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February 10, 2012

Population and Family Planning at the UN Climate Negotiations

"Population, development, and climate should be a single discussion," explained Jacques van Zuydam of South Africa's National Population Unit. Van Zuydam, speaking to a sparsely filled room at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa, centers his work around the concept that climate matters because people matter.

Given the focus on the Green Climate Fund, climate change adaptation, and the effects of sea level rise and changing weather patterns on some of the world's most vulnerable populations, it would have made sense for discussions about population to play a central role at the 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17) in December. Yet despite these obvious links - and lead negotiator Jonathan Pershing's admission to the US youth delegation that population plays a central role when discussing climate impacts - the issue gained little traction in the formal negotiations.

Pershing considers population "too controversial" to play a role in the international climate talks, and recommended raising the issue elsewhere. But where better to talk about the need for increased access to voluntary family planning services than among a group of world leaders considering solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change? As Brian O’Neill and his colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research explain in a 2010 paper, meeting the unmet need for contraceptive services could reduce emissions in 2050 by 1.4–2.5 billion tons of carbon (GtC) per year, or 16-29 percent of the emissions reductions necessary to avoid dangerous changes to our climate. And beyond the potential effects on carbon, increasing access to education and family planning resources will have a huge impact on the ability of women and families to adapt to the effects of climate change that are already altering weather patterns, water availability, and agricultural production around the globe.

Perhaps if negotiators took a cue from young people at the conference - who reminded the world of climate change's impact by asking "How old will YOU be in 2050?" - the attention to reproductive health access and population would garner more attention. At the 7th annual Conference of Youth leading up to COP 17, young men and women from around the world gathered at a plenary session entitled "Sex and Sustainability" to discuss the importance of these intersecting issues for climate and the environment. The workshop was led by the Sierra Club, Population Action International, and Advocates for Youth, and featured young activists from around the world sharing their stories of reproductive health access and environmental pressures on the ground.

Side events at the conference also highlighted these important links, demonstrating commitment from civil society and the international NGO community, even if the negotiations themselves failed to bring attention to population. At the "Healthy Women, Healthy Planet" panel, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson - who now chairs the Global Leader's Council for Reproductive Health - spoke to the need for family planning to play a bigger role in the climate negotiations. "More and more we find that climate change activists and specialists are appreciating that climate change is important to women and their well-being," explained Roger-Mark De Souza of Population Action International. But, we need to do more to turn appreciation into action.

It was fitting that the best solutions came from South Africa. Van Zuydam spoke at length with Mark Schreiner of UNFPA South Africa about the training program they had rolled out to promote regional capacity building around population, environment, and development in the country. The 'PED Nexus Program," described by Schreiner as "portable, replicable, and successful in addressing local challenges," has had 716 participants from 12 different countries since 2005.

"We can't respond to climate change without taking into account population dynamics," Van Zuydam insists. Given that meeting the unmet need for voluntary family planning services would aid in slowing growth, in addition to improving the lives of women and families around the world while simultaneously protecting our planet, it's a wonder we're talking about anything else.

-- Kim Lovell, Sierra Club's Population Campaign

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