Population, Climate Change, and the Post-2015 Development Agenda

The UN this week is hosting dueling deliberations on population and climate change -- a special session of the United Nations General Assembly observing the 20th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the UN Climate Summit on Sept. 23 -- and both meetings take place within the larger context of a growing debate on the design of the UN's post-2015 development agenda. Left undetermined in all this high-level discussion is how much support will be given to family planning in the developing world, and concerns are growing that the UN will once again make a belated or inadequate commitment to family planning and reproductive health.

The greatest shortcoming of the UN's Millennium Development Goals as originally formulated 14 years ago was the omission of a specific commitment to expanding access to family planning and reproductive health services. It was not until 2005 that the international community formulated MDG 5b and set 2015 as the target year for achieving universal access to reproductive health services. As a consequence, investments in reproductive health services have lagged, the MDG5b target will not be met, and far too little progress will have been made in reducing maternal mortality and realizing the many other benefits that accrue when women are able to determine how many children they will have and when.

In designing the post-2015 development agenda, we must put the highest possible priority on achieving universal access to reproductive health services. And we must also eliminate the cultural barriers, including gender inequality and child marriage, which effectively deny women their reproductive freedom. Our concern for human rights and our aspirations for human development and sustainable economic growth require it, but so does our commitment to dealing with the threats posed by climate change.

The prevention of unintended and unwanted pregnancies plays a crucial role with respect to climate change mitigation, particularly in developed nations that have large carbon footprints, but even in the developing world, the prevention of unplanned pregnancies can make a significant contribution to reducing projected levels of carbon emissions. A 2010 study by Brian O'Neill on global greenhouse gas emissions found that "slowing population growth could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change." And that may prove to be a conservative estimate, as global population projections have increased in the past five years. A new study in this month's Science, reviewed recent demographic trends using a Bayesian probabilistic methodology and determined that, "There is an 80% probability that world population, now 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100." It's hard to argue that adding as many as 5 billion more people to the planet is not going to alter the future course of climate change.

But even if population growth had no impact on the level of greenhouse gas emissions, the case for incorporating family planning into climate change discussions would still be compelling. That's because preventing unintended pregnancies helps women and families adapt to climate change. When families are struggling to survive in the face of drought, flooding or rising seas, smaller families are more likely to survive and, hopefully, thrive.

We know from decades of experience that family planning can play a crucial role in lowering maternal and infant mortality, fighting poverty and hunger, reducing water scarcity, improving the health and well-being of women and their families, and boosting resilience to conflict and natural disasters. Now, given the dire climate change forecasts facing many developing nations, family planning and reproductive health services take on added importance, and require that the international community recommit itself to achieving universal access to reproductive health care and realizing full gender equality for women and girls. As New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin wrote this week, family planning "should absolutely be seen as a climate resilience strategy in poor regions."

Let's hope that the UN delegations meeting in New York this week concur.