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State of World Population 2009

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6  Five steps back from the brink

"Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own—indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder."
—Wangari Maathai(1)
Children attend primary school in Gaibandha, Bangladesh, where the community built the school in an elevated area of the village so that the children could continue their studies even during flooding. Actions that empower girls and women may help limit climate change in the long run.
© GMB Akash/Panos Pictures

Global climate is changing. And it is we ourselves—in our lifestyles, our rapidly increasing numbers and the massive scale of our consumption and production—who are changing it.

Technology, especially the combustion of carbon-based fossil fuels that arose with the Industrial Revolution, has everything to do with this problem. Newer, cleaner technologies will be important to mitigating and adapting to climate change, but it is not technology that will save us. We will have to save ourselves. And to do this, we need to act on several fronts. Some of our actions will yield immediate benefits. Others only our children and grandchildren will appreciate. And yet we need to start all these actions at the same time. That time is now.

Climate change is often seen as a scientific issue, but its human dimensions are at last moving to the forefront. They will do so even more as the impacts of climate change unfold and societies respond to them. These impacts are likely to exacerbate gender and other social inequalities that are already acute today. Working now to reduce or eliminate such inequalities is thus a key anticipatory strategy for addressing climate change as well as contributing to development and the fullest exercise of human rights.

The complex nature and momentum of human-induced climate change suggest three areas of work needed now, with immediate, near term and long-term benefits.

Because it is already too late to prevent some amount of climate change, humanity must immediately learn to adapt to it and become more resilient to ongoing changes in the long run. Without halting the rise in global emissions of greenhouse gases and then rapidly reducing them, adaptation to climate change will become an endless—and maybe an impossible—challenge. The push to build our resilience to climate change cannot distract from the need to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible, starting now. But this requires a shift in human behaviour and a new mindset about the way we deal with our environment individually, collectively, locally, regionally and globally. Even the critically needed early successes in reducing emissions will be a prelude to a task likely to preoccupy humanity for decades, even centuries: prospering globally while keeping human activities from sending the global atmosphere and climate outside the range of human habitability.

In considering how such an ambitious task might be undertaken, there can be no escaping a difference among countries identified in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself. As a group, developed countries have contributed a much greater load of greenhouse-gas emissions to the atmosphere—and hence to the currently elevated concentrations of these heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere—than developing countries. This is especially evident when these emissions are calculated as per capita emissions based on these countries' past and present populations. For the most part the industrialized countries also have a greater economic and institutional capacity than developing ones to respond to climate change and its impacts. And this greater capacity stems in part from the fact that in emitting greenhouse gases over many decades they have developed economically. Their per capita incomes are high by global standards. If developed countries decline to make early and proportionally greater efforts to address climate change, it is very difficult to see which other countries could take the lead.

The world needs innovative ideas on how to bring both high-emitting and low-emitting countries to an agreement that can reduce emissions and provide the financing and technology needed to enable all countries and all people to adapt and build resilience to climate change. A group of authors at Princeton University in the United States recently suggested that countries' obligations to reduce emissions should be based on the share of the world's 1 billion wealthiest people living within their borders. Since low-income countries too are home to wealthy individuals—who are also high emitters of greenhouse gases—a formula based on each population of these individuals might have some potential to break the impasse between developed and developing countries over responsibility and capacity to address climate change.(2) Whether this specific idea (based in part on a long-standing concept known as greenhouse development rights) moves forward or not, a global conversation is increasingly needed to generate workable ideas to address climate-change mitigation and adaptation on the basis of equity and human rights.

Societies' adaptation and resilience to climate change can benefit from greater gender equality and access to reproductive health care. Both facilitate women's full participation in their communities' and societies' development and climate change resilience. And both encourage positive demographic trends that arise from women exercising choice over childbearing that also yields benefits in poverty alleviation and the management of natural resources and the environment.

