Family Planning's Ability to Address the Environmental Impacts of Overpopulation

Sierra Spencer

In addressing environmental problems, overpopulation is “the elephant in the room” (Bradshaw & Brook). Overpopulation leads to the creation and intensification of environmental problems. Many human interactions with the environment, such as resource exploitation, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, are intensified with population growth; a growing population means an increasing number of humans having these interactions with the environment. Therefore, the current trends in population growth indicate that as the population increases, environmental degradation will intensify (Bradshaw & Brook).

In order to curb environmental degradation, the issue of population growth must be addressed. In other words, “the ‘cause(s) of the causes’ [can]not be overlooked’” (Guillebaud). By addressing mounting population growth by reducing per capita fertility, family planning is the most humane way of reducing population growth (Bradshaw & Brook). Family planning aims to increase access and use of modern contraception to avoid unwanted births and to allow for the delay of and increased spacing between childbirths (Engelman 14). Family planning is considered the most humane method of reducing population growth since it is “based in the fundamental human right that all individuals and couples decide for themselves the timing and spacing of pregnancy” (Engelman 29).

By addressing population growth through goals of reduced per capita fertility, family planning will also address the environmental problems that result from overpopulation.

Humane reduction of population growth via family planning is possible since so many women today want services provided by family planning. 215 million women worldwide want, but do not have access to family planning and its facilitation in delaying or avoiding pregnancies. This results in 76 million unwanted pregnancies worldwide each year. It is estimated that by averting merely the unwanted births that occur each year, the population could be reduced by 20% (Mora).

Much of this lack of access to modern contraception occurs in developing parts of the world. While 56% of women in developed countries use modern contraceptives, only 18% of African women use modern contraceptives. If there was greater access to family planning, it is estimated that well over 40% of African women would be using contraceptives, which would help further reduce the already growing population (Speidel et al 3).

Although the lack of family planning is not limited to the developing world, demographic momentum has caused developing nations to contribute to population growth at a higher rate than developed nations. Demographic momentum explains the phenomena of developing nations with a higher percentage of their population young resulting in more births. A larger percentage of young people in the population means more women of child-bearing age, resulting in a greater number of births. A young population also means that the net change in population is higher, since there are less old people in the population dying. The fertility rate required for replacement of the parents is globally considered to be 2.1, but in developing nations with a younger population, even if the fertility rate is limited to 2, the number of births still will outnumber the number of deaths (DaVanzo & Adamson). For example, the percentage of the population ages 0-14 in Nigeria is 44% and the population above 65 is 2.75% while the percentage of the population ages 0-14 in the U.S. is 19%, while the population above 65 is 14.75% (“Age Distribution by Country”). Therefore, although increased family planning would help to curb population growth worldwide, a focus on reducing per capita fertility in developing nations may have the greatest potential to significantly impact population growth.

Family planning has already seen success in its increased implementation so far. From 2008 to 2011, increased contraceptive use worldwide reduced unintended pregnancies from 51% to 45%. In 2008, unplanned births occurred among 27 out of 1,000 women, and dropped to among 22 out of 1,000 women in 2011 (Engelman 14). Since the mid-20th century, average world fertility rate has dropped from 5.2 to 2.37 (Guillebaud). In specifically developing countries, between 1965 and 2005, a decrease in average fertility rate from 6 to 3 corresponded with a 43% increase in family planning (Speidel et al). Therefore, past trends have indicated that family planning has the ability to effectively reduce fertility rates throughout the world.

By reducing fertility rates, family planning will combat the environmental threats of overpopulation. It is estimated that if the worldwide average fertility was reduced from the current 2.37 children per women average to 2 children per women by 2020, there would be 777 million fewer people by 2050 (Heikkinen).

