This month, our small planet’s population will hit seven billion
. Reproductive health and environmental groups worldwide are raising awareness about the exact day – the “Day of Seven Billion
” – when we’re estimated to hit that number next week, calling for sustainability and women’s empowerment
. But the future trajectory of the world’s population projections – and all that they entail for human and environmental wellbeing – depends on decisions we make now
Let’s start with the more than 215 million women worldwide – including many in our home countries, the United States and Kenya – who do not want to get pregnant but are not using modern contraception. Our world looks very different in 2050 if these women’s needs are met.
Research from the Futures Group shows that meeting women’s needs results in a significantly slowed population trajectory, with world population topping out at eight billion in 2050. According to recently revised UN estimates, without this intervention population could rise to 10 or even 12 billion by century’s end. Meeting this need is also a smart investment: Our research estimates that access to modern contraception for all who want it would cost $3.7 billion per year. Others have estimated the savings in health care costs of providing contraception to all who want it at $5.1 billion per year. Family planning is cost-effective; it has been estimated that a dollar spent on family planning can save between $15 and $20 in education, health, housing, and other socio-economic support costs, making the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals cheaper for developing countries.
The health and environmental benefits are also enormous: a one-third reduction in maternal mortality; a one-fifth reduction in child mortality; a major reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions. Recent research shows that carbon emissions slow when we slow our population trajectory in an effect similar to increasing the world’s use of wind power forty-fold. In Nigeria it was recently estimated that providing universal access to family planning would result in a reduction of carbon emissions equivalent to eight years from current sources.
These investments also provide more than big numbers: By enabling couples and women to choose when and how many children they’ll have, women can continue their educations longer, participate more in the workforce, and contribute to household decisions that benefit the family.
Giving women what they want and need to plan their pregnancies is one of the most obvious, yet most overlooked solutions to many of the most pressing problems we face, from maternal and child mortality to climate change. International family planning funding has stagnated for over 10 years and the results have been predictable: In Kenya, and in many countries, unmet need – with all its human costs – has increased.
Today, the largest generation of young people ever is coming of age. The aspirations and health of the millennial generation – as well as all those in the future – are on the line.
Pamela Onduso, MPH, is a Kenyan reproductive health advocate and program adviser with Pathfinder International’s Kenya office based in Nairobi. Dr. Scott Moreland is a senior researcher at the Futures Group, and leads demographic work in countries around the world.
Sources: African Institute for Development Policy, Futures Group, Guttmacher Institute, Health Policy Initiative, PNAS, Population Services International, UN Population Division, World Health Organization.
Photo Credit: Adapted from “Tea picker and son,” courtesy of flickr user ROSS HONG KONG.