Reducing unintended fertility should be a top international climate priority

February 15, 2008

SOURCE: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Frederick A. B. Meyerson

In a special addition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Population and Climate change, Frederick A. B. Meyerson argues that the are many reasons why increasing access to voluntary family planning should be a top international priority.


Credit: UN Photo/John Isaac

Family planning protects climate and human wellbeing

There is agreement in our discussion about the need to provide family planning, reproductive health services, and related education to everyone on the planet in a non-coercive way.

There's also general agreement that doing so would reduce unintended births, slow population growth, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby helping with climate change mitigation and adaptation. One difference is that several of us, myself included, feel that stopping emissions growth and climate change will be unattainable without universal, effective family planning programs and population stabilization.

The international community should restore the goal of universal access to family planning as a top-tier priority, to protect both the climate and human wellbeing. How can we satisfy current unmet need for contraception and reproductive health services? It is a matter of both political will and money.

About 200 million women in developing countries would like to prevent or delay pregnancy but can't because they lack access to effective contraception. Reaching and helping these women and their partners is critical for climate and human development policy. A consensus of population and health care scientists and organizations estimates that developed nations would need to donate $5 billion per year (almost ten times the current levels) to reach these women with family planning services. (See " Family Planning and Reproductive Health: The Link to Environmental Preservation" [PDF] for more). While this is a significant amount, it's small in comparison to other expenditures. For instance, the United States spends more than $5 billion on the Iraq war every two weeks, and the same amount on Medicare programs every few days.

Looking to the United States

The United States should take the lead. The largest and most effective international family planning program in history was pioneered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the 1960s. The United States continues to be the largest donor globally to international family planning efforts. However, since the 1980's, decay in funding levels, quality of programs, and political support-along with inflation--has caused the U.S. international family planning programs to fall behind in constant dollar terms and in relation to the needs of a global population growing by more than 75 million people per year.

If the United States were to increase its assistance for population programs by $1 billion annually, and other donor countries contributed their share, it should be possible to satisfy the global unmet need for family planning within five years. As a result, the population growth rate could be reduced by about 30 percent, with a similar decrease in the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of the technical knowledge about family planning resides in U.S. institutions (nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and universities), and U.S. political and technical leaders could quickly revitalize this field. The United States could work closely with the U.N. Population Fund; the World Bank; European organizations, and other donor countries; as well as NGOs such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America,Pathfinder, and the Population Council to quickly and strongly push forward on international family planning. Past efforts have shown how effective noncoercive programs can be, even in extremely poor countries such as Bangladesh and Kenya; and these programs have many other social and developmental benefits.

Developed countries, beginning with the United States, also need to improve their reproductive health services and education. For instance, the United States should be able to lower its unintended pregnancy rate from nearly 50 percent to around 20 percent, the current rate in several European countries, as discussed in my earlier comments. If the Netherlands can do it, the United States can, too. Decreasing unintended pregnancy rates in America would slow population growth and greenhouse gas emissions.

Universal access to family planning is no panacea, nor is it sufficient on its own to achieve population stabilization. We should discuss population education and media programs that affect the demand for services and their effectiveness in subsequent rounds of this debate. But lowering unintended fertility is the necessary first step toward population stability-and the climate mitigation and adaptation benefits that come with it.

Overpopulation a serious threat says Bertelsmann Report

December 13, 2007

SOURCE: PSN & Bertelsmann Stiftung

A major report published this month by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German research institute, polled the opinions of 9000 respondents in United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, UK, France, India and Brazil. Rapid population growth was one of the issues highlighted as a key concern by the opinion poll on world power.


Credit: UN Photo/B Wolff

A worldwide poll

The Bertelsmann Stiftung study seeks to reveal popular perceptions of global discourse and ideas concerning "Who Rules the World", as the Foundation put it in the title of the report.

Within the discussions that examine the perceived global super powers of today and the future, the respondents positioned overpopulation as the fourth most serious threat faced by the world today, following climate change, terrorism and poverty.

Which global threats predominate in people's views vary from country to country. The concerns about overpopulation and poverty were recorded to be higher in India, while Russians cite the dangers of war, the Chinese resource scarcity and the French religious fundamentalism.

The researchers spearheading this report say that they want to measure current perceptions in global power politics but also to assess how the public foresees the near future and its most pressing issues.

PSN welcomes the report

PSN acknowledges the critical importance of the views of civil society and welcomes this report which cites overpopulation as a major global concern.

Further information is available on the Bertelsmann Foundation website.

