pill and condomI’ve written about my choice not to have children.  What’s all too easy to forget is that many women still don’t have any reasonable choice about their fertility.

An estimated 200 million women around the world don’t have access to family-planning tools.  If they did, 52 million unwanted pregnancies could be averted every year, according to the Guttmacher Institute [PDF].

I’m not talking government mandates or coercion or heavy-handed tactics — those approaches aren’t just ethically dubious, they’re wholly unnecessary.  We just need to give every woman everywhere contraceptive options so she can have basic control over how many children she has and how close together she has them — something that we in the developed world take completely for granted.  If we did so, many women would choose on their own to have fewer children, or to space them further apart.  Not only would there be fewer new bodies on our already crowded planet, but the lives of women and the children they do choose to have would be improved.

Most green groups don’t like to talk about all this — population has become the third rail of the environmental community (more on that in a future post).

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Technologists don’t like to either — they’d rather talk about traveling-wave nuclear reactors and CO2-sucking machines and space sunshades. We do need to explore and invest in cleantech options; climate change is serious enough that it requires all of our best efforts in all arenas.

But it may be that many of the technologies with the most potential for averting climate change already exist — the Pill, the condom, the IUD.  We just need to spread them far and wide.

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Baby stroller crossed-out in greenGINK: green inclinations, no kidsBetter still, providing contraception to women who lack it is one of the most cost-effective ways to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.  Each $7 spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a metric ton, while achieving that same reduction with the leading low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32, according to a recent study conducted at the London School of Economics [PDF], commissioned by the Optimum Population Trust. [Oops, not so much; see updates below.] And if you compare contraception to the potential costs of geoengineering, the potential savings are even more massive.

As Laurie Mazur puts it in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,

[T]he developed countries’ share of the cost to provide reproductive health services for every woman on earth is $20 billion — about what the bankers on Wall Street gave themselves in bonuses [in 2008].  The U.S. share of the cost is $1 billion, less than 2 percent of what the United States will spend on the war in Afghanistan [in 2009].  In contrast, the scheme to launch mirrors into space is estimated to cost a few trillion dollars.

When you look at those numbers, paying for condoms and IUDs looks to be not just a huge bargain, but startlingly sane. It may not be as sexy as space mirrors, but when’s the last time sexy solved a pressing global problem?

[UPDATE, 27 Apr 2010: Marian Starkey of Population Connection points out some methodological problems with the OPT study. The topic of family planning as a means of tackling climate change is obviously a complex one; I look forward to learning more and revisiting it in the future.

UPDATE, 10 Oct 2011: The Optimum Population Trust (recently renamed Population Matters) now admits to a “flaw” in its study, as noted in an addendum at the bottom of this page, so “the figure of $7 per tonne of carbon abated by investment in family planning is unreliable, and should not be quoted.” But the group adds, “OPT is confident, however, that the cost/benefit remains positive.”]


Read more about population and option of going childfree: