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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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