Immediate mitigation—rapid reductions in emissions—is a complex and politically sensitive challenge. It is the major topic before the negotiators in Copenhagen in December 2009. It is possible that population growth in developed countries, and conceivably in some large and rapidly developing ones, will arise as among the factors to be considered in setting goals for emissions reductions. The long-term effort to maintain population-wide human well-being in balance with atmosphere and climate will ultimately require sustainable patterns of consumption and production that can only be achieved and maintained in the context of a sustainable world population. Over decades and centuries the trajectory that world population follows will help determine the levels of per capita emissions of greenhouse gases that will be consistent with a stable atmosphere and climate.

Since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), however, the world has learned that trying to "control" human population risks depriving women of their right to determine how many children to have and when to have them. What we can work toward instead is environmentally sustainable population dynamics that are characterized by safe childbearing, long life expectancies and freedom for individuals to make their own reproductive health decisions. We can also step up our efforts to support young people so they may live productive lives and fully realize their rights to education and health.

Five steps suggest themselves for action as negotiators gather in Copenhagen in December 2009, and may therefore help humanity retreat from the brink.

1: Bring a better understanding of population dynamics, gender and reproductive health to climate change and environmental discussions at all levels

A lack of awareness of the rights-based population policy agenda forged at the ICPD continues to plague climate negotiators' discussions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report on mitigation, for example, suggested that the international community would have to restrict its policy options for limiting future emissions to those leading to reductions in energy use and carbon intensities, rather than any that might help slow population growth, because the "scope and legitimacy of population control" was still "subject to ongoing debate."(3)

© Doug Murray/Reuters/Corbis

Since the ICPD, the international community was thought to have abandoned misguided discussions about the "scope and legitimacy of population control." Control of population, in the sense of Government edicts and targets on fertility levels, has no ethical place in contemporary rights-based policymaking. What is ethical—and in the long run far more effective than governmental controls—are policies that enable women and their partners to decide for themselves if and when to have children and to do so in good health, and actions that promote equality between the sexes in all aspects of economic and social life.

Demographic research has demonstrated for decades that when women and their partners can take advantage of client-focused family planning services, fertility falls. Particularly when combined with education for girls and economic opportunities for women, family planning services and supplies are especially powerful in delaying the age of first pregnancies and reducing the size of completed families.(4) Even in the absence of strong initiatives in other areas, family planning almost universally proves popular, and its availability quickly influences childbearing patterns. As Governments have expanded health services that allow women and their partners to plan their families, contraceptive prevalence has become the norm in developing as well as developed countries, and family size has fallen by 50 per cent. Today, the global total fertility rate stands at 2.5 children—not far above the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children that would prevail worldwide if there were no significant infant and child mortality.(5)

Outmoded attitudes about "population control" have been replaced by more holistic, rights- and health-based views about population dynamics and their relationship to climate change. In December 2008, the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians for Population and Development stated, "There are strong linkages and correlation between population growth and emission of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and ... communities experiencing high population growth are also most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, such as water scarcity, failed crops, rise in sea level, and the spread of infectious diseases." The parliamentarians—representing 20 countries—called for efforts to "support and empower poor and marginalized people" in combating climate change, and the integration of "gender perspectives into climate policymaking to ensure outcomes benefit both women and men equally and equitably."(6)

Research has shown for more than 15 years that merely satisfying unmet demand for family planning services would enable developing countries to meet their targets for lower fertility rates.(7) And every nation that offers women a full range of options for their own management of the timing of childbearing has fertility rates that are at replacement level or lower.(8) These low rates are not restricted to developed countries. They also characterize developing countries—including Iran, Thailand, Tunisia, Cuba and Mauritius—in which reproductive health care and contraceptive choices are readily available. The route to a climate-sustainable human population therefore lies in the removal of barriers to the use of family planning and the rights-based population policies envisioned by conferees in Cairo in 1994.

