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Credit: Hugh Sitton

Women and Girls

Educating Girls

Kenya has made significant gains in education, with more than 80 percent of all boys and girls currently enrolled in primary schools. In secondary schools, the rate of enrollment drops to 50 percent for both boys and girls. Poverty is the main cause of low overall enrollment, and given socioeconomic norms, boys receive priority for higher education when there are financial constraints.

Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health.

Educated girls realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth. Their rates of maternal mortality drop, as do mortality rates of their babies. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished.

Education also shores up resilience and equips girls and women to face the impacts of climate change. They can be more effective stewards of food, soil, trees, and water, even as nature’s cycles change. They have greater capacity to cope with shocks from natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Today, there are economic, cultural, and safety-related barriers that impede 62 million girls around the world from realizing their right to education. Key strategies to change that include:

  • make school affordable;
  • help girls overcome health barriers;
  • reduce the time and distance to get to school; and
  • make schools more girl-friendly.


[impact of] 100 percent enrollment: Lutz, Wolfgang, and Samir KC. “Global Human Capital: Integrating Education and Population.” Science, 333, no. 6042 (2011): 587-592.

“no years [vs.] 12 years of schooling”: Winthrop, Rebecca, and Homi Kharas. “Want to Save the Planet? Invest in Girls’ Education.” Brookings Institution. March 3, 2016.

1.1 billion people [without] electricity: IEA and World Bank. Sustainable Energy for All 2015—Progress Toward Sustainable Energy. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2015.

per-capita emissions [by country]: The World Bank. “CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons Per Capita).” 2013. (data from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

Malala Yousafzai…“change the world”: Yousafzai, Malala. Speech to the United Nations Youth Assembly, New York, July 12, 2013.

enormous body of evidence: Sperling, Gene B., and Rebecca Winthrop. What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2016.

“highly cost-competitive…emissions abatement”: Wheeler, David, and Dan Hammer. “The Economics of Population Policy for Carbon Emissions Reduction in Developing Countries.” CGD Working Paper 229. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development, 2010.

“reduction in vulnerability to natural disasters”: Striessnig, E., W. Lutz, and A. G. Patt. “Effects of Educational Attainment on Climate Risk Vulnerability.” Ecology and Society 18, no. 1 (2013); Blankespoor, Brian, Susmita Dasgupta, Benoit Laplante and David Wheeler. The Economics of Adaptation to Extreme Weather Events in Developing Countries. Center for Global Development Working Paper No. 199. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development, 2010.

barriers [impeding education]: Sperling and Winthrop, What Works.

seven areas of interconnected interventions: Sperling and Winthrop, What Works.

62 million girls are denied [education]: Sperling and Winthrop, What Works.

South Asia…sub-Saharan Africa…secondary education: Sperling and Winthrop, What Works.

international aid for education: Winthrop and Kharas, “Invest”; Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Pricing the Right to Education: The Cost of Reaching New Targets by 2030. Policy Paper 18. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 2015.

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p. 82

Today, 130 million girls are denied the right to attend school.

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Technical Summary

Educating Girls

Population growth is a direct function of fertility, mortality, and migration. Therefore, educational attainment, which influences the dynamics of all three, is extremely relevant for projections of future population growth. In many ways, the educational composition of a society can either challenge or facilitate reductions in greenhouse gases, thereby contributing to reversing global warming. Understanding the interaction between education and determinants of population size is key to analyzing the relationship between population growth and emissions trajectories.

Among educational factors influencing population growth, female education and education-specific fertility are predominant. In most contexts, the amount of education achieved influences the timing of marriage, timing of births, desired family size, and total number of births. Women with more schooling tend to marry later, delay childbearing longer, and have fewer children than their peers who have less education. The impact of education on females’ fertility is context-specific and varies by a country’s stage of development—with the educational composition of women in countries that have yet to complete the demographic transition having a particularly strong effect on fertility and future population.

In addition to or in concert with family planning, female education is one of the proven, cost-effective long-term solutions for addressing unsustainable rates of population growth in high-fertility countries.


