Every year, some 36 billion tons of anthropogenic carbon enter the atmosphere, mainly as a result of burning fossil fuels. With 8 billion people on Earth, this means that each human adds an average of 4.5 tons of carbon into the air annually. And wealthy people have a far bigger footprint than the poor — by a couple orders of magnitude.
Too often ignored in devising solutions to slow global warming is the fact that a sizeable number of pregnancies are unintended, and many of the resulting births are unwanted. According to the Guttmacher Institute, as many as 121 million pregnancies each year are unintended, and an estimated 10 percent of all births are “unwanted,” a consequence of either sexual assault or some other form of coercive conception, including the unavailability of effective birth control or abortion.
By one recent estimate, some 270 million women of childbearing age have an unmet need for modern contraception. Avoiding unwanted births — by making contraception and abortion freely available globally — would significantly reduce births and therefore (over the long term) human-generated carbon emissions. If the world’s total population were eventually reduced by 10 percent, this would reduce carbon emissions by 3.6 billion tons per year, which is more than the total combined emissions of Germany, Japan, Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, and Australia.
In report after report, the IPCC makes little or no mention of contraception, abortion, or family planning.
What is remarkable, however, is how little this has been considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading body of scholars assessing the science of global warming and possible solutions. In report after report — from the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change to the latest working groups findings — the IPCC makes little or no mention of contraception, abortion, or family planning.
The IPCC’s latest latest report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (3,675 pages) does not mention contraception or abortion, and it refers to “reproductive health and family planning” only in the context of improving the health and well-being of women and their children. Voluntary family planning was also barely referenced at last November’s climate conference in Glasgow (COP26) — despite UN Sustainable Development Goals that call for incorporating “universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services” into national strategies. Among the more than 300 UN press releases from this conference, not a single headline mentioned contraception or family planning.
We find a related myopia in organizations that promote family planning. None of the most powerful agencies — the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, or the U.S. Agency for International Development — acknowledge the climate benefits of preventing unintended pregnancies. A 2019 “Data Booklet” from the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (funded partly by the Gates Foundation), points out that 10 percent of women globally have “an unmet need for family planning.” The booklet emphasizes “women’s and girls’ empowerment” but fails to acknowledge a climate benefit from ending unwanted pregnancies.
Historical context, of course, is crucial for understanding this taboo. Race-based population control was a pillar of Nazi policy and propaganda, and in the Americas, too, eugenicists pushed hard for “positive” and “negative” eugenics, rewarding the breeding of certain populations judged superior and the sterilization of people judged inferior. Some 30 U.S. states passed laws allowing the forcible sterilization of anyone judged physically or mentally unfit, laws upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even after the collapse of the eugenics movement, population control got a bad name as a result of state-sanctioned efforts to limit fertility, especially in poorer parts of the world. Forced vasectomies in India in the 1970s, for example, led to a backlash that brought down Indira Gandhi’s government. Another important turning point was the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, which effectively treated any effort to limit population growth in the developing world as masking an agenda to suppress populations of the Global South.
As a result, the focus of global policy agencies shifted away from controlling population to reproductive health, with the goal now being to promote gender equality, education, and empowerment of women. Global funds for family planning have declined ever since, along with environmental justifications for family planning.
Also significant is that many nations with pro-natal policies have some of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions.
Another reason for the neglect has been the failure to consider reproductive technology — such as birth control and medical abortion — as part of technology. The IPCC, for example, focuses on how carbon in the atmosphere is likely to impact human health and well-being, but ignores how human reproductive technology (and hence reproductive freedom) might influence total carbon emissions. The IPCC’s Working Group III, for example, explores opportunities for mitigating climate change, detailing “hundreds of new mitigation scenarios.” But none of these explores how enlarging reproductive freedoms might yield climate benefits.
Elements of this myopia go back to the early 1970s, when ecologists first started equating “Impact of human activity on the planet” to Population x Affluence x Technology (IPAT), with technology conceived as “impact per unit of consumption.” Bizarrely, contraception in such models is not considered part of “technology.” Technology is conceived as lowering the impact of greenhouse-relevant production and/or consumption, with reproduction (i.e., birthing, and therefore population) treated as beyond the realm of human intervention. Population becomes an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover, of emissions.
