Defusing the population bomb

People may be the problem, but what’s the solution? Although energy use is driven by demographic trends, we don’t seem to have many tools readily at hand for addressing population as a root cause of climate change. But a new study suggests that a simple investment in family planning services might save an enormous amount of carbon emissions at very low cost.

Specifically, the report claims that the world can spare 34 gigatons of CO2 emissions — the amount the entire U.S. produces in six years — over the next four decades at a cost of $7 per ton. According to the report, these reductions can be achieved simply by fulfilling the current “unmet need” for family planning, an ungainly phrase that refers to the population of couples who are married or “in union” and want contraception but lack access. Because unmarried people experience unwanted pregnancy as well, presumably demand for contraception is even greater than the study suggests.

If all this unmet need is filled, the projected population in 2050 drops from 9.1 billion to 8.7 billion. 8.7 billion, of course, still represents substantial growth from today’s level. That’s always been the problem with focusing overly much on population as the key driver of climate change: the number of people on the planet seems likely to hit roughly 9 billion no matter what we do, so ultimately clean energy and efficiency are going to be the primary way we solve the resource puzzle.

Nevertheless, 34 gigatons is a lot of gas, and $7 is a nice price, and providing family planning services to people who want them has meaningful humanitarian benefits, so this seems like a fruitful (ha!) area to explore. Of course, family planning is also an insanely fraught topic, so don’t expect much progress on this front anytime soon, at least in the U.S.

**Update:** I’ve realized that I worded this post in a pretty misleading way. The primary benefit to providing better access to contraception occurs in the developing world, not in the U.S. My crack about the U.S. at the end was meant to apply more to foreign aid and foreign policy than to domestic policy.

Of course, birth rate in the U.S. matters a lot, and reducing unwanted pregnancies here would have the single biggest effect of reducing them in any individual country — about 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide, according to the study. But in aggregate, reducing unwanted pregnancy in China, India, Russia, South Africa, and Mexico would reduce about 16 gigatons. Contrary to what some commenters have suggested, the developing world matters a lot. One giant question mark is how immigration affects the balance of emissions. The study doesn’t address this issue at all.

Finally, this post has nothing to do with people’s personal decisions about children. It’s an examination of the impact of providing contraception to couples who want it but aren’t currently using it, primarily in developing countries. This is one of the few non-coercive ways I know of to reduce population pressures, and the study is interesting because it’s the only attempt I’ve seen to actually quantify the benefit.

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adam

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  1. Chad - September 16, 2009

    Whenever I encounter the type of environmentist who claims to be childless “for the environment”, I always like to point out that they can buy highly effective Baby Offsets from organizations like International Planned Parenthood and the like for much less than $100 each.
    An honest environmentist would have as many children as they could, raise them to be friends of the environment, and make a few hundred dollar donation per child to IPP or something similar. The environment wins, some poor people somewhere win, and the environmentalist wins….presuming that they honestly wanted children in the first place. I really doubt most do, but that is another story.

  2. Woody - September 16, 2009

    Except that we are so far out of bounds with CO2 emissions that this will not work. If a boat is leaking badly in a storm, it will do more harm than good to overload the boat with passengers with bailing buckets. Besides, every parent knows that one doesn’t always have control over the lifestyle of one’s children.

  3. Woody - September 16, 2009

    Also, obviously, that carbon offset doesn’t balance the child’s CO2 footprint for a lifetime. It’s just a way to obtain a few dollars to offset some of the initial, birth related CO2 cost.
    “Highly effective”–how absurd.

  4. Brad - September 16, 2009

    “An honest environmentist would have as many children as they could, raise them to be friends of the environment”
    Wow. Alot of assumptions there. First of all, you assume that this honest environmentalist has the financial wherewithal to raise many children, which he/she may not. Second, you seem to be making a very big assumption that you simply can mold children into exactly what you want them to be. That is often NOT the case.
    Thirdly, but off the point, more people on this planet will still consume resources (wood, plastic, food, for example).
    Finally, your argument still ultimately fails, because if continued indefinitely, the planet becomes overpopulated.
    The truth is that overpopulation will HAVE to be addressed at some point in our future, and the long held notion that is our “right” to have as many children as we want will need to be reevaluated.

  5. abby - September 16, 2009

    this article puts into words the feeling my husband and i have about starting a family. we live in chicago and try to keep our own emissions down (reducing what we can and then offsetting the rest)… and part of that includes paying for a birth control that works for our lifestyle (I can’t remember to take the daily pill, so we’ve opted for an option that isn’t covered by our insurance–$75 a month). fortunately we can afford that expense… and it helps when we remind ourselves that a child would cost more than $75 a month and emit way more CO2. one day we may have a child-but until then we’re grateful for the option and think others should have the option too. And at $7? WOW :)

  6. Carl - September 16, 2009

    [Hi Carl,
    Your comment was deleted because it was off-topic. I’m not sure what the central point was, but it somehow encompassed both low-flow toilets and the war on terror. Insulting people doesn’t equate to dissent.
    To be clear, this post is not about your personal children. It’s about providing contraception to couples who want it and don’t have access, primarily in the developing world. If you have comment on that topic, feel free to share your thoughts.]

  7. Carl - September 16, 2009

    The average person in the developing world uses so little resources that per person, it’s tiny compared to the US.
    Cutting US energy use and consumption is a better option.

  8. Carl - September 16, 2009

    Also, this topic is no more than a jumping board for your subscribers to voice their views that having no kids being a ecologically responsible choice.
    I’ve unsubscribed to your emails, honestly, it will save me a great deal of time reading your blog less. I’m constantly frustrated by the extreme views your blog brings out in other subscribers.
    Originally I found your blog to be somewhat centrist, trying to reduce use and find realistic things to help everyone be a little more reasonable in their use.
    Sadly now I view the blog and it’s subscribers to be no more than computer-based Greenpeace activists.

  9. Eric - September 16, 2009

    How nice that we have come to insults and namecalling here. What is this, Congress? You can look to Congress to see that nothing gets resolved with attitudes like this. People need to take classes in civil discourse these days it seems…
    (stepping off soap box)
    I think the “birth offset” is a good idea but as was already stated, is only a one time thing. Obviously it has to be followed by some type of offsets for the children as they are growing up. I am doubtful the US can legislate any type of laws reducing population growth without it becoming a fight to keep the US from becoming communist China. (rolling eyes) Population is a difficult thing to control in any free society. The idea in this article seems to be a good start but we’ve got to change every aspect of our wasteful lives and that will be tough too. Maybe not so much for the typical reader here, but for the general public…very tough.

  10. Adam Stein - September 16, 2009

    I think the “birth offset” is a good idea but as was already stated, is only a one time thing. Obviously it has to be followed by some type of offsets for the children as they are growing up.
    Not true, actually. The unborn child will continue not to exist in the future, and so will provide a full offset in future years. Please note, I’m not really endorsing this idea, but if we take as given that it would work as described, then there would be no need for future offsets.
    I agree that this is an issue that can’t be legislated, which is why providing services to people who want them seems like one of the only plausible ways of affecting population growth.

  11. Brook - September 16, 2009

    Its strange to me how we like to pick sides and fight vehemently for our one favorite catch all solution to a complex systemic problem like climate change. It’s my understanding that systemic problems are best addressed through multiple, diverse, concurrent and mostly systemic solutions. So yes, one American life is about the equivalent, from an Ecological Footprint perspective, of 8-10 people who happen to be born in Africa, so yes, having a child in the US is a high consumption decision. AND yes, the majority of global population growth is happening in “developing” countries, where poverty is rampant and those many more lives have many fewer opportunities to flourish. Offering contraception, family planning, access to health care and, moreover, EDUCATION, for women in these countries is a cost-effective, win-win solution, but of course it is not the only solution. And yes, there are many issues to tackle and solutions to work on here in the US re: technology, policy, etc – AND yes, many of them behavioral/cultural as well (why we feel that our freedom is being impinged upon when the idea of having fewer children is suggested, for example).
    So, on that note, I’d like to call people’s attention to one of the freshest and most innovative ideas for addressing the climate challenge that I’ve come across in years – Paul Elrich et al are putting together a Millennium Assessment on Human Behavior to address the behavior change issues around climate and other environmental problems – we know the science, we aren’t acting, so let’s direct our attention to the very important question of WHY NOT? See
    http://mahbsustainability.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/paul-ehrlichs-invitation/ for more info.

