World population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. This means an extra 2.4 billion people on our planet than we have now.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on global warming was released on October 8, 2018, outlining the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius. With the average annual carbon emissions per person being 20 metric tons, population growth may cause our planet to be uninhabitable.
“Limiting global warming would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, reported the intergovernmental report on climate change.
As the threat of climate change continues to grow, Katherine Wilkinson, Vice President of Communication & Engagement at Project Drawdown, proposes that family planning and the education of girls could be our solution.
Project Drawdown accompanies the New York Times bestseller Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. In it, Wilkinson and a team of academics have outlined steps that we can take to prevent this genuine crisis from ending life on planet Earth. This literature poses the idea that climate change has a decidedly feminist solution.
In Katherine’s findings, she states that there are about “74 million unintended pregnancies each year”. This is due to the 214 million women in lower-income countries who say they want the ability to choose whether and when to become pregnant but lack the necessary access to contraception. The need persists in high-income countries as well, including the United States, where 45% of pregnancies are unintended.
The study finds that “Increased adoption of reproductive healthcare and family planning is an essential component to achieve the United Nations’ 2015 medium global population projection of 9.7 billion people by 2050”.
If there is not more investment in family planning, particularly in low-income countries, the world’s population could come close to the high projection, adding another one billion people to the planet.
The statistics are found by comparing the impact of energy, building space, food, waste, and transportation that would be used in a world with little to no investment in family planning, compared to one in which a projected population of 9.7 billion. The study found that “The resulting emission reductions could be 119.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide, at an average annual cost of $10.77 (£8.24) per user in low-income countries”.
“Women with more years of education have fewer, healthier children and actively manage their reproductive health”, explains Wilkinson. Education and family planning are undeniably linked.Artefact spoke with Alisha Graves, President of Venture Strategies for Health and Development (VSHD), a California-based nonprofit organisation. VSHD aims to help stabilise global population by securing women’s freedom to choose their family size by the end of the century. She contributed her knowledge and research to Project Drawdown’s study and conclusions.
Graves explained that “every year we add another equivalent of Germany” in terms of population. This resource use has a phenomenal impact on the climate.
“We are not trying to tell people what to do, or what size their family should be. We want to give women what they want, give them a choice” Graves urges.
The benefits of delaying marriage by educating girls, and therefore access to a career are outlined by Graves, “Delaying marriage by five years results in a 15-20% reduction in population growth rate”. She explains, “Giving options to adolescent girls other than having a family benefits the entire community”. A higher number of women in work leads to a demographic dividend, when there are more people working than dependents, this leads to a more prosperous community.
“In some of the world’s poorest countries, women have a very low status, and therefore family size tends to be larger. Niger has the fastest natural population growth in human history”. These are also the areas that are most affected by climate change.
Conversations about family planning are dependant on where you live in the world. “In the U.K. and U.S, most couples have conversations about family size. But in lots of parts of the world, it’s taboo or at least something that is God’s will to determine the family size. In that case, people end up having large families just out of default because if you’re not taking any consistent measures against pregnancy, most people will end up having a really large family.”
Being pro-active and speaking about it with our partners and discussing amongst our circle of friends or other platforms is critical. Alisha wants to remind people that the number of children they choose to have will impact society and the environment. This is especially true in wealthy parts of the world where the decision to have one fewer child will have more of an impact than anything else that you can do in terms of reducing emissions. “That’s a really important take away”.
Family planning in developed countries is critical; a study at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) showed that the average person living in a developed country produces 20 metric tonnes of CO2 per year, compared to the 0.8 produced by a person living in the sub-Saharan region of Africa.
However, as industries begin to move into these areas, those numbers are set to surge. Alisha explains that countries with the highest populations are among the poorest too. “Bringing down fertility rates would mean a higher economic ratio of infants to people working; therefore there would be a smaller dependent population. This would be a huge economic boost and a boost in quality of life.”
