  India.  Emissions reductions from the countries where unmet need (and population growth) is highest will be but a fraction of what they could be in the U.S.


    Let’s consider this:  Given current projections, in the year 2030, the US will produce more emissions than Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and India COMBINED.  At current per capita rates, to equal the emissions produced by the 100 million people expected to be added to the United States in the next 40 years, Bangladesh would need to grow by 7.3 BILLION people. 


    So yes, when scientists or advocates cite global averages to justify their point, I, among others, do become concerned that we’re entering that old order where women "became the means to someone else’s ends." 


    One final point.  You claim that, "When we started framing reproduction as a health and human rights issue instead of a population, environment and national security issue, the money dried up."


    The fact is that the money started drying up a decade before Cairo, when Ronald Reagan allowed the New Right into the White House to make decisions about women’s health and rights.  That’s when U.S. funding was first withheld from UNFPA and organizations that provide, counsel or lobby on abortion.  Indeed, according to UNFPA, donor funding for reproductive health has actually increased five-fold since 1995. 


    Let’s not allow revisionist history and oversimplified arguments to send us longing for the days before Cairo.  Let’s keep fighting to convince governments to support family planning and other reproductive health services because it is good for women and their societies.  And yes, if we start there, we’re likely to get to healthier environments as well.     

  • katwa

    It is just silly to think that smaller families use less resources per
    person… My family of 11 travels in one vehicle together… shares one
    house together…

    And you’re planning on living in one house and driving in one car forever? And none of your kids are going to have kids? (think about it, if they all follow your example it’ll be 121 more kids in just one generation! are all 121 of you going to share a house and car?)


    if theres too many now we’ll have to start killing some to get to less..

    No, contraception doesn’t work that way. If we lower our reproduction rate to actual replacement values (that is really how reproduction is supposed to work… to replace yourself, not produce more than the earth can take) the population won’t be increasing so fast. I don’t see anyone encouraging killing people.


  • lisa28j

    This is a fascinating and very important observation. Though it’s not just about family planning, it’s also about economic development and women’s rights. It’s a proven phenomenon that as a society achieves a certain level of economic wellbeing, combined with recognition of women’s rights & access to planning that birthrates naturally go down. As a result, the only reason Europe and the US continue to go up in population is immigration.If this were not the case, we’d basically be screwed no matter how green we manage to become.

    Alcohol Treatment

  • crowepps

    Your idea of ‘resources’ seems to be limited to property like houses and cars.  I assume that each of those 11 people wears clothing?  Eats food?  Drinks water?  Needs sewers and garbage dumps to take care of the results?


    If it takes 10 acres of land to supply the food for one person, a family of 4 needs 40 acres and a family of 11 needs 1100 acres, true?  The average person in the United States consumes/uses 161 gallons of water a day, a family of four would need 644 gallons, a family of 11 would need 1,771.  The average person creates 4 pounds of trash a day, a family of 4 would create 16 pounds, a family of 11 a total of 44 pounds.

  • crowepps

    It’s a little hard to figure out why anybody would object to women making choices on the basis of ‘culture’.  Those women actually live in the culture and they’re the ones who interpret their own culture as allowing them to voluntarily limit their family size.  Unless, of course, we’re not talking about ‘culture’ as in how the people themselves want to live but instead ‘culture’ as what the ruling classes find convenient to keep those people under control.

  • katwa

    It’s like the people who don’t believe in overpopulation and tell me "I drove through Idaho and there are miles of free space to live!" We have to realize that we need more than a place to live, we need farmland to grow food, and even more land to raise animals if we want to eat meat, and we need a place to put all our waste, etc.


    There are many contries who are currently facing a problem of clean water shortages, so this is not some "future problem" we don’t need to worry about now.  It’s been shown that giving women control of their reporduction is a necessary step to fix these problems. (we don’t need to force people to have less kids, women will do this on their own if they have the power to do so.)

  • crowepps

    Ever noticed how those people with six kids who “don’t believe in overpopulation” have a fit about ‘illegal immigrants coming here and crowding us real Americans out’?

  • marysia

    the current issue of collective voices, the journal of sistersong women of color repro health collective has a very interesting article about the matter of population:

    frances, i think that if family planning is promoted in terms of universal human rights, people are more likely to get & accept why it is vital, & any eco problems involving the sheer number of humans will take care of themselves.

    but if family planning is touted for its eco benefits–whatever those may be–opposition to it will increase. the ghost of population control is harder to bury than many imagine, for reasons that the global poor and people of color understand best.

    and if human energies are sidetracked into fighting over family planning in this arena, it will detract from the human rights aspects of family planning & from the enormous problem of overconsumption in the richer countries.

    don’t get me wrong, i am a devout environmentalist, who does everything in her power to reduce her own eco footprint, especially through not eating meat. i just think our fight for family planning fits better & is more likely to succeed under the rubric of human rights.

    Nonviolent Choice Directory,