Part of: Population growth and climate change
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Population control will not solve the climate crisis

by Agnes Otzelberger | CARE International
Thursday, 11 December 2014 14:44 GMT

A woman, who underwent sterilisation surgery at a government mass sterilisation camp, is rushed to Chhattisgarh Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in Bilaspur, in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh, November 12, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Majority of emissions since the industrial revolution have come from countries with little or negative population growth

A month ago, at least 11 women died in Chhattisgarh, India, having undergone a process of rushed and unsafe mass sterilisation. One single doctor carried out 83 sterilisations in six hours. This is an extreme, though not uncommon example of what can happen when top-down pressure to control fertility in poor developing countries collides with badly resourced health service provision and misinformation.

In the context of India’s efforts to reduce population pressure, especially in the poorer southern states, health workers can find themselves under pressure to reach targets. There have been reports of doctors receiving bonuses for each sterilisation, while women living in poverty and without an education are summoned to “sterilisation camps”, often uninformed of the risks and permanence of the procedure.

On the face of it, this tragedy has nothing at all to do with this year’s U.N. climate talks taking place in Lima, Peru. But look a little deeper, and strangely enough, it does.

Large sums of aid have helped finance such population control programmes, and often the need to strengthen women’s rights – while also fighting climate change – is cited as key reason for such investments.

In recent years, several voices – predominantly in industrialised countries – have emerged claiming that population reduction rates in poor nations should become a ‘strategy of choice’ to address climate change.

This blends in with many other attempts to improve poor people’s access to family planning for reasons other than their rights and wellbeing. Reducing pressure on social welfare is one such reason. Environmental conservation is another.

The argument that controlling fertility among people living in poverty, especially in Asia and Africa, is the way forward when it comes to solving environmental problems and poverty has been around for decades, but this mantra has begun to re-emerge in media and research on climate change. 


As the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network prepared its recent inputs to the new Sustainable Development Goals, it proposed a fertility reduction target to keep development within “planetary boundaries”. This year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also put forward family planning as a potential climate change adaptation strategy.

Leaders in global development institutions are calling the population issue the “elephant in the room”. They claim it should become part of climate policy and finance, and a focus of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda - and that this will help secure women’s rights and improve gender equality. The plan is to establish it in policy processes such as the ongoing U.N. climate talks in Lima and the milestone conference in Paris next year.

But this isn’t about strengthening reproductive rights, as a new CARE briefing paper, Choice not control: why limiting the fertility of poor populations will not solve the climate crisis, explains. Family planning programmes carried out in the name of environmental conservation are, by definition, about population control, and therefore go against reproductive self-determination – choosing freely whether to have children, how many and when – altogether. And this is only one of the reasons why claims that family planning can ‘solve’ the climate crisis are misguided.

The logic that poor populations should be responsible for reducing the magnitude and impact of climate change by having fewer children, thus easing pressure on precious natural resources – be they carbon, farmland or water – is neither fair nor effective.


It is not the reproductive behavior of poor populations that is putting the survival of our ecosystems at the greatest risk, but the consumption patterns of the richest. China, whose growing emissions are, to a considerable extent, “outsourced” by other countries, is a good example: the primary reason behind China’s growth in emissions has been demand for manufacturing from all over the world, not the size of China’s population.

In fact, the majority of greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution have come from countries with little or negative population growth. Rich nations’ impact on the environment has been on the rise as family sizes have shrunk and their economies have grown. So, even in wealthy countries, the claim that having fewer children is the solution to climate change is ill-informed.

And as for “population pressure” on scarce resources, consider the fact that there are 94 people per square kilometre in Ethiopia and 145 in China, compared with 231 in Germany, 498 in the Netherlands or as many as 18,942 in Macau, a major oil producer. The reason wealthy countries can sustain these levels of population density is access to cheap resources from the very countries that are allegedly food-insecure due to their uncontrolled population growth.

In short, the real issue is not how many of us there are, but the resources we depend on and how we choose to live. It is this, rather than “population offsets” and unfair blame games spearheaded by the privileged, which should be at the centre of action on climate change and the post-2015 development agenda.

Strengthening women’s and girls’ reproductive rights must be a global imperative for a sustainable development agenda. We know for a fact that responses to poverty, vulnerability and demand for family planning need to go hand in hand in many of the poorest and most climate vulnerable contexts.

For example, many of the women CARE works with in Maradi, Niger, say that contraception is one of the main things they need to be in a better position to respond to climatic and other challenges. But family planning must be a priority in its own right, regardless of a country’s population growth and carbon footprint. It must happen for the sake of women’s rights, free choice and wellbeing alone.

If Chhattisgarh teaches us anything, it’s that family planning with ulterior motives has little to do with women’s rights at all.

Agnes Otzelberger is CARE International’s climate change adaptation and gender coordinator.