Environment

Can Condoms Save Us from Climate Change?

The greenest technology available to us may not be solar panels, but instead contraception, according to a new report.

What's the greenest technology we have? It may not be electric cars or solar panels but actually good old fashioned contraception.

According to a new report from the London School of Economics and commissioned by Optimum Population Trust (OPT), using contraception to fight climate change saves nearly five times as much money as your typical low-carbon technology. Carbon credits for condoms, anyone?

Quite logically, fewer children means less carbon emissions (and less strain on diminishing natural resources). Environmentalists concerned with population growth have been saying as much for decades (or centuries if you go back to Thomas Malthus). But the report, "Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost," breaks down the numbers.

The study looks at what would happen if all the "unmet need" for family planning was addressed. "Unmet need" is defined as women who want access to contraception but don't currently have it.

"One recent estimate put this figure at 200 million," OPT reported. "U.N. data suggests that meeting unmet need for family planning would reduce unintended births by 72 percent, reducing projected world population in 2050 by half a billion, to 8.64 billion. Between 2010 and 2050, 12 billion fewer 'people-years' would be lived -- 326 billion against 338 billion under current projections."

If this doesn't sound like a lot -- here's how it actually breaks down by carbon dioxide and dollars:

"The 34 gigatons of CO2 saved in this way would cost $220 billion -- roughly $7 a ton. However, the same CO2 savings would cost over $1 trillion if low-carbon technologies were used," OPT wrote. "The $7 cost of abating a ton of CO2 using family planning compares with $24 for wind power, $51 for solar, $57-$83 for coal plants with carbon capture and storage, $92 for plug-in hybrid vehicles and $131 for electric vehicles." That's a heck of a lot of savings.

And the carbon and cost savings could be even greater. "Unmet need" considers only couples who are married, but the United Nations Population Fund points out that, "community studies suggest that between 10 and 40 percent of young, unmarried women have experienced unwanted pregnancy," so, if family planning services are able to reach those populations, we're in even better shape.

Should We Put a Cap on Kids?

The study has been causing quite a stir, especially by people who missed the main point (not that we should put a cap on kids, but that we should provide family planning to people who want it), but it's also not the first to look at the carbon footprint of having kids.

In the journal article "Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals," Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax of Oregon State University wrote:

While population growth is obviously a key component of projections of carbon emissions at a global level, there has been relatively little emphasis on the environmental consequences of the reproductive choices of an individual person. Obviously, the choice to reproduce contributes to future environmental impacts. There are the immediate effects caused by each offspring over his or her lifetime, but should the offspring reproduce, additional impacts could potentially accrue over many future generations.

So, not only do we need to think about how much impact our kids would have, but also if they grow up to have children, too.

Murtaugh and Schlax found that for each child a woman has in the U.S., it adds 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to her "carbon legacy." This is equivalent to the emissions from burning 972,160 gallons of gasoline.

"A person's reproductive choices must be considered along with his day-to-day activities when assessing his ultimate impact on the global environment," they wrote.

Their research considers not just the impact of how many children you have but the carbon footprint typical of the place where you live. Over the decades that population problems have been discussed, there has been finger-pointing, often racially construed, at developing countries, where birth rates tend to be higher.

Many people balked when richer, whiter countries decided population needed to be "controlled," and the likely place to start was in poorer countries where families had more children. This has made the discussion of population often taboo even in environmental circles.

But in looking at population control in the context of environmental footprint, clearly it is the developed countries, like the U.S., that are now getting the criticism.

In response to the report from Oregon State, Jim Jones wrote on Conservation Today:

The figures I find most provocative are the comparisons of the impact of children born in different countries. Take the USA and Bangladesh for example: I'd guess just on a gut feeling that an American child's carbon footprint would be 20 or 30 times that of a child born in Bangladesh. The figures in the new paper, with the children's decendants accounted for, put the ratio at 168 to 1 -- equivalent to average carbon emissions of 56 tons and 9,441 tons for the Bangladesh and U.S. cases, respectively.

