The Carbon Legacy of Family Planning

There are many ways in which the sexual and reproductive health movement is intimately connected to environmental advocacy. Millions of women around the world lack access to the contraceptives that they would like to have and as a result, many face unintended pregnancies.  Often this leads to greater economic burdens for many struggling families and perpetuates a poverty trap, limiting access to health care, education, and livelihood. Public health research demonstrates the enormous multiplier effect that access to contraceptives has on women’s lives. It is increasingly clear that this also reduces pressure on the environment.

We have known for some time that humans have been consuming resources at unsustainable levels. But this is not entirely due to fertility rates. Even in places with relatively low fertility rates, consumption is not always sustainable. The United States is one of those places. Consumption and emissions in the West are major contributors to climate change. A recent Mother Jones article aptly states: “At current rates, an American child has 55 times the carbon legacy of a child born to a family in India."

Climate change is blind to lines on a map; it is relevant everywhere. While it is important to think about choices that limit consumption, like recycling, alternative energy, or public transportation, it is also imperative to remember that poor women are often hardest hit by environmental degradation. When access to clean water is limited or harvests are damaged by contamination or disasters, poorer families struggle to keep their families healthy, clean, and fed.  The security of their environment impacts so much of their future. 

In some ways, the world’s poor have little bearing on climate change.  To successfully combat climate change we need to a major paradigm shift that addresses rather large questions about how to incentivize all people to make choices that reduce carbon emissions, and how to distribute wealth and opportunity to those who have been otherwise shut out from it, questions to which there are no simple answers.

Except for extreme cases, i.e. - China, the global drop in fertility rates primarily indicates greater efforts to empower women to make informed choices about if, when, and how they would like to raise a family. There is still much work to be done to ensure that everyone has access to the contraceptives and information they need.  We know that there is no right answer about how big a family should be. Those are personal, individual decisions that depend on many factors and circumstances.

The sexual and reproductive health movement, in tandem with environmentalists, understands that we are faced with a world that is supporting more consumption than the planet can accommodate. We know that universal access to reproductive health is a positive investment for socio-economic development around the globe. While it will not reverse climate change, it will make it easier for poorer women to cope with the stress that climate change bestows.


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