Aspen Global Health and Development


Mother and infant


Providing voluntary family planning services to all who need them is one of the most effective pathways to improve maternal and child health. Groundbreaking new research indicates that meeting existing global need for family planning would deliver an additional side benefit: a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The scope of this decrease would be significant: between 8 and 15 percent of the reductions needed to avert catastrophic climate change. And the cost of providing these services would be minimal: $3.7 billion per year for the developing world and the United States.

How are family planning and climate change linked?

Robust research shows that many women around the world cannot get access to the voluntary family planning services they already want. As a result, the world’s population is growing more quickly than it would if women were empowered to plan their pregnancies. This population growth is causing greenhouse gas emissions to increase more quickly as well.

Isn't consumption in industrialized countries the main driver of climate change?

It’s true that individuals in wealthy countries contribute much higher emissions per capita than people in developing countries, and steep reductions in wealthy countries’ emissions must be realized to avert catastrophic climate change. However, emissions from developing countries are expected to rise dramatically as their economies and populations grow. Some of that population growth is fueled by lack of access to voluntary family planning. Hundreds of millions of women around the world – in both the United States and developing countries – cannot gain access to the voluntary family planning services they want.

Voluntary family planning is one essential strategy among many in a comprehensive emissions reduction plan in both the United States and the developing world.

Isn't population growth only happening in the developing world, where per capita emissions are low?

Population is growing faster in the developing world than in the industrialized countries in part because more women in the developing world do not have access to family planning services. However, the United States, the third largest country in the world, has very high per capita emissions of greenhouse gases and one of the fastest-growing populations of any industrialized country. Some of the population growth in the United States is due to women being unable to access the family planning services that they need.

Though per capita consumption in the developing world is currently low relative to the industrialized countries, it is not insignificant and will rise substantially in coming years. Empowering couples in Latin America, Africa and Asia to have the number of children they want would mean healthier mothers, families and communities. In addition, as the new research demonstrates, it would also slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the developing world.

Won't family planning just increase incomes and thereby increase per capita emissions?

The O’Neill research incorporates this factor and still finds that increased emissions from rising prosperity will not outweigh the emissions reductions that come when women are empowered to have the number of children they want.

Can you really expect all women with unmet need to use contraception? What about those whose partners object to modern birth control, or those whose cultural beliefs are at odds with modern contraception?

Data show that family planning programs can address most of the reasons for women’s unmet need. Despite fears about disapproving partners or in-laws and cultural beliefs, when a range of modern contraceptive methods is available with accurate information and quality counseling, women make use of it. Women's desire to plan family size is very strong.  Estimates of unmet need have proven to predict future contraception use with reliability.

Isn't raising this issue likely to complicate the already politically fraught international climate negotiations?

Current efforts to meet existing demand for family planning are focused on better targeting Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and in-country spending. Investing in meeting women’s needs for voluntary family planning is a stand-alone development strategy that dramatically improves health and enhances fundamental human rights. These investments are a priority for many developing nations as they seek to improve well-being, health and prosperity. They also are increasingly important in a world searching for growth pathways that provide multiple benefits to people and the climate. Meeting women’s needs for voluntary family planning is one among many such strategies, including cleaner cook stoves and reduced deforestation.

Doesn't the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) already consider various population scenarios?

SRES scenarios do not consider the independent impact of population. When the IPCC models vary population projections, they also shift other variables, making it difficult to discern the impact of meeting family planning needs. This analysis is designed to look at population as an independent variable and is more up to date. The IPCC SRES relies on 1998 UN projections.

What models were used for this research?

Scott Moreland and colleagues estimated the changes in contraceptive use implied by current UN population growth scenarios for 99 developing countries and the United States. They then compared these scenarios with the demographic impact of satisfying unmet need for voluntary family planning and prepared cost estimates for each of the four scenarios.

Brian O’Neill and his team used an integrated assessment model that accounts for the impact of population growth on total emissions by region, as well as additional variables such as age and household structures, increasing incomes and urbanization.

Together, the two papers demonstrate the demographic impact of meeting existing need for family planning services and estimate the potential resulting emissions reductions.

How does girls' education fit into this picture?

Girls’ education is an incredibly powerful strategy for empowerment, economic development and human dignity. It also tends to increase demand for voluntary family planning services. This research deals with the hundreds of millions of women worldwide who already want to avoid pregnancy and aren’t accessing voluntary family planning services. Satisfying unmet need is an identified, inexpensive, no-regrets development strategy with a climate benefit.