The battle against global warming could be helped if the world slowed population growth by making free condoms and family planning advice more widely available, the U.N. Population Fund said Wednesday.What effect will free condoms have on emissions and, ultimately, on climate change?
The agency did not recommend countries set limits on how many children people should have, but said: "Women with access to reproductive health services ... have lower fertility rates that contribute to slower growth in greenhouse gas emissions."
"As the growth of population, economies and consumption outpaces the Earth's capacity to adjust, climate change could become much more extreme and conceivably catastrophic," the report said.
The idea that family planning should be justified in terms of reducing emissions is, in my view, utter nonsense. Family planning policies are important in their own right, and to justify them in terms of climate change cheapens both the climate change agenda and the family planning agenda. Fortunately, this perspective is widely shared:
The U.N. Population Fund acknowledged it had no proof of the effect that population control would have on climate change. "The linkages between population and climate change are in most cases complex and indirect," the report said.
It also said that while there is no doubt that "people cause climate change," the developing world has been responsible for a much smaller share of world's greenhouse gas emissions than developed countries.
Still, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the U.N. Population Fund's executive director, told a news conference in London on Wednesday that global warming could be catastrophic for people in poor countries, particularly women.
"We have now reached a point where humanity is approaching the brink of disaster," she said.
In three weeks, a global conference will be held in Copenhagen aimed at reaching a deal to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required 37 industrial countries to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
The dynamics going here have been well-chronicled by Mike Hulme, who has suggested that much of the debate about climate change is not really about what we can do about climate change, but what climate change can do for us. Helping to sell family planning is probably not among those things.
"It requires a major leap of imagination to believe that free condoms will cool down the climate," said Caroline Boin, a policy analyst at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank.
She also questioned earlier efforts by the agency to control the world's population.
In its 1987 report, the U.N. Population Fund warned that once the global population hit 5 billion, the world "could degenerate into disaster." At the time, the agency said "more vigorous attempts to slow undue population growth" were needed in many countries.
According to Boin, "Numerous environmental indicators show that with development and economic growth we are able to preserve more natural habitats. There is no causal relationship between population density and poverty."
In this month's Bulletin, the World Health Organization's journal, two experts also warned about the dangers of linking fertility to climate change.
"Using the need to reduce climate change as a justification for curbing the fertility of individual women at best provokes controversy and at worst provides a mandate to suppress individual freedoms," wrote WHO's Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum and Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan.
UPDATE: A reader writes in noting this from The Economist a few weeks ago:
Lastly, a special case: China’s one-child policy, which began nationwide in the early 1970s. China’s population is probably 300m-400m lower now than it would have been without it. The policy (which is one of population control, not birth control) has had dreadful costs, including widespread female infanticide, a lopsided sex ratio and horrors such as mass sterilisation and forced abortions. But in its own terms, it has worked—20m people enter the workforce each year, instead of 40m—and, to the extent that China is polluting less than it would have done, it has benefited the rest of the world.People can legitimately disagree on whether the benefits of such policies exceed the costs. However,you can put me down on the side of believing (quite strongly) that they do not.