Family planning effective but unpopular climate change solution, says Mary Robinson

December 5, 2011

SOURCE: Alertnet / Laurie Goering

DURBAN, South Africa (AlertNet) - As the worlds population races past 7 billion, curbing population growth is crucial to slowing the climate-changing emissions people cause, scientists say.


Credit: MRFCJ

Population: another climate change hurdle

But getting UN climate negotiators to even mention the controversial issue is nearly as difficult as getting them to agree a long-delayed new global climate treaty.

"Those very words - population control - are like a red bulb going off," noted Mary Robinson, former Irish president and now a campaigner on human rights, climate justice and women's issues.

But with studies suggesting that 215 million women around the world want - but cannot get - effective contraception, making sure birth control methods are available to those who want them could be one of the cheapest, fastest and most effective ways of addressing climate change, experts said at the UN climate conference in Durban.

"A lot of this is about reframing the issue for men," said Roger-Mark De Souza, vice president of research for Population Action International (PAI), a US-based organisation that advocates for access to contraception. "Studies show that when you compare family planning with other mitigation efforts, you get a greater return on investment."

"People recoil when you raise the population issue, but this is about increasing resilience. This is what women want, and it is an effective strategy," said the Trinidad-born de Souza.

Population and climate change 'hotspots'

PAI has identified 26 population and climate "hotspots" around the world - places particularly vulnerable to climate impacts, where the rate of population growth is also high.

Nearly all the countries - India, Pakistan, Bolivia, much of West Africa and East Africa - also turn out to have a "high unmet need for family planning". Turning that around "could help to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience in the face of climate change impacts", de Souza’s organization noted.

But getting access to birth control taken seriously as a form of climate adaptation and mitigation is proving challenging. Of 41 National Adaptation Programmes of Action put together by the world’s least-developed countries to address climate change, 37 acknowledge population issues as key, but only one proposes to do anything about it - and that proposal did not receive funding, de Souza said.

A range of interventions are needed

One of the problems is that successfully lowering birth rates - particularly in the countries with the highest growth - needs to happen alongside a range of other interventions, said Dr. Helen Rees, a reproductive health expert at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

In societies where there are no social safety nets and no grants to help the elderly, many families continue to rely on children as a form of security. And in countries where families cannot trust their children will survive to adulthood - because of health risks, insecurity or other vulnerabilities - they tend to have more children as an insurance measure.

Education is also crucial, for men as well women, since men often play a deciding role in whether a couple use birth control.

To effectively bring down birth rates, "we have to ensure all these other elements are in place", Rees said.

Getting population issues onto the agenda at the UN climate talks faces a range of hurdles: political queasiness, cultural issues and, especially, intense competition with a dizzying range of other climate-related concerns all vying for time and funding.

But Robinson thinks they will get there eventually.

"Because it's sensitive, it will take some time," she said. But "if we were to solve this problem we would not only help these women… we would also do great work for the climate".

This article, published by the AlertNet, has been reproduced by PSN. Minor changes and cuts may have been made for the purpose of brevity and relevance. Thanks to the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice (MRFCJ) for permission to use the photo.