One of the ways in which 777 million fewer people will benefit the environment is through decreased resource exploitation. As the number of people on the planet increases, the demand for resources also increases. For example, with more people comes the greater need for deforestation (Engelman 21). More space is needed for housing, and more resources from the forests are required, and more farms are needed to employ and feed larger numbers of people. One study found that a 1% increase in the population density increased the risk of deforestation by 0.6% for a given area and the risk of fragmentation by 1%. The same increase in population density decreased the rate of reforestation by 0.4% (Fanta).

An unsustainable feedback loop exists for the supply and demand of natural resources. As the demand for resources increases, the supply of these resources decreases, making the current trends of resource demand and exploitation unsustainable (Mora). Even human presence alone results in negative effects on the environment. Human presence usually impedes the ability for ecosystems to function naturally. For example, a space that humans occupy usually represents a space that other wildlife can no longer occupy (Engelman 22). Humans have also tended to settle in areas that naturally are most able to support life and that offer the most resources. Growth rate of human populations are higher on average in areas deemed as “Biodiversity Hotspots,” places with “the most unique endemic species than elsewhere” (Bradshaw & Brook). Additionally, one study found that the higher the population density of humans living near a coral reef, the sharper the decline in abundance and diversity of fish and other organisms supported by the reefs (Weiss 39). Therefore, population growth increases and accelerates encroachment onto other ecosystems (Mora). 777 million fewer people would reduce the degradation of other ecosystems.

Another environmental impact of overpopulation is more greenhouse gas emissions. The root of the problem is the increasing amount of per capita emissions (Heikkinen). If the amount of per capita emissions was lower, then the effect of additional people on emissions would be reduced. However, with increasing per capita emissions, the effect of a growing population on emissions is heightened. Effectively addressing emissions requires both smaller footprints and fewer feet (Mora). However, human efforts at reducing emissions have proven unsuccessful so far. CO2 concentration has increased by an average of 1.76 ppm since 1979, and the rate of increase is rising. In the 1980s and 1990s, the average increase in CO2 concentration was 1.5 ppm, but from 2011-2016, the increase has averaged 2.5 ppm each year (Berwyn). Any success we do have in reducing our carbon footprint will be offset by the increased number of people with footprints (Guillebaud). Therefore, the “number of feet” will influence the amount of anthropogenic emissions.

Each birth contains significant effects on emissions. It is estimated that an American couple can reduce their lifetime carbon footprint by 486 tons through “eco-friendly” practices, such as recycling. However, by having one less child, an American woman can reduce her “carbon legacy” by 9,441 tons, over 10 times that of other “eco-friendly” actions (Guillebaud).

Each birth, however, does not equally contribute to the amount of emissions. A birth in a developing nation will result in far fewer emissions than a birth in a developed country. For example, a baby born in the UK will result in the emissions of 35 times more greenhouse gases than a baby born in Bangladesh. Additionally, babies born in wealthier communities will be responsible for more emissions than babies born in poorer settings (Guillebaud). Although there is much focus today on the large families in developing nations that have fewer resources to support so many children, the location and wealth impact of a baby’s lifetime emissions would shift the focus to wealthier communities and developed nations having smaller families to reduce emissions (Guillebaud).

Despite differences in lifetime emissions per birth, collectively, 777 million fewer people by 2050 will have an enormous impact on global emissions. It is estimated that if there were only 8 billion people instead of 9 billion by 2050, 5.1 billion less tons of greenhouse gases would be emitted per year. This represents a significant portion of today’s annual emissions of 23 billion tons (“Better Access to Contraception Could Slow Global Warming”). 8 billion people by 2050 represents the United Nation’s “low fertility scenario,” and it is estimated that keeping the population in this scenario could contribute to between 16% and 29% of the reduction of emissions needed to avoid the global warming of 2 degrees Celsius (Guillebaud). Therefore, although individual habits and practices can reduce emissions, curbing population growth has the potential to significantly affect the amount of anthropogenic emissions.