2: Fully fund family planning services and contraceptive supplies within the framework of reproductive health and rights, and assure that low income is no barrier to access

One of the achievements of the ICPD Programme of Action was the elaboration of the holistic concept of reproductive health. This term embraces the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive well-being and autonomy of women, men and young people. A positive outcome of this elaboration was a significant increase in international spending on aspects of reproductive health beyond the family planning activities that had long been the foundation of population policies and programmes. Starting in 1986, global spending on prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS was about $1 billion annually until the start of the new millennium, when the amount began rising rapidly and is now about $10 billion.(9)

A family receives family planning advice at Kivunge Hospital, Zanzibar.
© Sala Lewis/UNFPA

That amount is less than the need, but as HIV and AIDS and other health issues have preoccupied Governments, and as fertility rates have generally continued their long-term decline from peaks in the middle of the 20th century, spending on family planning has fallen significantly. In the meantime, declines in fertility noted in most developing countries over the past few decades have stalled in some countries at levels well above replacement levels, and fertility has actually risen in some developed countries, such as the United States. The United Nations Population Division's projections on which development experts and climate scientists now rely suggest that there will be between 8 billion and 10.5 billion people by 2050. Even the Population Division's high-growth scenario is based on the assumption of continuing declines of fertility.(10) "No official projection considers the alarming implications if global contraceptive use declines—as it could without greater investment in family planning programmes," note five former directors of the population and reproductive health programme of the United States Agency for International Development.(11)

Research and experience suggest that individual interest in family planning may be heightened by the impacts of climate change, as natural resource scarcity and economic stress have done in the past. In South Africa, for example, hard economic times and the depletion of farmland encouraged more women to take up contraception from the 1970s through the early 1990s. "Black women assumed management of their fertility because they found themselves in precarious circumstances," explained Population Council researcher Carol Kaufman, who studied the history of South African contraceptive use in this period. "The fear and economic desperation stirred by the thought of another child should not be underestimated."(12)

Other examples around the world demonstrate that women who have access to the right resources and equal opportunities are even more likely to choose family planning and have later and safer pregnancies and the smaller families that it facilitates. Each year of completed schooling contributes as well, as do increases in child survival that offer parents confidence their children will outlive them. The key point is that women and men themselves, not Governments or any other institutions, make the decisions on childbearing that contribute to an environmentally sustainable human population. "Even in the poorest part of the Third World," Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen wrote of the combination of empowered women, family planning access and low fertility rates in Kerala, India, "the solution to the population problem may be reconciled with reproductive freedom."(13)

[32] Funding for family planning falls

Overall spending by donor countries for all population-related activities (those laid out in the ICPD Programme of Action) in developing countries has been rising steadily in recent years, reaching $7.4 billion in 2006 and estimated to have surpassed $8 billion in 2007. But as noted in Chapter 5, donor assistance for one of those activities—provision of family planning services—fell from $723 million in 1995 to $338 million in 2007. That decline means that funding for family planning, as a share of total funding for all population-related activities, fell from about 55 per cent in 1995 to about 5 per cent in 2007.(14) Yet, unmet need for these services remains high.(15) Unmet need correlates strongly with poverty, with the poorest women and couples least likely to have access to family planning services and least likely to be using contraception despite the intention to avoid pregnancy.(16) Since the development of the Programme of Action, most growth in spending on family planning has occurred in a handful of large developing countries, while spending in most developing countries has been relatively stable at low levels.(17)

Low levels of funding for family planning undermine efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, including those related to gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. While climate change mitigation and adaptation are not among these goals, efforts at the community and global levels to address climate change and its impacts will meet greater challenges in the face of the high fertility that results from poor access to voluntary family planning. In the words of Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA, "There is no investment in development that costs so little and brings benefits that are so far-reaching and enormous."(18)

3: Prioritize research and data collection to improve the understanding of gender and population dynamics in climate change mitigation and adaptation

Although population data are generally regarded as among the success stories of social science, their integration with the developing science of climate change and its human dimensions remains poor. This applies not only to the influence of population growth on greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change adaptation, but also to the interactions with climate change of such other population dynamics as migration, urbanization and changing age structures.

