WATCH: The solution for reversing global warming is educating girls and family planning

Project Drawdown examines 100 solutions to reverse global warming by 2050

Published July 9, 2017 6:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted with permission from "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming." Edited by Paul Hawken. Copyright 2017 Penguin Books.

Family planning

For women to have children by choice rather than chance and to plan their family size and spacing is a matter of autonomy and dignity. Two hundred and twenty-five million women in lower-income countries say they want the ability to choose whether and when to become pregnant but lack the necessary access to contraception resulting in some 74 million unintended pregnancies each year. The need persists in some high-income countries as well, including the United States where 45 percent of pregnancies are unintended. Securing the fundamental right to voluntary, high-quality family planning services around the world would have powerful positive impacts on the health, welfare, and life expectancy of both women and their children. The benefits for social and economic development across all genders are myriad and, unto themselves, merit swift and sustained action. Family planning can also have ripple effects on drawing down greenhouse gas emissions.

In the early 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren developed the now-famous equation known as “IPAT”: Impact =Population x Affluence x Technology. In simplified fashion, it argues that the impact human beings have on the environment is a function of number, level of consumption, and the kind of technology used. Much of the work to address global warming has focused on the technology piece of the equation and the shift away from fossil fuels. Some has zeroed in on affluence, aiming to reduce consumer appetite for things, particularly in rich countries. Addressing the third factor, population, remains controversial, despite widespread agreement that greater numbers place more strain on the planet, though no equally so. Each person consumes resources and causes emissions throughout a lifetime; those impacts are much greater for someone in the United States than in Uzbekistan or Uganda. Carbon footprints are a common and comfortable topic. How many feet are leaving their tracks is not, due largely to concerns that linking family planning with environmental health is inherently coercive or cruel Malthusian in the worst sense. However, when family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality, and well-being are the goal; benefits to the planet are side effects.

Challenges to expanding access to family planning range from basic supply of affordable and culturally appropriate contraception to education about sex and reproduction; from far-away health centers to hostile attitudes of medical providers; from social and religious norms to sexual partners’ opposition to using birth control. Currently, the world faces a $5.3 billion funding shortfall for providing the access to reproductive health- care that women say they want to have.

The success stories in family planning, however, are striking. Iran put a program into place in the early 1990s that has been touted as among the most successful such efforts in history. Completely voluntary, it involved religious leaders, educated the public, and provided free access to contraception. As a result, fertility rates halved in just one decade. In Bangladesh, average birth rates fell from six children in the 1980s to two now, as the door-to-door approach pioneered at the Matlab hospital spread across the country: female health workers providing basic care for women and children where they live. These and other success stories show that provision of contraception is rarely sufficient. Family planning requires social reinforcement, for example the radio and television soap operas now used in many places to shift perceptions of what is “normal” or “right.”

After being silent on the topic of family planning for more than twenty-five years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included access to reproductive health services in its 2014 synthesis report and pointed to population growth as an important factor in greenhouse gas concentrations. Growing evidence suggests that family planning has the additional benefit of building resilience helping communities and countries better cope with and adapt to inevitable changes brought by global warming. That too has implications for women and girls, who, because of existing inequities, suffer disproportionately when impacts, from disease to natural disaster, hit. Still, this topic continues to be taboo in many countries and institutions, hemmed in by the persistent belief that raising the issue of population, or approaches that reduce it, is inherently draconian and an affront to the worth of human life. It may be the other way around on a warming, crowded planet: To revere human life it is to ensure a viable, vibrant home for all. Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about centralized governments forcing the birth rate down or up, through natalist policies. Nor is it about agencies or activists in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. It is most essentially about freedom and opportunity for women and the recognition of basic human rights. Currently, family planning programs receive just 1 percent of all overseas development assistance. That number could double, with low-income countries aiming to match it a moral move that happens to have meaning for the planet.

IMPACT: Increased adoption of reproductive healthcare and family planning is an essential component to achieve the United Nations’ 2015 medium global population projection of 9.7 billion people by 2050. If investment in family planning, particularly in low-income countries, does not materialize, the world’s population could come closer to the high projection, adding another 1 billion people to the planet. We model the impact of this solution based on the difference in how much energy, building space, food, waste, and transportation would be used in world with little to no investment in family planning, compared to one in which the projection of 9.7 billion is realized. The resulting emissions reductions could be as high as 25 gigatons of carbon dioxide, at the average annual cost of $10.77 per user in low-in- come countries. Because educating girls has an important impact on the decision to use family planning, we allocate 50 percent of the total potential emissions reductions to each solution.

Educating girls

Girls’ education, it turns out, has a dramatic bearing on global warm- ing. Women with more years of education have fewer, healthier children and actively manage their reproductive health. In 2011, the journal Science published a demographic analysis of the impact of girls’ education on population growth. It details a “fast track” scenario, based on South Korea’s actual climb from one of the least to most educated countries in the world. If all nations adopted a similar rate and achieved 100 percent enrollment of girls in primary and secondary school, by 2050 there would be 843 million fewer people worldwide than if current enrollment rates sustain. According to the Brookings Institution, “The difference between a woman with no years of schooling and with 12 years of schooling is almost four to five children per woman. And it is precisely in those areas of the world where girls are having the hardest time getting educated that population growth is the fastest.”