The environmental effects of resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions exist in a feedback loop with needs of the population. Resource depletion and increased emissions affect the environment and result in temperature changes, changes in precipitation patterns, drought, fire, and natural disasters. These environmental changes reduce the ability to grow food (Mora). As the population grows, the demand for food also rises, but an increased population causes greater environmental change, which hinders the ability to meet this increasing demand for food. Furthermore, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and meat production, so increased food production will further intensify climate change, reducing the ability to produce food in the future. Therefore, food demand and production act in a feedback loop with climate change.While some solutions might involve decreasing the per capita meat consumption, effects of any per capita reductions in effects on the climate will be offset by the increased amount of food consumption required by a larger population (Guillebaud).

Similarly, with water, as the population rises, the demand for drinkable water grows, but the increased population results in higher pollution levels and diminishes the water supplies more quickly, resulting in less clean water availability. Additionally, as the population rises, the amount of people who have to settle in areas more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as floods, severe storms, and drought, increases (Bryant et al). Already, 1 billion people today live in areas considered severely diminished or depleted and 1 billion live in water scarce areas (Mora). These numbers will continue to increase as the total population rises, and the severity of the conditions will worsen due to climate change and the effects of the population increase.

In addressing many of these issues, one approach could be reducing the per capita influence on the environment. Decreasing per capita natural resource demand, greenhouse gas emissions, meat consumption, and water pollution could all contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change. However, not only have efforts to reduce the effects of additional population growth been ineffective thus far at curbing global warming, but family planning is also more feasible and cost efficient than reducing per capita impacts.

In terms of feasibility, health measures are easier to implement than measures that address the environmental impacts of the growing population (Kalema-Zikusoka 34). It is easier to prevent an unwanted birth than to reduce the environmental impact throughout the lifetime of an additional person.

In terms of cost effectiveness, family planning is also a cheaper way of mitigating climate change. The investment of $1-2 per capita in family planning reduces 1 ton of CO2 emissions, making family planning a much more cost efficient emissions reduction strategy (Guillebaud). It is also estimated that fulfilling the unmet need for contraception will cost 1/5 of that required for a reduction in CO2 emissions of similar scope of the births that would be reduced by increased access to contraception (Mora). The cost of reducing the CO2 emissions that would result from an additional birth could range from $1,000 to $13,000 in developing countries and from $3,000 to $20,000 in developed nations, while the cost of averting an unwanted birth would cost around $220 (Mora). Although fulfilling the unmet need for modern contraception would require up to $9.4 billion, this represents less than 6 days’ worth of what is spent on U.S. defense (Guillebaud). Even just $100 million will make contraception available to an additional 3.6 million people, helping to prevent 2.1 million unintended pregnancies (Speidel et al 9). Funding of family planning serves as an investment in environmental protection for generations to come.

Despite its cost effectiveness and feasibility, the potential for family planning to reduce population growth has not been maximized. One of the reasons why family planning methods have not been utilized to their potential is due to cultural, predominantly religious, reasons. Throughout many different cultural and religious communities, there exists a notion that having only 1 or 2 children is not enough (Guillebaud). A desire for large families comes from different cultural structures or pressures, such as wanting to ensure that at least one child survives and needing children to take care of the elderly. The desire for a son is also prominent in some cultures, which promotes having more children to have more sons. For example, in the Hindu religion, the eldest son is important for funeral rites, so Hindu families will continue to have children until they have a son (“Religion, Contraception and Abortion Factsheet”). In some cultures, more children are desired to increase the family’s income (Guillebaud). Other cultures simply create a societal norm for big families. For example, in Ethiopian culture, children are viewed as a blessing from God, and large families are desired (Kalema-Zikusoka 50). In other circumstances, religion or culture strictly prohibit the use of measures taken to reduce unintended births. Most religions strongly oppose abortion, citing it as an act of killing. Additionally, some religions oppose the use of contraceptives. Several religions, such as Judaism and Catholicism, do not approve of contraception that introduces a barrier between partners during what is considered an act of God (“Religion, Contraception and Abortion Factsheet”). Furthermore, the Catholic Church believes that any form of contraception interferes with God’s will and purpose, and therefore believes that abstinence is the only acceptable form of family planning (Raushenbush).