A woman boils water in kettles heated by solar energy panels in Pengyang County, China.
© Reuters

More work is also required to understand the interactions between gender and climate change. Few data sets related to natural disasters or other potential climate change impacts have been disaggregated by sex. Quantifications of differential gender impacts are common in the literature on disasters, but the original authoritative sources of commonly cited facts and figures are typically elusive. Similarly, common assessments of women's representation in occupations, their ownership of land, or their use of natural resources are often based on a single estimate or extrapolated from a handful of local case studies. Although half the world's population now lives in cities or other urban areas, climate-relevant research on women and population has focused mostly on the rural experience. Research can be improved through greater participation of women and marginalized groups themselves. This idea, developed by women participating in a conference on climate change and gender in Dakar in 2008, could shed light on differences between consumption generated by males and females, paving the way for a better understanding of gender connections to climate change mitigation.(19) Mapping gender, population and climate change can vary in its technological sophistication from the use of Geographic Information Systems software to rapid appraisals based on the knowledge and experience of members of neighbourhoods and communities. Climate-related proposals of all kinds, from community initiatives to the work of the UNFCCC, can benefit from "gender-impact assessments" that consider differential effects on women and men. Budgets and spending in climate funds administered by the World Bank and others should be scrutinized through a gender lens.

Some of this is an issue of greater resource investment, but much of it is a matter of political will and a greater sensitivity to the importance of population and gender by researchers, data collectors and programme developers.

In 2010, many countries will carry out censuses, which will present an opportunity to gather data about individuals and households that may help shape policies to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions and aid adaptation to the effects of climate change. Ideally, climate-change specialists would be involved in the design of national censuses. The outputs of these censuses could then inform future projections of greenhouse-gas emissions and climate-change impacts, as well as policymaking and planning for mitigation and adaptation.

4: Improve the sex-disaggregation of data related to migration flows that are influenced by environmental factors and prepare now for increases in population movements resulting from climate change

The environmental factors that induce people to look for new homes may be related to causes other than climate change and may be only part of the cause of any particular movement of people. Much more research is needed on the reasons for migration, which will differ from place to place according to specifics of culture and circumstance.

Awareness-raising and proactive intervention require better understanding of the links between the movement of people and various environmental factors. There is a need for innovative research methods and multi-disciplinary approaches to generate credible quantitative estimates and forecasts of the affected populations and to identify "hotspot" countries for targeted assistance. Multi-stakeholder involvement in the research process is essential. It is equally important to enhance the data collection capacities of those countries most likely to be affected by environmental migration. This can ensure they have an adequate research base in order to inform policy and programmes.

Since women and men may move for different reasons and face different situations in migration—different livelihoods, resources, opportunities and vulnerabilities—gender considerations are paramount in formulating polices related to migration.

On the operational side, it is also important to build the capacity of Governments and other relevant stakeholders to respond to the challenges presented by the intersection of climate change, environment and migration. Addressing such challenges requires a holistic operational approach that covers all types of environmentally induced population movements. Strengthening the humanitarian response in order to provide effective assistance and protection to populations displaced by a disaster is the first step.

Humanitarian and development institutions need to be sensitive to the human-rights challenges that displacement creates. Climate change is projected to affect the most vulnerable in society: female-headed households, children, marginalized minorities, indigenous peoples, the disabled, the ill, the elderly and the poor. In displacement scenarios, this vulnerability will take the form of unequal access to food, water, shelter, medical attention, education, transportation and other basic necessities. When designing programmes to respond to the humanitarian and social impacts of climate change, it is essential to devise strategies that are gender sensitive and uphold the human rights of those affected. Migration and resettlement policies should take gender into account so they have a positive impact on both women and men.

It is also important to look beyond humanitarian relief and move toward more proactive measures, increasing efforts to integrate disaster-risk reduction, including preparedness, early warning and prevention, into operational activities in disaster-prone areas. Following the emergency phase, efforts should also be made to ensure effective recovery. Actors on the ground should rapidly turn their efforts to finding durable solutions for displaced populations and possibly facilitating their voluntary return. Community-stabilization programmes can be used to support this objective and to link recovery efforts with sustainable development by providing affected families an opportunity to engage in productive activities. Ensuring better management and planning for environmentally induced population flows is also needed. This may include factoring such movements into urban planning.

