One of the findings of the Worldwatch Institute’s Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) suggests it’s not accurate to claim that climate change is at the root of growing water scarcity around the world. Based on the best recent scientific evidence we could find, another major global trend – the ongoing growth of human population – has a greater impact on water availability than climate change does.
As most of the world’s governments are puzzling out what they can offer to combat global climate change, a sensitive but critical aspect of the problem is coming into clearer focus: population. The word appears 20 times in a new 66-page synthesis of country pledges to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Secretariat. And those are the mentions of population in the context of size or growth, not the word’s more frequent use as a synonym for “people.”
Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment Aims to Shed Light on Pop-Environment Link›
As global environmental change accelerates, understanding how population dynamics affect the environment is more important than ever. It seems obvious that human-caused climate change has at least something to do with the quadrupling of world population over the last 100 years.
›Although most analysts assume that the world’s population will rise from today’s seven billion to nine billion by 2050, it is quite possible that humanity will never reach this population size.
My chapter in this year’s State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, “Nine Population Strategies to Stop Short of 9 Billion,” outlines a series of strategies that would prompt significant declines in birth rates. Based purely on the intention of women around the world to have small families or no children at all, these initiatives, policies, and changes in attitude could end population growth before mid-century at fewer than nine billion people.
Examples from around the world demonstrate effective policies that not only reduce birth rates, but also respect the reproductive aspirations of parents and support an educated and economically active society that promotes the health of women and girls. Most of these reproduction policies are relatively inexpensive to implement, yet in many places they are opposed on the basis of cultural resistance and political infeasibility.
In creating this list, I sought to eschew the language and approaches of “population control” or the idea that anyone should pressure women and their partner on reproduction. Instead, I hoped to highlight strategies that could put human population on an environmentally sustainable path:
- Provide universal access to safe and effective contraceptive options for both sexes. With two in five pregnancies reported as mistimed or never wanted, lack of access to good family planning services is among the biggest gaps in assuring that each baby will be wanted and welcomed in advance by its parents.
- Guarantee education through secondary school for all, especially girls. In every culture surveyed to date, women who have completed at least some secondary school have fewer children on average, and have children later in life, than do women who have less education.
- Eradicate gender bias from law, economic opportunity, health, and culture. Women who can own, inherit, and manage property; divorce; obtain credit; and participate in civic and political affairs on equal terms with men are more likely to postpone childbearing and to have fewer children compared to women who are deprived of these rights.
- Offer age-appropriate sexuality education for all students. Data from the United States indicates that exposure to comprehensive programs that detail puberty, intercourse, options of abstinence and birth control, and respecting the sexual rights and decisions of individuals can help prevent unwanted pregnancies and hence reduce birth rates.
- End all policies that reward parents financially based on the number of children they have. Governments can preserve and even increase tax and other financial benefits aimed at helping parents by linking these not to the number of children they have, but to parenthood status itself.
- Integrate lessons on population, environment, and development into school curricula at multiple levels. Refraining from advocacy or propaganda, schools should educate students to make well-informed choices about the impacts of their behavior, including childbearing, on the environment.
- Put prices on environmental costs and impacts. In quantifying the cost of an additional family member by calculating taxes and increased food costs, couples may decide that the cost of having an additional child is too high. Such decisions, freely made by women and couples, can decrease birth rates without any involvement by non-parents in reproduction.
- Adjust to an aging population instead of boosting childbearing through government incentives and programs. Population aging must be met with the needed societal adjustments, such as increased labor participation, rather than by offering incentives to women to have more children.
- Convince leaders to commit to stabilizing population through the exercise of human rights and human development. By educating themselves on rights-based population policies, policymakers can ethically and effectively address population-related challenges by empowering women to make their own reproductive choices.
Kathleen Mogelgaard assisted with research for this piece.
Robert Engelman is the president of the Worldwatch Institute and contributing author to State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity.
Sources: Bloom et al. (2011), Guttmacher Institute, Kohler et al. (2008), Population Reference Bureau, UN, UNFPA, The Wall Street Journal, Yadava and Yadava (1999).
Image Credit: Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity.
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