In a world where 90% of the population adheres to some religious belief, religious institutions have a significant impact on the perception of family planning (Raushenbush). The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church illustrates the potential for religious views on family planning to impact population trends. Once the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church stopped opposing the Ethiopian government’s family planning program in 2010, the country’s fertility dropped from 4.8 to 4.1 children per woman over the course of three years (Engelman & Terefe 49). Furthermore, in some countries, religious organizations are the providers of health care, so religions’ views on family planning determine the accessibility of family planning services (Raushenbush).

Governmental policy can also play a major role in the population growth of a country. The most extreme example is in the case of China’s one-child policy. The cause for the perceived need for government intervention stemmed from a previous policy starting in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China that encouraged Chinese citizens to have more children to increase China’s manpower. Under Mao’s policy, the Chinese population doubled in only several years, resulting in extreme food shortages. The Great Chinese Famine that occurred after this spike in population killed 15-30 million Chinese (Clarke).

In response to the enormous population growth in China, in 1980, the Chinese government mandated that, with very few exceptions, each Chinese couple was only allowed to have on child (Pletcher). To assist in carrying out this policy, the government increased access to contraception, offered financial incentives and preferential employment opportunities for couples that complied, and imposed sanctions against those who did not. The Chinese government in some cases even carried out forced abortions and sterilizations (Pletcher). Although inhumane, the policy had the desired effects. Once limitations began being placed on births in China in the 1970s, fertility rate dropped from 6 to 2.8 over the course of the decade. China claims that its policy prevented 400 million births since its implementation (Whyte, Feng, & Cai 155). It is also estimated that as of 2005, the policy saved 1.3 billion tons of carbon from being emitted (Whyte, Feng, & Cai156). These numbers, however, are controversial. Other factors also played a role in reducing the country’s fertility rate, such as economic growth and increasing preferences for fewer children, making it difficult to discern what reductions in growth are attributable solely to the one-child policy. However, it is estimated that if the entire world adopted a one-child policy by 2045, the population would be reduced by 3 billion (Heikkinen).

In addition to its inhumane nature, there are also several other key flaws with the one-child policy. The policy resulted in a skewed gender ratio. Since males are often preferred in Chinese culture, especially in rural areas, to be able to carry on the family name, inherit property, and better support the family, Chinese families would abort female fetuses, leave daughters in orphanages, or sometimes were permitted to continue having children until they had a son. This resulted in 3-4% more males in the population. With a lower proportion of females in the population, there are fewer females available for the next generation of reproduction (Pletcher). Additionally, the one-child policy has resulted in an aging population in China. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicted that the number of Chinese over the age of 65 will be 25% of the Chinese population by 2050 (Clarke). A lower proportion of young people can adversely affect community structures. For example, an aging population means there are less young people to take care of the elderly and less people in the labor force (Pletcher).

Although the one-child policy officially ended in early 2016 (Chinese couples are now allowed to have up to two children), the effects of the policy will continue to be seen for generations (Pletcher). Therefore, a successful family planning program is not only humane and sensitive to religious and cultural beliefs, but also takes into consideration how current population dynamics will continue affecting future generations.

Family planning measures today will not only shape the population dynamics in the future, but will also determine the severity of the consequences of humans’ actions on the environment. Humans’ adaptability to increasing population size, resource depletion, and environmental changes are unknown, but there is a limit to the sustainability of human growth and mankind’s ability to adapt to the pressures caused by increased population. Family planning offers a humane solution to the issue of the increasing population and the environmental problems it poses. In analyzing family planning as a solution, we must ask ourselves, what is the alternative? Up until this point, humans have proven ineffective at undoing or reducing mankind’s effects on the environment. Therefore, in today’s society, there is no real alternative to reducing population growth and the effects of overpopulation on the environment through any means other than family planning.

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