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Status of Women Key to Sustainability

Paul Kando

Americans consume fossil energy at more than twice the per-capita rate of Europeans, five times the global average, and more than 10 times the average of developing nations. So it was encouraging to read that between 2000 and 2005 Portland, Oregon reduced its per-capita carbon footprint by 5%. However, the city’s population also grew by 8%, negating the positive impact. Among developed nations the US has the largest population and is the only one experiencing significant population growth – on target, in fact, to double before this century ends. According to a 2009 study, each child born in the US adds 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of an average parent.

Women's March on Capital 2017
photo credit: Wikipedia

People live longer today, and millions of young people are just reaching their reproductive years. So, even if fertility rates fall below replacement levels, the population will continue to grow, contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Lowering the reproduction rate would reduce emissions far more than lifestyle changes. Both consumption and population growth need to fall to ecologically sustainable levels. The solution, therefore, hinges less on technology than on the status of women in society.

Fertility rates have generally declined over the past few decades. However the decline has slowed recently, especially in developing nations, due largely to cutbacks in family planning assistance and political interference. The world now faces a $5.3 Billion funding shortfall for women’s reproductive healthcare.

Billions of women want to choose whether and when to become pregnant but lack access to contraception. Securing women’s right to high-quality family planning around the world will positively impact the health, welfare, and life expectancy of women and children. Fewer humans will also lower greenhouse gas emissions.

There is general agreement that more people place more strain on the planet. So why is addressing population so controversial? Family planning is not about governments manipulating the birth rate. It is about honoring the dignity of women and children. Focusing on healthcare and meeting women’s expressed needs empowers women as equals, and promotes general well-being. The planet benefits as a side effect.

Education is the most powerful lever available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Educated women have fewer and healthier children. They actively manage their reproductive health, realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, and contribute to society’s economic health. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. Education equips women to be more effective stewards of the home, food, soil, trees, water, and other resources – crucially important as the climate changes.

Poverty is the main cause of poor schooling. In many cultures boys still receive priority for higher education. Economic, cultural, and safety-related barriers impede 62 Million girls worldwide from realizing their right to education. Societies must make education affordable and schools more accessible and girl-friendly. Honoring women as full and equal members of society is clearly a justice issue. It turns out it is also essential to preserve our planetary health.