Those countries with largest historical responsibility for loading the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases also bear the largest obligation to help, and indeed accommodate, those made destitute by the consequences of global atmospheric change for which they themselves bear little responsibility.

In negotiating responsibilities and capacities relating to the UNFCCC, Governments should consider establishing obligations to address the migration or forced displacement of peoples resulting from sea-level rise or other environmental conditions that can be clearly linked to climate change. Those countries with largest historical responsibility for loading the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases also bear the largest obligation to help, and indeed accommodate, those made destitute by the consequences of global atmospheric change for which they themselves bear little responsibility. Where return to degraded areas is possible, circular migration that contributes to the development of sending countries can be integrated into adaptation efforts financed by new funding mechanisms that emerge for this purpose. Migration itself should be seen as a mechanism for adaptation, and the capacity to migrate and to accommodate and integrate migrants should be recognized as an important aspect of climate change resilience.

All the above will only be possible with regional, international, and global collaboration and coordination reaching not only across countries, but also across disciplines, incorporating climate science, geography, migration, development studies and health. Also critical will be collaboration involving Governments, international organizations, civil society, local communities and the private sector.

Censuses to be carried out by many countries in 2010 should gather information that may result in insights into the extent to which people have already migrated in response to environmental or climate change and that may result in better projections of population movements. Equipped with complete and accurate information, policymakers, Governments and international organizations may then help anticipate migration as a part of adaptation to climate change.

5: Integrate gender considerations into global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change

The mandates of Governments and other institutions to consider women's circumstances and gender relations have been established in declarations of rights and other agreements predating the world's current focus on climate change.(20) The Programme of Action placed sexual and reproductive health at the centre of women's equality with men and their dignity and capacities as human beings. The Platform of Action agreed to at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 called for gender mainstreaming in development and human affairs generally, meaning a fundamental consideration of differential impacts of policies and programmes on women and men as the rule rather than the exception. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which went into force in 1981, commits ratifying nations to conform their legislation and legal system with gender equality and to eliminate all distinctions, exclusions or restrictions made on the basis of sex.

The Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009 and the processes that will follow it offer opportunities to bring gender considerations to this critical global discussion. The integration of gender should begin with the participation of women, men and gender experts in national delegations and in the negotiations themselves. Gender considerations should also be mainstreamed into climate-related research on livelihoods, resources use, vulnerability and impact. Natural disasters, likely to increase as the global climate changes, point to a compelling and urgent need to understand how gender affects people's responses to crises. The time to do that, however, is well before disaster strikes. The concept of disaster-risk reduction is based on the recognition that disasters will occur but that informed and committed societies can anticipate them and their effects and thereby minimize loss of life and property and accelerate recovery efforts. In this work it is critical to consider the kinds of gender differences that make women disproportionately vulnerable in disasters and that sometimes discriminates against them in the recovery process. Women and their children must be visible to responders to ensure the success of post-disaster recovery and have a say in the formulation of disaster risk-reduction plans.

None of these are steps to be taken in isolation from broader social efforts to achieve gender equality. Action is critically needed to increase women's ownership of land and legal control of the critical natural resources on which many of their lives depend. Assuring equal protection of the law, opportunities to engage in the formal economic sector, and access to reproductive health not only build gender equality but contribute to societies' resilience in the face of all kinds of rapid change, of which climate change is perhaps the most hazardous.

There is still time for the negotiators about to gather in Copenhagen to think creatively about population, reproductive health and gender equality, and how these may contribute to a just and environmentally sustainable world. These linkages may indeed offer an arena where the universal exercise of human rights would help us resolve what today seems an almost insoluble challenge: managing human-induced climate change and improving human lives and livelihoods even as it occurs.(21)

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