PSNs Population Forums conclude at the Houses of Parliament

January 30, 2007


Over the last few months PSN, in collaboration with LSHTM, have held a series of Population Forums, which concluded today with a high profile event at the Houses of Parliament in London.

Credit: PSN


Background to the forums

Wider participation by media, NGO representatives and the general public in the population debate is regarded as essential since there is overwhelming evidence that rapid population growth poses substantial challenges to the attainment of the MDGs.

Yet population has been virtually ignored by policy-makers for the past decade.

Since the term 'population' became increasingly tarnished by the brush of 'coercion' and 'control' during the 1980s it has remained politically sensitive. The link between poverty and population growth has been downplayed and financial and political support for population stabilisation has diminished.

Population is now beginning to re-emerge in the media and into political discourse, most recently in relation to climate change issues.

Culminating in the Population Forums, Population and Sustainability Network (PSN) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) were eager to build on this growing interest and increase dialogue between policy, action (NGOs) and academic research on the topic of the population factor, about which many have remained silent for so long.

The Population Forums

Each of the five forums was chaired by a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, with contributions from two distinguished speakers, and concluding remarks from a third speaker.

Topics addressed by the forums included:

  • Population, poverty and the MDGs
  • Gender, women's empowerment and universal access to education
  • Contraception and links with improvements in maternal and child health
  • HIV/AIDS and population - joint up working?
  • Environmental sustainability and population growth
  • States and individuals: population and the discourse of rights

The final Population Forum The Unfinished Agenda – from Research to Policy Action was held on January 30th 2007 at the Houses of Parliament in London.

PSN holds event at the Royal Geographical Society

December 6, 2006


Key figures from the fields of media, politics and business voiced their concerns about the effects of global population growth at a PSN event held at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 6th December 2006.

Credit: PSN


Raising the profile of population issues

Entitled Population Increase: the Greatest Challenge? the event was facilitated by Toby Aykroyd, PSN Chairman, and attended by an audience of 500 which included representatives of a wide range of organizations. It aimed to raise the profile of the population issue – particularly its impact on poverty, economic development, climate change, loss of biodiversity and international conflict.

The evening opened with a recorded message from John Simpson, renowned broadcaster and Senior Editor of the BBC’s International News, called away at short notice to conduct an interview in Iraq. He expressed his concern about how the population issue had seemingly all but disappeared from the agenda despite its great importance.

Presentation by Richard Ottaway MP

Richard Ottaway MP, Chairman of the recent Hearings on population by the All Party Parliamentary Group at Westminster, gave the initial presentation.  

Reviewing the impact of population increase on each of the Millennium Development Goals as set by the United Nations, he observed that few if any of these would be attained unless the rate of population increase was significantly curbed. This is widely acknowledged as a problem among developing country governments, yet there is still a high unmet demand for family planning services.

Presentation by Lord Adair Turner

The main presentation was provided by Lord Adair Turner, former director general of the Confederation of British Industry, and Chairman of the recent Pensions Commission as well as trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Lord Turner began by discounting fears about rising levels of age dependency in many European countries, highlighting the inappropriateness of seeking to address this by encouraging higher birth rates. He then reviewed the role played in economic development by population growth - particularly contrasting the falling fertility levels in East Asia, which has enjoyed substantial economic growth over the last 30 years, with the high rates remaining in sub Saharan Africa where GDP per capita has stagnated or even shrunk in many countries.

This situation is likely to be exacerbated by climate change, itself directly linked to rising levels of population.  

On a global basis, median projections suggesting a population increase of some 40% by 2050 may prove optimistic – making it all the more vital that the need for stabilisation is rapidly appreciated and acted upon.

UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor speaks out at PSN event

February 28, 2006


Speaking at a PSN event on 28 February, Sir David King, the UK governments Chief Scientific Advisor, has predicted a very substantial impact of global population increase over the next few decades, with serious implications for environmental sustainability.

Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret


A Green Revolution is needed

Singling out three key factors, Sir David warned of the need for a Green Revolution in crop productivity at least equal to that of the last 40 years if the world's burgeoning population was to be adequately nourished. 

Climate Change 

Climate change was another key corollary of population growth, with increases in mean temperatures causing widespread water shortages and loss of cropland. Rises in sea levels would also cause massive population displacements.

A Mass Wave of Extinctions

One of Sir David's most disturbing prognoses concerned the impact of population increase on loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction, over-exploitation, pollution and climate change. Answering questions after his presentation, Sir David predicted a mass wave of extinctions.