How Family Planning Could Help Slow Climate Change

This article was originally posted on the Ms. Magazine blog.

In the mid-1990s, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a village in Niger, a West African country consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the world. I lived in a mud hut, learned a local language, made lasting friendships and did interesting work. Nearly 20 years later, two memories stand out from those years: It was incessantly hot, and I went to a lot of baptisms.

Things haven’t changed much in Niger since then, except that women are having even more children and it’s getting even hotter and drier. Niger’s fertility rate, historically very high, is now the world’s highest at an average of 7.6 children per woman (compared to 1.9 in the United States). Niger had about 9 million people in 1996 and now there are almost 19 million.

By 2050, Niger’s population is projected to more than triple to 68 million unless the birth rate slows substantially. But currently only 12 percent of married women in Niger use a modern form of contraception, compared to an average of 29 percent across Africa and 56 percent globally. There is an urgent need to make voluntary contraception available so that women and their families are able to live healthy, productive lives.

Early marriages also play a key role in birth rates by extending the length of childbearing years, and they pose high health risks for women. In Niger, half of girls are married before their 16th birthday. I saw this up close when I lived there. Salama, a young bride who was pregnant for the first time, lived on the edge of the village in an impeccably clean house. I used to go and talk with her when I needed a quiet escape from the bustle of village life. Like many Nigerien women wed too young, she died during childbirth from laboring too long to deliver a baby too large for her still developing adolescent body. In fact, Save the Children rated Niger the worst place in the world to be a mother.

Meanwhile, Niger is acutely vulnerable to climate change. It’s a large country, about twice the size of Texas, but only about 13 percent of the country is suitable for agriculture, and even that land is dry for much of the year. Much of the country is part of the Sahara Desert. Families are having a harder time each year eking out enough food from this parched land, and it’s difficult to provide enough pasture and water for their livestock, too.

These twin challenges for Niger (and many other nations) will come into focus later this month when countries from around the world gather in Paris for a major conference on climate change. It’s an occasion for the world’s leaders to commit to real action to slow global carbon emissions that heat the planet and exacerbate the kinds of challenges Nigeriens face.

How does family planning fit into the climate change picture? Research supports the linkage by showing that fewer people in the world could lead to substantial long-term climate-related benefits by lowering carbon emissions. Approximately 222 million women in the world would like to plan the number and spacing of their children, but currently are not able to because they don’t have access to modern contraception. Meeting their needs through providing voluntary, rights-based family planning could be a global hat trick–for women, their children and the climate. And for women and their households, the additional health, education and economic benefits that accompany family planning would reduce their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and build their resilience.

Recently, more scientists and governments have made the connection between population growth and global carbon emissions and have recognized the multiple benefits that family planning provides. Some environmentalists believe there is a strong chance for real progress at the Paris climate talks. My hope is that additional headway will be realized through climate negotiations that acknowledge the compound benefits of rights-based voluntary family planning for women and children at the individual level and for the planet. And in the end, people in Niger and elsewhere will benefit.