CLIMATE CHANGE IS a ubiquitous hydra, a many-headed beast that affects everyone and everything in some form. Solutions to climate change range from the effective and the practical to the potentially catastrophically dangerous—but, in this somewhat heated debate, a potent weapon in our arsenal is falling by the wayside: the empowerment of women.
Last year a coalition of scientists, economists, policymakers, researchers, and business people published Project Drawdown, a compendium of ways to prevent carbon dioxide from escaping skywards. Drawing from a plethora of peer-reviewed research, the document ranks 80 practical, mitigating measures—along with 20 near-future concepts—that could push back the oncoming storm.
Ranked in order of carbon emissions locked down by 2050, the usual suspects made the list. A moderate expansion of solar farms (number 8), onshore wind turbines (number 2), and nuclear power (number 20) would all save tens of billions of tons of equivalent carbon dioxide emissions. Increasing the number of people on plant-rich diets (number 4) and using electric vehicles (number 26) are effective carbon-cutting measures often proposed by climate hawks, and rightly so. The top spot went to managing refrigerants like HFCs, which are incredibly effective at trapping heat within our atmosphere.
But two lesser-known solutions also made this most practical of lists: the education of girls (number 6) and family planning (number 7). This is a stunning revelation, one that couldn’t be more pertinent, and yet, for the most part, discussions of mitigation and de-carbonization focus heavily on other matters, from the perceived perils and bona fide benefits of nuclear power, to just how quickly solar power is proliferating.
The link between the education of girls and a smaller carbon footprint isn’t as intuitively obvious as, say, phasing out fossil fuels. But dig a little deeper, and the evidence is overwhelming. It’s clear that getting more girls into school, and giving them a quality education, has a series of profound, cascading effects: reduced incidence of disease, higher life expectancies, more economic prosperity, fewer forced marriages, and fewer children. Better educational access and attainment not only equips women with the skills to deal with the antagonizing effects of climate change, but it gives them influence over how their communities militate against it.
Although the education of girls in a small number of countries is at, or approaching, parity with boys, for most of the planet, this remains distressingly elusive. Poverty, along with community traditions, tends to hold back girls as boys are prioritized.
Then there’s family planning, something that’s indivisible from the education of girls. The planet is overpopulated, and the demands of its citizens greatly exceed the natural resources provided by our environment.
Contraception and prenatal care is denied to women across the world, from those in the United States, to communities in low-income nations. It’s either not available, not affordable, or social and/or religious motives ensure that it’s banned or heavily restricted. As a consequence, the world’s population will rise rapidly, consume ever more resources, and power its ambitions using fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.
The education of girls and family planning can be considered as a single issue involving the empowerment of women in communities across the world. Drawdown calculated that, by taking steps toward universal education and investing in family planning in developing nations, the world could nix 120 billion tons of emissions by 2050. That’s roughly 10 years’ worth of China’s annual emissions as of 2014, and it’s all because the world’s population won’t rise quite so rapidly.
It’s farcical that this isn’t forming a major part of the debate over climate change mitigation. It’s not entirely clear why this is the case, but I’d suspect that regressive societal attitudes, along with the tendency of commentators to focus on the battle between different energy sectors, play suppressive roles in this regard.
Project Drawdown isn’t the only group that has recently tied population growth to climate change. A study published last summer also found that having just one fewer child is a far more effective way for individuals in the developed world to shrink their carbon footprint than, say, recycling or eating less meat. For women in wealthy countries, these decisions are often freely made, and fertility rates in those countries are already fairly low. In low-income countries, such individual agency—not to mention contraception—is frequently absent, and fertility rates remain high.
Just as policymakers, climate advocates, and science communicators should pay attention to Drawdown’s findings, individuals should also do what they can to make sure such a solution comes to pass. Non-government organizations, like Hand In Hand International, Girls Not Brides, and the Malala Fund aren’t just uplifting women, but they’re helping to save the planet too, and they deserve support.
It’s a grim assessment of civilization that, in 2018, humans are still grappling with gender equality. The world would clearly benefit if women were on par with men in every sector of society. We shouldn’t need any more convincing, but the fact that the social ascension of women would deal a severe blow to anthropogenic warming should be shouted from the rooftops.
Incidentally, the solutions in Drawdown also had associated economic benefits or costs associated with them. If 10 percent of the world’s electricity was generated using solar farms, then it’d save $5 trillion by 2050, for example. No such value could be put to educating girls and family planning—two human rights with incalculable benefits.