The carbon-reduction figures presented for the various lifestyle changes we can make, and calculated over an 80-year period, range from 17 metric tons CO2 saved by recycling materials, to 148 metric tons by increasing automobile gas mileage from 20 to 30 miles per gallon. Those numbers can be compared with the 9,441 tons of emissions that could be avoided by not having an extra child.

So, seemingly, the argument is even if you drive a hybrid, recycle, put solar panels on your roof and otherwise try to limit your energy use, you're pretty much still screwing the planet if you decide to reproduce.

Fewer Kids = Problem Solved?

One good thing that comes with reducing the number of new births is the ripple effect that fewer people on the planet tend to have.

"A reduction in unintended pregnancies (and hence, population growth) is shown to help with issues of hunger, civil conflict, water shortages, unsafe abortions, deforestation and agriculture," the study from the London School of Economics shows.

So, if we just have fewer kids, are we out of the woods? Not really.

The report states, "The years 2010 to 2050 were modeled because family planning is not expected to immediately affect population levels or CO2 emissions. The resulting reduction in population growth rates will take time to affect global population levels," and hence, global CO2 levels. This is bad news, because the best science tells us that we need to be acting immediately to curb our greenhouse-gas emissions.

And not all environmental groups are applauding the message in the report. The Washington Post reported:

"I don't know how to say 'No comment' emphatically enough," said David Hamilton of the Sierra Club. "I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, but the primary solutions to climate change have to deal with what we do with the people who are here," such as pushing for more renewable energy and a limit on U.S. greenhouse gases.

The Wall Street Journal, went a bit further in criticizing the study, and decided that we don't we don't have to worry about population growth because technology will save us:

The real answer, of course, is to have a little more faith in the creative powers of human beings. Given the freedom to grow and innovate, surely the same people who have licked polio, sent a man to the moon, and given us a revolution in information will sooner or later come up with new technologies that will provide for our energy needs while being friendlier to the environment.

What's the Carbon Footprint of Emotions, Culture and Values?

What all the studies about population can't figure into their math, of course, is the emotional factor. While some people may consider the environmental footprint of childbearing, it will never be weighted in the same way as other environmental considerations like driving less or eating lower on the food chain. Having and raising a child (or children), for many people, is one of life's greatest experiences.

Audrey Webb wrote for Earth Island Journal:

Any examination of the environmental consequences of the sheer number of humans on the planet is very sensitive, given that it involves one of our most intimate decisions rather than reason alone.

When it comes to family size, the options and outcomes are a blend of individual preferences, personalities, philosophies and religious beliefs. Whether in Manhattan or Mumbai, culture wields massive influence over our ideals of what constitutes a perfect family size. Decisions about reproduction often involve more than just the couple conceiving; family, friends and colleagues exercise all kinds of pressure, for or against, subtle or blatant.

That's rarely the case with other decisions that affect the environment. Nobody's mother has ever burst into tears upon learning that her child has chosen environmentally friendly laundry detergent over a phosphate-laden brand. Few people ever ask a co-worker who just bought an SUV if he plans on having another one right away. And nobody gets all misty-eyed about waking up to see their Energy Star appliances on Christmas Day.

Clearly the idea to limit family size is not a simple issue. And while many critics of the population report have criticized it as a means to place limits on the number of children people can have, especially in resource-hungry countries like the U.S., the real message may be getting lost in the buzz.

The answer isn't to impose a cap on babies but simply to help provide to women who would like it access to contraception.

"The potential for tackling climate change by addressing population growth through better family planning, alongside the conventional approach, is clearly enormous, and we shall be urging all those involved in the Copenhagen process to take it fully on board," said Roger Martin, chairman of OPT.

Access to family planning isn't the answer to our global climate woes, but shouldn't it be part of a multifaceted solution?