  12. Tony Adams - September 16, 2009

    Are you suggesting that breeding IS somehow ecologically responsible? I don’t see how that could be true.

  13. Carl - September 16, 2009

    I typed a big reply, and then instead saved it to show my wife. It will get deleted because I’m not a militant environmentalist and it’s not “on-topic” to Adam.
    I think that having kids in Africa isn’t an issue today. I think having kids in the USA is an issue today. I think having no kids at all, ever – is the best thing for the environment. I think human extinction would be the best thing for the environment. I don’t think it is an option for me to continue living – so although it’s the best for the environment – I will not pick it in an effort to increase my genetic spread. It is an entirely selfish, enjoyable task I will continue to enjoy.
    The reason African families have more kids is for religious reasons and because if you have 10, one might live. As the USA had lower mortality rates – less people had 10 kids. Raise education and lower mortality, and people will have less kids usually in the absence of hallowed religious beliefs and traditions concerning children (eg. China where you would prefer to have a boy).
    Educated, quality, responsible people need to continue to have kids to spread quality genetic material within the human race. This needs to occur worldwide. If you’re smart and intelligent I suggest you still have children and teach them your values – so they in turn can voice their opinions to create change.
    Not having kids does nothing than biologically silence your voice in the inevitable future.

  14. Brad - September 16, 2009

    “Educated, quality, responsible people need to continue to have kids to spread quality genetic material within the human race.”
    No matter how “great” your “genetic material” is (whatever that means), you won’t be educated if you don’t go to school. So education and genetic makeup are completely unrelated.
    So saying that educated people need to spread their superior genetic material is ridiculous.
    If you want to spread a thing like knowledge, you need to disseminate that knowledge, not necessarily propagate.

  15. Anonymous - September 16, 2009

    The study was conducted by the London School of Economics. Hardly a bastion for tree-hugging hippies.
    If a study seems to substantiate, in some way, those that have “views that having no kids being a ecologically responsible choice,” is that really suggestive of extremism? I don’t think so.
    Honesty, you appear to be one getting all worked up about it. I’m not even sure the study was suggesting that people stop having kids. It was a statistical exercise. If you have a philosophical disagreement with not having kids, voice it. I wouldn’t call you “extreme” because of it.

  16. Cassandra - September 17, 2009

    People are THE problem, and present population growth will eventually negate all other efforts to save the planet’s liveability. It depresses me that almost no environmental organizations are willing to advocate population control/reduction. Wake up people, it’s later than you think!
    Someone needs to develop birth control that can be sprayed on crops or dumped in water supplies. Then global sustainability might have a fighting chance.

  17. Adam Stein - September 17, 2009

    In case people were wondering, this is why I rarely post on population. Up above we’ve got someone advocating that wealthy people should breed as much as possible, to spread their “superior genetic material.” And now we’ve got someone advocating for forced sterilization. I assume that these opinions aren’t very representative, but they’re still just flat-out dank.

  18. Woody - September 17, 2009

    Except that we are so far out of bounds with CO2 emissions that this will not work. If a boat is leaking badly in a storm, it will do more harm than good to overload the boat with passengers with bailing buckets. Besides, every parent knows that one doesn’t always have control over the lifestyle of one’s children.
    Also, obviously, that carbon offset doesn’t balance the child’s CO2 footprint for a lifetime. It’s just a way to obtain a few dollars to offset some of the initial, birth related CO2 cost.
    “Highly effective”–how absurd.