Global Health: Can Condoms Combat Climate Change?

Friendly CondomsAs scientists and policymakers search for high-tech ways to fight climate change, a proposed low-tech solution is creating controversy — contraception.

Bloggers around the world are writing about climate change today, October 15, as part of Blog Action Day. One less obvious potential solution to climate change is related to the availability of contraceptives and reproductive health services. Many studies in the past few months have examined the relationship between population growth and climate change, some in support and others against using family planning as a method of emissions reduction and to minimize the impact of climate change. EJ, blogging on New Society Publishers in Canada, elaborates:

“This issue of who lives and who dies, who can have more children and who should have less children, is also beginning to raise its head in the climate change movement…

…Global population is a serious consideration for the future of our ecosystem. We have been debating this issue since at least 1972 when the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth, and yet solutions continue to evade us as we become embroiled in the emotional debates around reproductive choice, euthanasia and quality of life. The issue is so gnarly that some environmentalists refuse to discuss it.”

The world's population is expected to reach more than 9 billion people by 2050, with 95 percent of this growth in developing countries. Those in support of investing in reproductive health services and contraception to combat climate change argue that having fewer children means less carbon emissions and less strain on diminishing natural resources.

An editorial in the medical journal Lancet last month called attention to the links between rapid population growth and increased vulnerability to the consequences of climate change, such as food and water scarcity and environmental degradation. It suggested that by reducing unintended pregnancies, we could slow the high rates of population growth and possibly ease pressure on the environment. The Lancet says that over 200 million women want, but currently lack, access to modern contraceptives, resulting in 76 million unintended pregnancies every year.

An economic case was made for investing in reproductive health by a recent study from the London School of Economics (LSE) and commissioned by the UK-based Optimum Population Trust. It showed that contraception is almost five times cheaper than leading green technologies, such as wind and solar power and hybrid or electric cars, to combat climate change. Specifically, the study found that each $7 (£4) spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by more than a ton, but it would cost a minimum of $32 (£19) to achieve the same result with low-carbon technologies.

Matthew Yglesias, blogging on Yglesias in the United States, supports the study's finding:

“The evidence is pretty clear that in societies where women are empowered and have access to contraception, that on average they want modest-sized families. And what this study is talking about is specifically what could be accomplished by closing the gap between the level of contraception that people want to have and the level of contraception they’re actually able to maintain. There are dozens of good reasons to think closing that gap would be beneficial, the impact on the environment is one of them.”

Still, Ann, blogging on Feministing in the United States, remains wary of the study's recommendations, saying:

“The LSE report contains a prominent caveat that this is about non-coercive family planning, but using fears about climate change as a way to expand contraceptive use is eerily reminiscent of ‘population control’ policies, some of which were coercive and all of which were rooted in the idea that certain people should be having fewer babies…

…We all understand that empowering women to determine their own reproductive fates leads to other benefits — economic, societal, and yes, environmental. But given the history of population policy, to me the only acceptable international family planning policy is one that is motivated by increasing the empowerment and choices for women. Full stop.”

The New Security Beat says that countries such as India are objecting to bringing population into the climate change debate without more focus on reducing consumption in developed countries. A recent study supports this assertion. Published in the journal Environment and Urbanization, it shows there is at most a weak link between population growth and rising emissions of greenhouse gases. The study's researchers say the real issue is not the growth in the number of people, but the growth in the number of consumers and their consumption levels.

Simeon, a reader of Malawi's NyasaTimes commented on the study:

“The West needs to learn to live simply if we are ever going to cut these green house emissions. This may sound like moralising, after all Africans envy the western lifestyle and see it as a model of prosperity and happiness. We waste time connecting population growth climate change. I am happy that the study has finally exposed the lie behind this long held fallacy. President Yoweri Museveni recently at the United Nations asked a very tough question: ‘If the whole world were to have access to the western lifestyle, would the planet be able to support us?’ I see that in the years to come the concept of development needs to be seriously reviewed and changed. Maybe to develop may mean living healthily and not necessary having everything”

Ruth Limkin, a pastor blogging from Australia, says maybe we should take a different approach altogether, where people are the solution and not the problem:

“What if we invested in innovation and respected reproduction?

The inherent potential in humanity itself is stunning if ever appreciated in its breadth and depth. The genesis of a truly great, revolutionary idea for energy generation, for agricultural technology, for waste reduction or for recycling methods may lie in the person you met yesterday.

Or it may lie in the fourth child of a family in Africa or India. What if, instead of controlling population, we created opportunities for education, established cultures of creativity and encouraged responsible, careful use of the natural resources around us?”

Photo of Friendly Condoms by Alaskan Dude on Flickr, Creative Commons.


  • Interesting detail, but I am not sure what to think about it. On the one hand there are too few births in Western countries, on the other hand there are too many in third world countries.

    And I learnt that people in the middle ages had to have a lot of children to be able to be supported when they become older. Ain’t this also the case for third world countries? I mean, how should they maintain their old-age pension if there is nobody who can support them (neither state, nor children).

    Therefore, they would have to reach some amount of political and economic stability first, but I am the last one who wants to force our Western system onto other countries. However, I am sure that we could all live pretty well if we use natural resources more deliberately. I also have the opinion that some companies handicap development in third world countries, e.g. Monsanto. Sometimes also global organisations are the problem, e.g. I read that third world countries had to implement private water supply (instead of public) to receive credits. This again led to exploitation of their store of water.

  • Not only can population reduction aid the effects of climate change, but more low-carbon condoms can reduce our carbon footprint whilst we enjoy doing it!

  • Carolyn

    I agree with the fact that we, the human population, are growing at a mind-blowing rate. Although, i do not fully agree that the way to fix the problems regarding the climate lies in condoms. Yes, condoms can help prevent unwanted pregnancies but it is the world as a whole that must work to lower carbon emissions. Having more children is not necessarily a bad thing but the way the children are raised needs to be considered. Raising a child in an environment and with the lifestyle that will contribute more and more to the rising carbon emissions will not be helpful for the environment. On the other hand, having a child and raising them in a manner that they understand what is happeing in the world regarding the climate and ways they can help could be beneficial to the overall cause. I think the way the children live their lives, grow up and the morals they obtain should be focused on more than trying to control the population growth.

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