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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Improving access to family planning for climate-compatibility

Policymakers and others working to slow human-caused climate change and make societies more resilient to its impacts should consider potential contributions to that effort from expanded access to family planning, a group of experts recommends.

Robert Engelman, Senior Fellow and former President of the Worldwatch Institute.
Robert Engelman, Senior Fellow and former President of the Worldwatch Institute. Photo credit: worldwatch.org

The first step is simply to open dialogues on possible connections between climate change and family planning, and the right of individuals and the services they need to decide for themselves the timing and frequency of childbearing, said the experts. The group, which explored the linkage of population dynamics and family planning to climate compatible development, was convened by Population Reference Bureau and the Worldwatch Institute. Members came from fields related both to climate change and reproductive health.

“This is a clear statement from a diverse group of climate and reproductive health experts, women and men from developing as well as developed countries,” said Robert Engelman, Senior Fellow and former President of the Worldwatch Institute. “The group strongly recommends expanding access to family planning, with one of its many benefits being that it helps support development that is compatible with a sustainable climate.”

Over the last 100 years, the world’s population has grown from around one billion people to more than seven billion people. Human activity has transformed vast areas of the Earth’s surface, altered the atmosphere, and resulted in thousands of plant and animal species extinctions. Achieving universal access to family planning throughout the world would result in fewer unintended pregnancies, improve the health and well-being of women and their families, and slow population growth-all benefits to climate compatible development.

Population and family planning have rarely been linked with climate compatible development in climate policy discussions. Research has demonstrated, however, that helping women in all countries achieve their own aspirations for planning pregnancies and family size would put the world on a path to slower population growth. This would ultimately lead to substantial reductions in future carbon dioxide emissions.

Connections within family planning-climate change connections are presented from a woman-centered and rights-based approach. When safe and effective family planning services are available to all, experience shows that average family size falls, pregnancies occur at more optimal times in women’s lives, and mothers and children are healthier and more able to contribute to their countries’ development-and are more resilient to rapid change.

Jason Bremner, Associate Vice President at the Population Reference Bureau. Photo credit: geog.ucab.edu
Jason Bremner, Associate Vice President at the Population Reference Bureau. Photo credit: geog.ucab.edu

“Family planning can be a sensitive topic, especially when linked to climate change or the environment generally,” Engelman said. “These experts are saying it’s okay to talk about, okay to support, so long as we insist that its availability is rooted in human rights and the free reproductive decisions of individual women and couples. There are many steps needed to advance climate compatible development, such as addressing unequal greenhouse gas emissions and vulnerability to climate change impacts. One of these important steps is to make sure that individuals and couples can choose safe and effective contraception to have the pregnancies they want and to avoid those they do not.”

“The work of this group of population, climate, family planning, and development experts illustrates that you can have a positive, women centred dialogue on these connections,” adds Jason Bremner, Associate Vice President at the Population Reference Bureau. “This positive conversation and the establishment of a common set of guiding principles were critical in arriving at the consensus statement and will help others interested in making these connections avoid past missteps. The action opportunities developed by this group chart a path forward for researchers, advocates, and policymakers. These actions could ensure that improved access to family planning figures among the efforts to address climate change and its impacts.”

Linking population, reproductive health, and climate change is unconventional for many policymakers. Cross-sectoral alliances and initiatives that highlight and integrate potential synergies in development plans and in climate finance programs could reap enormous benefits, especially over time, for individuals and societies as we tackle climate change.

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