Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Is family planning a carbon mitigation panacea?

By Marian Starkey

Several newspaper articles have covered the release of a report about family planning and climate change from Optimum Population Trust (OPT), an organization in the UK. I have been posting those articles on our website's "News" page. The attention has reached a critical mass and now it's time to comment.

The study claims to prove that meeting all unmet need for family planning is a more cost effective way of reducing carbon emissions than are other "green" technologies. To do this, the researchers calculated how many tons of carbon will be emitted between now and 2050 without meeting unmet need. They also determined how many tons of carbon would be emitted if unmet need were met (i.e. if there were fewer people emitting carbon). Then they subtract the latter from the former to calculate the difference in tons of carbon emitted between the two scenarios. Finally, they divided the total cost of providing family planning to the women with unmet need for the next 40 years by the number of tons of carbon that would be avoided by meeting unmet need. This is the cost per ton of carbon mitigated, which they estimate is $6.46.

The press releases have all stated that OPT commissioned the London School of Economics (LSE) to do the research, which leads one to believe that world-class faculty researchers are behind the paper. This is not the case. The research paper was actually written by a student at the LSE with the help of a non-faculty supervisor.

While population stabilization is obviously crucial to solving the climate crisis, there are a few methodology issues in this study that must be addressed. Here are the biggest ones, in descending order of importance:

  • The figure used for current unmet need--201 million women--refers only to women in the developing world. The authors calculate the proportion of people in the world with unmet need by dividing 201 million by the current world population--6.8 billion (the result is 3%). They assume that this proportion of "unmet need" equals "demand for family planning," which they hold constant for each year between now and 2050 for their cost-benefit analysis. Of course, demand for family planning is not actually the same as unmet need, and is much greater than 201 million women worldwide.
  • Then they take a figure from Guttmacher Institute, again for developing countries only, that unintended births could be reduced by 72% if all unmet need in the developing world were met. They apply this figure to every country in the world, including developed countries. Meaning, for example, that they assume that women in the United States who have unintended births would have 72% less if only they had access to contraception. The problem with this methodology is that in most developed countries, most women do have access to family planning if they want it. So spending an additional $22 per woman (the estimated cost of providing contraception to a woman in the developing world each year) on contraceptive supplies will probably not actually reduce the percentage of unintended births by very much. In the United States especially, more money must be spent on teen pregnancy prevention and reproductive health education. Indeed, the most prevalent answers women give in the U.S. for becoming pregnant accidentally are that they didn't expect to have sex and they didn't think they could become pregnant. Spending more money on birth control pills would not help these women. Education and better preparation would.
  • It is not clear which population projection was used for the scenario in which unmet need is not met. The authors simply state that the projection came from the UN. The UN produces several projections based on different fertility and mortality assumptions and it would be helpful to know which one was used for this study. * Correction: the author directed me to a footnote that I overlooked, which stated that the medium UN population projection was used.
Having said all this, the discussion of the role of family planning in climate change mitigation is long overdue. Indeed, any serious effort to combat global climate change simply must include a commitment to universal access to family planning and contraceptives.

Is it even possible to have a more equitable distribution of emissions with a decent standard of living in a world of 12 billion people or more? It will already be hard enough in a world of 8 or 9 billion. Right now, in our world of 6.8 billion people, too many are not using enough carbon to sustain healthy, productive lifestyles. Yet, we are still raising the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere to dangerous levels.

The per capita emissions in wealthy countries have to be dramatically reduced. But, at the same time, in some developing countries, per capita emissions will have to increase if people are to meet their most basic needs. Reaching that balance that allows everyone a healthy quality of life while protecting the environment will be a challenge made even more difficult by a growing population.

Meeting the existing unmet need for family planning is an important and cost-effective way to help meet the climate crisis. But, it alone will not solve the problem. In fact, the author found that only 9.3 gigatons of carbon emissions would be averted over the next 40 years, which is just a little more than what we currently emit globally in one year. But it must be part of any thorough discussion on mitigation strategies and any rational discussion on climate justice.

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