Population growth

New research suggest that family planning plays a significant role in achieving sustainability gains

New report finds that family planning plays a significant role in achieving sustainability gains. Photo credit: Wilson Center.
By Anders Lorenzen
It is a controversial issue that has divided environmentalists, but new research suggests that family planning could have significant environmental and sustainability gains.

A joint project between Worldwatch Institute and the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) evaluated hundreds of peer-reviewed documents released since 2005. The project found that there is an indirect link, demonstrating that family planning can contribute to a more sustainable world.

The comprehensive report Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability: Assessing the Science, which documented the findings of the project was launched in Washington D.C. last week at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

The researchers found that major reductions in unintended pregnancies, which now account for two out of five pregnancies worldwide, would significantly lower birth rates in both high and low-consuming countries. This could, in turn, achieve a lower trajectory in world population growth in the first half of the 21st century, which would reduce greenhouse gasses to an extent equal to eliminating all deforestation. On top of this, a greater use of family planning would also facilitate more participation by women in economic activity and in civil society. This, in turn, could improve environmental outcomes locally and globally.

However, Robert Engelman, former president of the Worldwatch Institute who directed the project did underline that the family planning issue is controversial. This is because the use of family planning should always be a private choice, which people are making for their own reasons, though he stated: “Yet demonstrated synergies between the two might help advance both environmental sustainability and access to family planning for those who want it. Our objective has been to see what the scientific literature has to say about the connection and to assess the evidence base.”

A total of 939 papers were evaluated. Out of those, 112 papers were identified as ‘certainly relevant’ to the concept that family planning benefits the environment, with 302 other papers ranked as ‘probably relevant’. The ‘relevant’ papers either support or undermine the above theory, with the majority of the ‘certainly relevant’ papers supporting it, but none undermining the theory. Through the research, several theories arose. One such theory links slower population growth and the empowerment of women as pathways in which family planning might contribute to environmental sustainability.

A smaller proportion of the reviewed papers gives credence to the idea, that women who are able to make their own reproductive choices are more likely to contribute to environmental sustainability. This would be through consumption choices and/or participation in politics and civil society. A secondary theory was also in play: that research interest in the family planning-environmental sustainability linkage is widespread among women and men in developing as well as in developed countries.

Robert Engelman felt that the theory that the researchers examined was a success. He based this on the high proportions of relevant authors who are women and many from developing countries.  He also called for further research into this subject, stating: “Given high levels of interest in the potential contribution of family planning to the environment, and the importance of the linkage for both sustainability and reproductive health and rights, more research and funding is needed, especially for young researchers and those in developing countries.”

It was also deemed important to the findings that the researchers collaborating in the assessment shared a commitment to the human rights foundation of family planning. It was seen as a personal choice for couples and individuals, in deciding if and when to have a child. And, crucially, the group identified no research suggesting that a weakening of this foundation would make any contribution to sustainability.

China’s controversial one-child policy which some believe had sustainability gains also had serious human rights implications. The authors of this report seem adamant that the China example is not one to follow. But voluntary family planning should be greatly encouraged, and this route could have very positive sustainability and environmental gains.

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