The future of our climate requires addressing population growth. By 2050, The United Nations projects a population growth from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion, with almost all of this increase happening in the developing world. Here’s why climate experts are advocating for better education, family planning and equal rights for women as key solutions to climate change.
One of the most contentious issues that underlies the enormity of the climate crisis, is our ever growing population. It seems like we can’t talk about solutions without stumbling upon sticky issues like freedom of choice when it comes to having children. But for all its complexity, there lies one loophole that reduces the population without encroaching on people’s personal choices. That loophole is female empowerment.
214 million women in lower income countries say they want the freedom to choose when they become pregnant, yet they don’t have access to adequate family planning. Addressing this issue alone, would mean we might avoid 120 billion tonnes of carbon emissions entering the atmosphere by 2050. These figures were acquired from environmentalist Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown, a list of the world’s leading climate solutions. Developed by a research team representing countries and universities around the world, female empowerment is one of the core solutions proposed to address the climate crisis. Three key solutions they prescribed include family planning, education and equality for female smallholders.
“The most cost-effective mechanism for reducing emissions does not seem to have been considered.”
In developing countries, there’s an inextricable link between family planning and school. In 1954, Malaysia became one of the first low income countries to introduce family planning on a wide scale, opening the National Family Planning Board in 1966. The use of contraceptives went up from 3 percent to 39 percent between 1961 and 1975, decreasing Malaysia’s fertility rate from 6.2 children to 4.3 during the same period. During this time, researchers Grant Miller and Kim Singer Babiarz discovered an unexpected result; that girls in communities with access to family planning clinics, stayed in school six months longer. This had a series of domino effects, like better jobs as adults and a higher likelihood that they’d take care of their elderly parents later in life. Providing contraception tends to mean girls stay in school for longer.
“The existence of family planning and contraceptives may lead parents to believe their daughters can participate in the labor force and that more schooling will therefore benefit them,” Miller says. “In other words, it can change their expectations about the world their daughter will live in one day.” When women are granted liberties and resources they didn’t have before, the scope for choice opens up and without having to even discuss the issue of population, we can see how the numbers can decrease based on individual choice without the need for government policies to intervene.
“When women are given the right to access education, they choose to marry later in life and have fewer children.”
Closing the education gap in the developing world has a whole range of benefits, beyond scaling back population growth. For a range of reasons, when women are given the right to access education, they choose to marry later in life and have fewer children. Not only does education address the population without the need for laws like China’s One Child Policy, it’s also the most economic solution.
Vice President and Director of Global Economy and Development at The Brookings Institution Homi Kharas says “Unfortunately, the cheapest, most cost-effective mechanism for reducing emissions does not seem to have been considered by the international community. It is education, or more specifically girls’ education, that’s far more likely to result in lower carbon emissions than a shift to renewables, improved agricultural practices, urban public transport, or any other strategy now being contemplated.” It also means improved health for women and children, greater financial security and capacity for adapting to a climate changing world. Yet 130 million girls are still denied the right to attend school globally.
Despite its potential, education still receives small amounts of aid compared to what has been promised for climate change. Worldwide, there’s been 13 billion invested in aid commitments for education projects, but that accounts mostly for primary level school, with only modest improvements in secondary school. By 2050, The United Nations projects a population growth from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion, with almost all of this 2.3 billion increase happening in the developing world. According to the International Institute for Applied Systems in Vienna, that figure could be reduced to 1.8 billion less people by 2050 with improved education alone. Working towards female equality in developing areas goes straight to the epicentre of the issue, where the population is set to grow the most.
“Giving female farmers access to equal rights would in turn keep trees in the ground.”
Lastly, striving for female equality in the agriculture sector could also reduce the world’s carbon emissions by around 2 billion tonnes between now and 2050 as forecasted by Project Drawdown. Despite being the world’s primary farmers in lower income countries — women smallholders can’t utilise farms to their full capacity because they lack access to resources like land rights, credit, capital, training, tools and technology.
Women are as capable and efficient as male farmers and produce 60 to 80 percent of the world’s food in lower income countries. If women were given access to all the resources they need like their male counterparts, they’d yield 20 to 30 percent more crops on their existing piece of land and this would stop the need for land clearing elsewhere. Since keeping carbon in the ground is the number one strategy for reducing climate change, giving female farmers access to equal rights would in turn keep trees in the ground, which could save 2 billion tonnes of carbon from entering the atmosphere by 2050.
“Much of the climate crisis stems from broken systems of inequality.”
Climate change and female equality are closely tied. Give females in the developing world agency over their reproductive choices with family planning and it could mean 1 billion less people on the planet by 2050. Give females access to education and we’ve seen that they choose to have less children. Give female farmers equal resources that help them produce more food from their existing land and we can avoid clearcutting the forests that stabilise our climate.
When we understand that much of the climate crisis stems from broken systems of inequality, we can begin to look more clearly at the areas of the world that need our attention. The path to restoring the climate begins by restoring equality in our global communities and if we’re to have any future at all, the future is most certainly female.