In the poorest countries, per capita greenhouse gas emissions are low. People do not have enough energy to properly sanitize their water, read or study at night, or power their small businesses. There are 1.1 billion people who do not have any electricity at all. From one-tenth of a ton of carbon dioxide per person in Madagascar to 1.8 tons in India, per-capita emissions in lower-income countries are a fraction of the U.S. rate of 18 tons per person per year. Nevertheless, changes in fertility rates in these countries would have multiple benefits on virtually every level of global society.

Nobel Laureate and girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai has famously said, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen, can change the world.” An enormous body of evidence supports her conviction: For starters, educated girls realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth. Their rates of maternal mortality drop, as do mortality rates of their babies. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria the “social vaccine” effect. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished. They are more empowered at home, at work, and in society. An intrinsic right, education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It is the most powerful lever available for breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, while mitigating emissions by curbing population growth. A 2010 economic study shows that investment in educating girls is “highly cost-competitive with almost all of the existing options for carbon emissions abatement” perhaps just $10 per ton of carbon dioxide.

Education also shores up resilience in terms of climate change impacts something the world needs as warming mounts. Across low-income countries, there is a strong link between women and the natural systems at the heart of family and community life. Women often and increasingly play roles as stewards and managers of food, soil, trees, and water. As educated girls become educated women, they can fuse inherited traditional knowledge with new information accessed through the written word. As cycles of change play out in the times to come new diseases blighting fruit trees, soil composition shifting in garden plots, altered seed-sowing times educated women can marshal multiple ways of knowing to observe, understand, reevaluate, and take action to sustain themselves and those who depend on them.

Education also equips women to face the most dramatic climatic changes. A 2013 study found that educating girls “is the single most important social and economic factor associated with a reduction in vulnerability to natural disasters.” The single most important. It is a conclusion drawn from examining the experiences of 125 countries since 1980 and echoes other analyses. Educated girls and women have a better capacity to cope with shocks from natural disasters and extreme weather events and are therefore less likely to be injured, displaced, or killed when one strikes. This decreased vulnerability also extends to their children, families, and the elderly.

In the past twenty-five years, the global community has learned a great deal about educating girls. So many challenges impede girls from realizing their right to education, and yet, around the world, they are striving for a place in the classroom. Economic barriers include lack of family funds for school fees and uniforms, as well as prioritizing the more immediate benefits of having girls fetch water or firewood, or work a market stall or plot of land. Cultural barriers encompass traditional beliefs that girls should tend the home rather than learn to read and write, should be married off at a young age, and, when resources are slim, should be skipped over so boys can be sent to school in- stead. Barriers are also safety related. Schools that are farther afield put girls at risk of gender-based violence on their way to and from, not to mention dangers and discomforts at school it- self. Disability, pregnancy, childbirth, and female genital mutilation also can be obstacles.

The barriers are real, but so are the solutions. The most effective approaches concurrently tackle access (school affordability, proximity, and suitability for girls) and quality (good teachers and good learning outcomes). Mobilizing communities to sup- port and sustain progress on girls’ education is a powerful accelerant. The encyclopedic book What Works in Girls’ Education maps out seven areas of interconnected interventions:

    1. Make school affordable. For example, provide family stipends for keeping girls in school.
    2. Help girls overcome health barriers. For example, offer deworming treatments.
    3. Reduce the time and distance to get to school. For example, provide girls with bikes.
    4. Make schools more girl-friendly. For example, offer child-care programs for young mothers.
    5. Improve school quality. For example, invest in more and better teachers.
    6. Increase  community engagement. For example, train community education activists.
    7. Sustain girls’ education during emergencies.

For example, establish schools in refugee camps.

Today, 62 million girls are denied the right to attend school. The situation is most dire in secondary classrooms. In South Asia, less than half of girls 16.3 million are enrolled in secondary school. In sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than one in three girls at- tends secondary school, and while 75 percent of all girls start school, just 8 percent finish their secondary education. Currently, international aid for education projects is about $13 billion annually. Given the link between girls’ education and climate change, funds for climate mitigation and adaptation could enable the world to scale solutions rapidly. It could be a powerful match between education’s need for funds and the world’s need for proven climate solutions. Moreover, synchronizing investments in girls’ education with those in family planning would be complementary and mutually reinforcing. Education is grounded in the belief that every life bubbles with innate potential. When it comes to climate change, nurturing the promise of each girl can shape the future for all.

IMPACT: Two Drawdown solutions influence family size and global population: educating girls and family planning. Because the exact dynamic between these solutions is impossible to determine, our models allocate 50 percent of the total potential impact to each. We assume that these impacts result from 13 years of schooling, including primary through secondary education. With an estimated additional investment of $340 billion, universal education in low-income countries can be achieved. This investment could result in at least 12.5 gigatons of emissions reduced from the atmosphere. The lifetime savings is simply incalculable.

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