“There are about 74 million unintended pregnancies each year”
However, navigating the conversation in developing countries can prove difficult. Graves focuses most of her work in the Sahel region of Africa where women and girls do not typically have much say about their life. Graves work provides services to give girls the tools of negotiation. “We want to help girls get a more even footing in their lives. For example, when they will marry, who she will marry, will she go to school or stay in the home”.
These services include ‘safe spaces’ where girls go and speak about their bodies, their hopes, and dreams. “Enabling those conversations to give girls a chance to consider their options, and think about what they want from their lives, including family size. Making sure that women have the right to make these choices is imperative”.
The areas in which these ‘safe spaces’ have been ongoing have seen significant success. “In Nigeria, before the programmes, the average marriage age was 14 years old. Now it is 16 to 17 years old.”
Although this does not seem much, Graves explains that there is a huge difference. “At this age, you are better able to negotiate and deliberate decision making. You have learned key life skills”. In the same area, enrolment in secondary schools went from 2% to 80%. “Making it a social norm is key to the programme’s success”.
Graves explains that in developed countries, it is easy to take access to family planning for granted “Most women in the western world intend to have two [children]. She will spend five years of her life trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding and 30 having to actively avoid pregnancy. Avoiding pregnancy is consistent family planning throughout their life”. Without access to contraception or family planning information, it is likely that you will have a large family out of default.
“Making sure that women have the right to make these choices is imperative”
In areas where there is no access to family planning, other measures are taken to avoid pregnancy. Alisha explains, “women will wear “Gris-gris,” these are believed to prevent pregnancy.” Other, more modern approaches include taking note of when you are ovulating. These methods are far less reliable than other birth control options that exist, but not all women have access to them.
Around 95% of this growth is happening in developing countries, where people have a relatively low carbon footprint. However, in the U.S, where individual carbon emissions are much higher, one in two pregnancies are unintended. It is clear that more developed countries are failing women with respect to family planning.
In January 2012 EFC (Education for Choice) undertook a ten-month project to investigate the current state of abortion education in schools, it found that at least a third of women will have had an abortion by the time they are 45. The report states, “Unplanned pregnancy and abortion are part of our lives, and can affect people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. It is crucial therefore that young people’s education on pregnancy options is sensitive and relevant to their experiences, as well as medically accurate”.Artefact spoke with teachers across the U.K about access to family planning information in schools. Emily Haworth, a biology teacher in the North East, says “they massively avoid it in my school because they are a Catholic school. It is spoken about briefly in PSHE, but they do not tackle it head on”.
GCSE science teacher, Devon Hegarty, explains, “they speak about contraception in biology, mainly discussing the effects of the hormones in birth control pills. We also teach it in our Religious Education lessons, looking at different contraceptives”.
Jessica Gledhill, a 23-year-old teacher in Birmingham, says, “Our school covers it in science lessons, we give out free condoms.”
It appears that family planning both in developing and wealthy countries could be improved. However, religious and social barriers may prove an issue.
A Christian organisation, LoveWise, aims to be a relationship advice organisation. However, they refuse to teach contraception methods and family planning to those who are unmarried, labelling it ‘sinful’, and also make medically inaccurate claims about abortion.
Artefact spoke to a LoveWise leader who wanted to remain anonymous. “Sex outside marriage is wrong, so contraception outside marriage is wrong. Within marriage, we do not advice on contraception as we believe it to be too personal.” The lack of education that a religious relationship advice organisation is willing to give grants at least a partial explanation to why 62 million girls who still face a lack of access to education and over 220 million women have an unmet need for family planning.
Other barriers to this solution proposed by The Drawdown, include the taboo of fertility control when it comes to the environment. People are hesitant to make the connection between population and the environment. Graves explains, “It used to be front and centre. In the late 60s early 70s. It was popular knowledge that the human population was growing faster than ever before and we could see the effects on resources and on the environment”.
“In 90s there were some really bad coercive methods of family planning, such as the one-child policy in China,” Governments were telling couples what to do. Graves explains, “In some parts of the U.S there was forced sterilisation.
Women were being sterilised without knowing or knowing about it.” Due to these few but terrible coercive methods, there was a backlash, and it was seen that by linking population trends with the environment and government policy would cause people to take these drastic measures.
