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Credit: Said Khatib

Women and Girls

Family Planning

Three-day-old Waleed lies wrapped in blankets at his family's home in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah in 2016. Waleed was recognized as the two millionth person born in Gaza, a tiny enclave squeezed between Egypt, Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea. Gaza is just 7.5 miles across at its widest point, and has one of the highest population densities in the world.

Securing women’s right to voluntary, high-quality family planning around the world would have powerful positive impacts on the health, welfare, and life expectancy of both women and their children. It also can affect greenhouse gas emissions.

225 million women in lower-income countries say they want the ability to choose whether and when to become pregnant but lack the necessary access to contraception. The need persists in some high-income countries as well, including the United States where 45 percent of pregnancies are unintended. Currently, the world faces a $5.3 billion funding shortfall for providing the access to reproductive healthcare that women say they want to have.

Carbon footprints are a common topic. Addressing population—how many feet are leaving their tracks—remains controversial despite widespread agreement that greater numbers place more strain on the planet.

Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about governments forcing the birth rate down (or up, through natalist policies). Nor is it about those in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. When family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality, and well-being are the result; the benefits to the planet are side effects.


access to contraception…unintended pregnancies: Singh, Susheela, Jacqueline E. Darroch, and Lori S. Ashford. Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health 2014. New York, NY: Guttmacher Institute and United Nations Population Fund, 2014.

United States…unintended [pregnancies]: Finer, L.B., and M.R. Zolna. “Declines in Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 2008–2011.” New England Journal of Medicine, 374, no. 9 (2016): 843-852.

Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren…“IPAT”: Chertow, Marian R. “The IPAT Equation and Its Variants.” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 4 (2000): 13–29.

funding shortfall for…reproductive healthcare: Singh et al, Adding.

Iran…fertility rates halved: Weisman, Alan. Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? London: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Bangladesh…door-to-door approach: Weiss, Kenneth R. “How Bangladesh’s Female Health Workers Boosted Family Planning.” The Guardian. June 6, 2014.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [on family planning]: Smith, K.R., A. Woodward, D. Campbell-Lendrum, et al. “Human Health: Impacts, Adaptation, and Co-benefits.” In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

building resilience [to climate impacts]: Mutunga, Clive. Population, Reproductive Health, and International Adaptation Finance. Washington, D.C.: Population Action International, 2013; UNFPA. State of the World Population 2015: Shelter from the Storm. New York: United Nations Population Fund, 2015.

family planning…development assistance: Wexler A., J, Kates, and E. Lief. Donor Government Assistance for Family Planning in 2014. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2015.

view all book references


p. 79

Two hundred and fourteen million women in lower-income countries.

The resulting emissions reductions could be 119.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

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Technical Summary

Family Planning

Slowing the momentum of human population growth in a way that upholds human rights is an important factor in slowing carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. By filling the expressed unmet need for family planning through voluntary family planning interventions, unintended pregnancies and consequently unintended births will be averted, thereby reducing the total population consequently avoiding global greenhouse emissions through lower demand of goods and services. Voluntary family planning is the practice of controlling the timing, spacing and number of children in a family to limit the number of unintended pregnancies.

Family planning is recognized by the United Nations as a human right and a development priority, partially because practicing contraception, whether through modern or traditional means, is critical to maternal and child welfare. Access to modern contraception and safe abortion is also a major factor in women pursuing higher education, joining the workforce and delaying marriage.

Globally, an estimated 225 million women have an unmet need for family planning.


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 (1).  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 family planning 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 family planning from 2020-2050 were generated based on only one 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 family planning.


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 family planning 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, 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 a countries’ total fertility rate followed the low rather than medium variant, worldwide emissions would be reduced by 1.4 gigatonnes 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.

To date, the success of international family planning has been the result of marked changes in policy, financing, political will, technology, social norms, and behavior change. Since the 1960’s average family size has halved from six children per woman to three. However, actual family size still exceeds desired family size in many countries, largely because an estimated 225 million do not have access to modern methods of contraception.

Expanding family planning to those couples wishing to better time and space their births remains a challenge. Since the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, family planning has been absorbed into the broader concept of reproductive health. The conference shifted the paradigm of family planning away from being discussed as an issue of population and development and reframed it as a matter of women’s health, rights, and empowerment.  This reframing as well as the diversion of funding towards HIV/AIDS has led to inadequate funds for reproductive health services.

Due to population momentum, the population projections for the medium and high variant scenarios diverge much more drastically in the second half of the century. Thus, while the contribution of family planning to drawing down emissions leading up to 2050 is important, the longer-term benefits will be far greater, since the Plausible Scenario would result in an age structure leading to further slowdown in population growth.

The medium projection at the end of this century will only be possible if we get on the Plausible Scenario path within the next one or two decades.

(1), accessed on 07-09-2016

(2) The 58 high-fertility countries are concentrated in Africa (39 out of the 55 countries in the continent have high fertility), nine  in Asia (Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Laos, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Pakistan, the Philippines, Syria, Yemen), six in Oceania (federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Vanuatu) and four in Latin America (Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, French Guiana)


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