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.