“62 million girls who still face a lack of access to education and over 220 million women have an unmet need for family planning”
“So it became, for some people, not possible to talk about population and instead, there was a real focus on individual reproductive sexual health and rights, and I’m all for that. I want to encourage a dialogue about the population as long as we focus on voluntary family planning.”
Wilkinson outlines in her research that according to the Brookings Institution, “The difference between a woman with no years of schooling and with 12 years of schooling is almost four to five children per woman. And it is precisely in those areas of the world where girls are having the hardest time getting educated that population growth is the fastest”.
In light of this, it is surprising to find that just 1% of overseas development assistance is going towards family planning. This would help the economy, climate, mothers well being, family health, and general quality of life. “This needs to increase to at least 2%” Graves explains.
Due to the lack of funding in less developed countries, the schools do not perform well, and people feel discouraged or disillusioned. “In the poorest parts of the world, the situation is bleak,” says Graves. In Kaduna, in northern Nigeria, women’s literacy is just 21%. “Parents often send their 1st girl to school and see that as a sacrifice as she could be working. But when she finishes school, and she can’t read a basic sentence, they don’t then send their younger daughters to school. Poor quality of primary education is a disincentive for schooling.”
Nobel laureate and girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai has famously said, “one child, one teacher, one book, and one pen, can change the world.”The theory of educating girls as a solution to tackling climate change is down to The Drawdown study that concluded, “Educated girls realise higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth”. Girls with secondary education are less likely to marry as children or against their will.
When given the life skills that they learn in secondary schools, the Drawdown found that educated women’s agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished.
They are more empowered at home, at work and in society. “Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families and their communities” Wilkinson explains.
The study shows that investment in educating girls is “highly cost-competitive with almost all of the existing options for carbon emissions abatement, perhaps just $10 per ton of carbon dioxide.”
Education also equips women to face the most dramatic climatic changes. Graves demonstrates, “A 2013 study found that educating girls is the single most important social and economic factor associated with a reduction in vulnerability to natural disasters”. They came to this conclusion was drawn from examining the experiences of 125 countries since 1980 and echoes other analyses.
The current barriers to women earning an education are varied. Economic barriers in the poorest parts of the world see the more direct need for girls to contribute to the survival of the home, including tasks of getting water and firewood. These are prioritised over education.
Cultural barriers to the education of girls are prevalent in many parts of the world. There are beliefs that girls should tend to the home rather than learn to read and write, should be married off at a young age. Boys will be sent to school over girls if resources are slim. The higher number of males in a school environment contribute to safety barriers; gender-based violence puts girls at risk when going to school.
“Today, 130 million girls are denied the right to attend school”
Graves is working towards a policy of free secondary schools in the sub-Saharan regions of Africa. Currently, safe spaces are affordable 200 dollars for two years, and they are lead by a mentor in their community. “Families are willing to sacrifice this fee if they see results”, explains Graves. Within these spaces, the girls say they want to read, write and help their community. The clubs can offer them basic life skills. “They learn nutrition, family planning, social networks, can express themselves”.
When implemented, the results of educating girls and family planning are hugely successful. Alisha Graves explains where voluntary family planning initiatives have seen the most success “Iran put a program into place in the early 1990s that has been praised as among the most successful efforts in history. This involved religious leaders, educating the public and provided free access to contraception. Fertility rates halved in just one decade.”
In Bangladesh, the growth of the textiles industry saw thousands of more women in work. “The average birth rates fell from six children in the 1980s to two now”. Female health workers are providing essential care for women and children where they live.
These examples are successful as they were so widely spread. They saw a shift of what is ‘normal’ or ‘right’. “Family planning requires social reinforcement, for example, radio and television soap operas are now used in many places to shift perceptions,” says Graves.
Graves continues her work and research at Berkeley University and urges others to keep the conversation open about family planning.
If you wish to contribute towards a solution to climate change, donate to Project Drawdown.
Featured Image by Will H McMahan via Unsplash