A good example of this oversight is the IPCC’s 2021 report of Working Group I, which considers “the role of human influence” on the climate while altogether ignoring human reproductive behavior. “Human influence” appears 435 times in this report, but contraception is not mentioned once in the 3,949-page volume. Nor is abortion or reproduction. Population is treated (again) as a driver of total emissions, but is ignored as a means of “limiting human-induced climate change.”
The magnitude of this challenge is evidenced by the fact that more than 50 countries — including Australia, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Japan, Poland, Russia, Singapore, and South Korea — have policies to increase birth rates via tax incentives and “baby bonuses.” According to a recent study by the United Nations, the proportion of countries with pro-natal policies has risen from 10 percent in 1976 to 28 percent in 2015. State-sanctioned pro-natalism — a form of nationalism — is at odds with the reality that population remains a significant driver of global greenhouse gas emissions. Significant also is that many nations with pro-natal policies have some of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions.
Another obstacle is that access to contraception and abortion remains dramatically limited in many parts of the world. Today, only 37 percent of women live in countries where abortion is available upon request. In Africa, an estimated 92 percent of women live under severely restrictive laws; in Latin America the proportion is close to 97 percent. And many nations ban abortion entirely. Abortion is currently illegal in Andora, Aruba, the Congo, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Jamaica, Laos, Madagascar, Malta, Mauritania, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Suriname, Tonga, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and (lately) in many parts of the United States. Many of the laws governing abortion in these regions are holdovers from a colonial era, imposed by European countries that long ago abandoned such restrictive laws for themselves.
Each new baby born in the U.K. will generate 35 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a baby born in Bangladesh.
Avoiding unwanted pregnancies (and births) should not, however, be imagined as an alternative to, or replacement for, humanity’s need to radically decarbonize the global economy. The ultimate solution to climate change is to prevent fossil carbon from entering the atmosphere; all other policies must be subordinate to this goal. Decarbonization will take time, however, which means that an “all hands on deck” approach is required, recognizing that some solutions take a bigger bite out of the problem than others.
To reduce population in a manner consistent with human rights and liberties, we have to reframe this mitigation opportunity as a means to prevent unwanted births. Reducing population in this manner is consistent with the enlargement of human liberties; again, our goal should be to reduce or eliminate births that are clearly unwanted.
Globally, unwanted pregnancies result from myriad causes, including lack of access to contraception, prohibitive cost of contraception, failed contraception, sexual assault and violence, child and forced marriage, religious opposition, laws banning abortion, absence of sex education, and concerns about side effects of chemical contraception. Millions of the babies born into the world every year are the result of coercive conception, which means that access to contraception can help solve the climate crisis while enlarging human liberties.
Of course, not all births are equal when it comes to carbon footprint. According to the World Bank, the average inhabitant of a high-income nation contributes 10 tons of carbon per year, while the average person living in a low-income nation contributes only 0.2 tons. This means that births averted in rich countries will result in higher carbon savings than births averted in poorer parts of the world. Burundi, Ethiopia, and Papua New Guinea together have about the same total population as the U.S., but collectively contribute only about one percent of the global added carbon burden, compared to the U.S., which generates 15 percent of global carbon emissions. By one calculation, each new baby born in the U.K. will generate 35 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a baby born in Bangladesh.
Crucial also to understand, though, is that different countries have different access to effective birth control and abortion. In most European countries, for example, contraception is included as part of ordinary health delivery, and abortion is readily available. By contrast, in many states of the U.S., effective contraception is often expensive and abortion highly restricted, particularly after the Supreme Court in June overturned a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion when it struck down the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. A high unmet need for reproductive health services, coupled with high CO2 emissions per capita, creates an opportunity for more effective family planning in the U.S.
Globally, we need to think about climate mitigation more broadly, to include reproductive technologies — or the lack thereof. The benefits of family planning must be broadened to include its value in helping to prevent climate change. It’s a win-win — saving the planet while enlarging human liberties.