From a purely rational perspective family planning advocates are wrong, says Dermot Grenham The Optimum Population Trust, an organisation which promotes the radical reduction in human population primarily for the sake of the environment, believes it has come up with a cheap solution to global warming: more contraception. On the face of it there is some plausibility in its argument. But scratch beneath the surface and one soon finds that it is the OPT’s research which is based on a serious dose of hot air.
Ever since Malthus argued that without war, pestilence and famine human numbers would always outstrip food production, there has been an intense debate on the relationship between population and development. The debating ground has shifted over the years: is there enough space, food, resources, energy, water and so on. Economists such as Esther Boserup, Peter Bauer, Julian Simon and Bjørn Lomborg have shown that in spite, and even because of, population growth the state of the world has improved and there is no reason to think that it will not continue to do so. The key resource is human beings – we are the solution rather than the problem.
The population and development debate has now moved on to the effect of demographic growth on the environment and, in particular, to the role of human beings as emitters of greenhouse gases and the effect this will have on the world’s climate. This is, though, no more than a change of tactics, as the same argument – that humans have the ability to solve the problems posed by climate change – holds good here as well.
The OPT’s basic argument is that family planning is more cost-effective – that is, it results in a greater reduction in greenhouse gas emission per pound spent, than green technologies such as wind, solar and carbon capture and storage (CCS). By spending more on family planning, birth rates will fall and so there will be fewer emitters and hence fewer emissions.
However, while the methodology used is reasonable the assumptions underlying OPT’s argument are not robust. The OPT limits itself to aiming at reducing unwanted births so that it will not be considered as coercing people to use contraception, as has happened in China, India and Peru. By reducing unwanted births it assumes that birth rates will reduce sufficiently to make a significant impact on emissions. It then compares the effect of this reduction in emissions with the cost of expanding family planning services, which it estimates as around £14 per person requiring such services per annum.
The OPT’s calculations are based on the concept of “unmet need” for contraception, which is the number of women who are not using contraception but who do not want a child. Couples who are using contraception are likely to be doing so for two broad reasons: to prevent another birth or to space out the births. In many developing countries desired fertility is still high and contraception is very often used for the latter reason. Therefore, increasing the availability of family planning services will have less of an effect on population growth than the OPT expects.
The two countries where the OPT sees the greatest scope for reducing emissions through a reduction in births are China and the United States. Given China’s current draconian one-child policy, it is extremely unlikely that increasing the supply of family planning would reduce birth rates. As America currently has one of the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions per person it is not necessary to have such a large reduction in births to have a significant impact on total emissions. However, it is not going to be easy or cheap to reduce unwanted births in America given the existing extensive levels of sex education and availability of family planning. If it were easy and cheap it would have happened by now.
There is, though, a more general issue. The OPT, like other promoters of increased family planning, argues that if developing countries reduced their population growth rates they would be able to increase their economic development. Therefore, a reduction in greenhouse gases in developing countries as a result of having fewer emitters could be, given the current state of technology, more than offset by increased emissions per head as those countries develop. In a similar vein, proponents of increased family planning justify themselves on the basis that it would reduce both maternal mortality and infant mortality rates. If this is the case then the reduction in the number of births will be offset by increased life expectancy and therefore lifetime emissions by the surviving mothers and babies.
There are also problems with the data used by OPT in its research. For example, its data on unintended pregnancies and births for Poland implied that between 1995 and 2000 there were over 4.5 million abortions in that country – a number which seems to be vastly exaggerated. Using such data will have overestimated the effect of expanding family planning.
I also find it difficult to accept that the cost will be a mere £14 per person with unmet need per year. This sounds more like an underestimate used to gain acceptance of a project only then to have to increase the budget once commitments have been made. Of the 200 million women estimated to have an unmet need, 40 million of them are assumed to choose sterilisation if they could. But according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service the cost of sterilisation is almost £1,000. Although it is a one-off cost it still works out as a high cost when spread over a number of years. The OPT must be assuming that it will be much cheaper in poorer countries, but then how safe will it be?
Finally, in the OPT’s comparison of the cost-effectiveness of family planning with other carbon-reducing technologies, family planning comes out more expensive than geo-thermal and sugar cane-based technologies, but cheaper than reducing deforestation or developing wind power, solar power and CCS capability. But no mention is made of nuclear power which, from the underlying sources used by the OPT, comes out significantly cheaper than family planning. Also, nothing is said about of a whole host of other developments such as building insulation and increased fuel efficiency which are estimated to cost nothing overall to implement. They have been somewhat selective in their comparatives.
As Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate: “Openness to life is at the centre of true development.” Let’s not sacrifice true development on the altar of assumed cost effectiveness especially when the foundations for that particular altar are extremely weak.
Dr Dermot Grenham is an actuary and teaches at the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics