Study Finds Family Planning Cheapest Way to Prevent Climate Change

The Brits have been obsessed with overpopulation since at least Thomas Malthus. Now comes a new report (PDF) commissioned by the Optimum Population Trust and conducted by the London School of Economics, which says expanded access to family planning and contraceptives is five times cheaper than low-carbon technology in reducing greenhouse gases.

According to the study, $7 spent on family planning would reduce carbon emissions by one ton, by reducing the number of people emitting carbon. By contrast, low carbon technologies cost an estimated $32 per ton reduced. The authors are quick to note that the study considers only non-coercive forms of birth control. We’re not talking about mass sterilizations. Yet.

A study out of Oregon State University last month (see 3P article) covered similar ground with the simplistic argument that having fewer children = fewer emissions. But the Optimum Trust study, by translating dollars spent on different technologies — condoms versus carbon capture, so to speak — into emissions reduced, speaks the language of climateers — and thus could actually have an effect on climate change policy.

Less Bang for Your $7 Bucks

If all the women who want contraception but don’t have access to it did, there would be a half a billion fewer human beings in 2050 than the projected 9.1 billion, according to recent estimates. Using those figures, the London School researchers estimated 12 billion fewerpeople years lived, saving 34 gigatons of CO2 emitted.

With a cost of $220 billion to provide the contraception, they arrived at the $7 estimate.

The $7 cost of abating a tonne of CO2 using family planning compares with $24 (£15) for wind power, $51 (£31) for solar, $57-83 (£35-51) for coal plants with carbon capture and storage, $92 (£56) for plug-in hybrid vehicles and $131 (£80) for electric vehicles.

Actually savings might be higher, according to the authors, because they only used figures for married women, but up to 40% of young unmarried women have had unwanted pregnancies, according to other studies.

“We’ll Be at Copenhagen”

Roger Martin, chair of Optimum Population Trust, said the study “vindicated OPT’s stance that population growth must be considered in the climate debate.”

“The potential for tackling climate change by addressing population growth through better family planning, alongside the conventional approach, is clearly enormous and we shall be urging all those involved in the Copenhagen process to take it fully on board.”

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

5 responses

  1. This is “Big Oil” and “king Coal” solution to climate change. It shamefull to find this article on this site.

  2. This is a fascinating and very important observation. Though it’s not just about family planning, it’s also about economic development and women’s rights. It’s a proven phenomenon that as a society achieves a certain level of economic wellbeing, combined with recognition of women’s rights & access to planning that birthrates naturally go down. As a result, the only reason Europe and the US continue to go up in population is immigration.

    If this were not the case, we’d basically be screwed no matter how green we manage to become.

  3. Human impact on the environment is due to the number of people in the study area times their level of consumption. This article is exactly right. It is much cheaper to provide voluntary family planning to those who want it, about 200 million couples globally. We need to support efforts by governments and NGOs to support family planning programs that are so cost effective. Other means of reducing greenhouse gases are also important but cost more.

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