Problems caused by rapid population growth, environmental degradation and climate disruption are harming human welfare and the natural world. These problems are largely addressed separately, with little common understanding or integration of efforts. Our recent paper, Advancing the Welfare of People and the Planet with a Common Agenda for Reproductive Justice, Population, and the Environment, argues for an integrated approach, to take advantage of synergies in policy solutions and strength in numbers to generate sufficient political will to enact them.
by Joseph Speidel and Jane O’Sullivan
Increasing consumption by a growing and increasingly affluent international middle class and rapid growth of population numbers worldwide have resulted in unsustainable human demands being placed on essential natural resources. The result is damage to croplands, fresh water supplies, fisheries, forests, climate change, and perpetuation of poverty.
A common agenda should address the challenge of accommodating billions of additional people in the coming decades while virtually eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, reversing environmental degradation, and supporting improved living standards for billions of impoverished people.
A key to this common agenda is the concept of reproductive justice. This encompasses the right to access family planning and reproductive health services, and embraces both gender equity and intergenerational equity. The latter depends on preserving a healthy environment, with not too many people competing for a share of its bounty.
Lack of access to contraceptive information and services contributes to more than 120 million unintended pregnancies each year and world population growth remaining at about 80 million a year.
The UN projects with a 95% probability that world population will increase from the current 8 billion to between 9.4 and 10.1 billion in 2050 and between 9.4 and 12.7 billion in 2100. The great variability in future population size depends largely on how generously the world community supports international family planning programs.
At present the interrelated challenges of population and environment are not adequately addressed. The response to them is handicapped by a lack of common understanding or an integrated agenda. The organisations and government agencies concerned with advocacy and action relating to climate, food security, ecosystem preservation, reproductive justice, abortion rights, family planning, and population dynamics each have differing goals and agendas. Although they advance many good policies and programs, their positions too often are limited to those that avoid controversy and conform to organisational ideologies rather than being guided by objective evidence.
For example, advocates for women’s rights, health, and welfare support the right to choose the number and timing of childbearing, access to contraception, abortion, and equal opportunities for women. Yet they often express fear that acknowledging the links between population and poverty, or population and the environment, will lead to coercive family planning programs. They fail to recognize that in many settings, limiting population size is fundamental to the goals of reproductive justice, including improving the economic status of women and the attainment and preservation of a healthy and productive environment.
Family planning advocates recognize the benefits of reproductive health services, including safe abortion care, for women’s health and wellbeing. Even so, programs often limit access to family planning for certain categories of people – for example, teenagers, unmarried women, and women who need abortion care.
Many environmental advocates downplay the environmental impact of population growth. Some consider the trajectory of population growth to be either immutable or not requiring intervention, believing population size will stabilize in the near future. They rely on UN population projections or even much lower projections such as the SSP series, despite the UN repeatedly underestimating the speed and magnitude of future world population growth. For example, the 2022 UN projection for Africa’s population size in 2050 is 2.9 billion; this is more than one billion higher than the UN projection made in 2002.
Population complacency is particularly inappropriate because the lower fertility rates projected by some demographers depend on increased access and use of contraception. Rather than supporting a blasé attitude toward population policies, they depend on substantial policy improvements. Yet some countries are moving in the opposite direction, restricting access to contraception or cutting funding for family planning programs.
Environmentalists typically advance solutions that rely on technology and behaviour change but ignore the synergistic benefits of smaller national and global populations. They seldom consider that, as the five times more populous developing countries gain wealth and consume more, as they deserve to do, their contribution to environmental damage could greatly exceed that of currently wealthy countries.
The environmental community also has been wary of addressing population, contraception, and abortion because of fears that it would unnecessarily enmesh their programs in controversial topics. Unfortunately, this shyness reinforces the myths from which it shrinks: that attention to population growth is racially motivated, imposes on the poor, or attacks women’s bodily autonomy. The opposite is true. The greatest progress in women’s emancipation and economic development in poor countries has been achieved as a consequence of successful family planning programs.
Education, empowerment, and access to affordable, fully voluntary family planning and abortion services ensures that women are free to choose the number and timing of childbearing. Some women will have large families, others will choose to remain childless. But the experience of many countries suggests that, where contraception services are provided and the benefits of small families are promoted, cultural pressure to bear many children dissipates and people embrace the idea of investing more in fewer children.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, by satisfying the unmet need for modern contraception in developing countries, the currently high numbers of unintended pregnancies, unplanned births, and abortions would drop by almost three-fourths. This in turn will slow population growth, foster economic development, and reduce the pressure of a burgeoning human population on the environment.
Reduction of population pressure will not substitute for other measures needed to reduce ongoing environmental damage. But it is an essential component of a comprehensive environmental agenda.
Measures needed to protect biodiversity include proper economic valuation of natural capital and ecosystem services; protection of forests, wetlands and other natural areas from logging or conversion to agriculture; adoption and enforcement of national laws and international agreements to prevent illegal trafficking in timber and wildlife; development and implementation of effective policies to ensure sustainable fisheries; and most important, the establishment of interconnected, well-funded and well-managed reserves for half or more of the world’s terrestrial, marine, fresh water, and aerial habitats.
Measures to limit climate change must include rapid replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources; large reductions in energy use per person in rich countries; wholesale deployment of alternatives to cement, refrigerants and other non-energy-related sources of greenhouse gases; the protection and expansion of the world’s forests and peatlands; and drastically reducing the numbers of cattle and sheep, through less meat consumption per person.
However, even the most wholehearted adoption of these mitigation efforts will not reverse biodiversity loss or halt climate change if human populations keep rising. Success depends on much greater investment in family planning, especially in the developing world. It must include embracing population decline in those countries where birth rates are already low.
Policy makers concerned with poverty and climate should recognize that, with the exception of a few oil-rich nations, no country has lifted itself out of poverty without first reducing its fertility rate. They should also consider that decreased population growth through investment in family planning and female education would cost far less per tonne of carbon abatement than all options for low-carbon energy such as solar and wind.
The International Renewable Energy Agency has called for outlays of USD 120 trillion between 2015 and 2050 to combat climate change. The worldwide costs of climate adaptation are likely to be between USD 280 billion and USD 500 billion per year by 2050. Within these budgets, the extra USD 6 billion per year needed to meet unmet needs for contraception services in low and middle income countries represents a ‘best buy,’ increasing the effectiveness of all other efforts for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and enhancing poverty reduction, food security, and ecosystem protection.
It is appropriate to care about population dynamics, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the environment simultaneously. In an era of vigorous attacks on important issues such as abortion rights and a scientifically adequate response to climate change, it is particularly important to build allegiances that endorse each other’s priorities. Supporting a common agenda could bring many of the adherents of these advocacy communities together, strengthen their voices in the public arena, and move advantageous policies, funding, and programs forward.