Recognizing that there are differences in emissions per capita (i.e. productive and consumptive behavior is not consistent across populations), generally speaking fewer emitters means fewer emissions. This analysis models the impact of increased adoption of family planning from 2020-2050 on emissions from energy use, building space, food, waste and transportation by comparing a Plausible Scenario (increased adoption of family planning) to a Reference Scenario (no additional investment in family planning).

The most cited literature for population projections is the UN Population Prospect, released by the United Nations Population Division Department of Economic and Social Affairs every 2 years. The UN population projections rely on use of three key inputs to determine the growth in population - fertility, mortality, international migration (World Population Prospects, 2010). Using these parameter inputs, the UN generates three variants of population projections, High, Medium and Low. This analysis adopts the UN 2015 High Variant as the Reference Scenario. Because the UN Medium Variant represents a declining fertility trend in high and medium fertility countries attributable to an optimistic assumption of effective uptake of family planning, this analysis adopts the 2015 Medium Variant as the Plausible Scenario.

For the UN Medium Variant, fertility in high and medium fertility countries is assumed to follow a fertility decline path derived from models of past experiences of all countries with declining fertility during 1950 to the current period. Total fertility in all countries is assumed to converge eventually toward a level of 1.85 children per woman (World Population Prospects, 2015). Under the UN high variant (Reference Scenario), fertility is projected to remain 0.5 children above the fertility in the Medium Variant (Plausible Scenario).

Each Drawdown solution model measures growth, demand and impact using the UN Medium Variant. To model the impact of educating girls as a solution, we calculate the per capita functional market demand according the UN Medium Variant, and, all other things being equal, apply the per capita demand to the UN High Variant. This gives us an estimation of the increased demand required to meet the expected needs of the higher population scenario across all models. Emission results associated with this increased demand are aggregated to produce cumulative emissions impacts by sector.

Impacts of increased adoption of educating girls from 2020-2050 were generated based on only one population growth scenario, which is assessed in comparison to a Reference Scenario. More aggressive population reduction scenarios were not considered.

Financial Model
No financial analysis was conducted for educating girls. 


The results of the Plausible Scenario show that reducing estimated population size could avoid 119.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions from 2020-2050. It is assumed that this impact is a result of a combination of providing family planning resources and educating girls. Due to a lack of sufficient data to accurately distinguish between these mechanisms, Project Drawdown chose to split the total emissions results equally. Therefore, the estimated impact of educating girls is reported as 59.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent.


Demographic change, including population growth, age distribution, extent of urbanization, and household size all affect consumption and production of energy, and therefore emissions (O’Neill et al, 2012). Of those demographic changes, decreasing  population growth offers the potential to be a substantial solution to global warming. A number of simulation models have demonstrated that decreasing the rate of population growth could substantially reduce global carbon dioxide emissions (O’Neill et al, 2010).
Using UN population projections from 2004, O’Neill et al estimate that if countries’ total fertility rate followed the low rather than medium variant, worldwide emissions would be reduced by 1.4 gigatons of carbon (GtC) per year in 2050. However, if the population were to follow the high variant, emissions would increase by 1.7 GtC per year in 2050 (O’Neill et al, 2012).

Although there is a lack of consensus over the precise weight and significance of the various interactions between educational attainment, contraceptive use, and fertility outcomes, it is clear that these complementary interventions are important to population reduction and emissions reductions.

Addressing unsustainable human population growth is critical to climate change mitigation. Rapid population growth threatens the sustainability of the planet as humans continue to overexploit natural resources and contribute significantly to global carbon dioxide-equivalent levels. When considering population growth as a source of emissions, it is important to consider two facts: population growth is highest in low- and middle-income countries. However, emissions per capita are greatest in high income countries. As developing countries enter into the final stages of the demographic transition, they often begin to mirror the consumption and production patters of developed countries. This means that even as developing countries slow their population growth rates, they may begin to increase their contribution to global emissions through an increase in per capita emissions.

Therefore, population intervention strategies cannot solely focus on the total number of future emitters but also their future emissions patterns. This is why education is a win-win for drawdown of greenhouse gas emissions. If women are provided equal quality of and access to education as men not only is it likely they will pursue smaller families, but they will have the knowledge and understanding to adopt attitudes and behaviors that that will help their families and communities mitigate and adapt to climate change.

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