Improving girls’ access to education and reproductive health care is one of the most promising ways to stop human-caused global warming, according to a report published today that ranks solutions to addressing the threat. Addressing health and education ranks second among 76 solutions, sandwiched between reducing food waste and eating more plant-rich diets, that, together, can limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The report, “The Drawdown Review,” is a follow-up to the 2017 New York Times bestselling book Drawdown. Promoting girls’ education contributed about as much to a sustainable future as the gains from rooftop solar and solar farms combined, that book found. So did family planning.
Securing a quality education and reproductive health care access, particularly for women and girls, can prevent more than 85 gigatons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from heating up the planet between 2020 and 2050, the new report says. That’s like taking nearly 22,000 coal-fired power plants offline. The report was produced by scientists and advocates at the nonprofit Project Drawdown, which was created by Drawdown editor and environmentalist Paul Hawken.
There’s a chain reaction when education levels rise: women gain political and economic power. They also have more resources available to help them choose when and how to start a family. When that happens, fertility rates usually drop, the report points out. People tend to marry and have children a little later and have fewer children when they do. Researchers who put the report together estimated the fall in per capita emissions when fewer people in the world are using up energy for housing, food, waste, and transportation (taking into account differences between wealthier and less affluent nations).
To be clear, “in no way are we talking about population control,” Crystal Chissell, a vice president at Project Drawdown, says. Trying to control who gets to have children and who doesn’t is part of a violent racist and xenophobic history, including the forced sterilization of Latinas in the US. Chissell makes clear that her new report is talking about access to reproductive health care for women who want it.
There are 214 million women globally who want to avoid pregnancy but don’t have modern contraception, Chissell points out. (She cites data from the reproductive health advocacy and research group Guttmacher Institute.) Women who’ve been historically marginalized often also face bigger barriers to getting an education and birth control when they want it — whether that’s because of cost, stigma, or policies.
That last barrier has posed more hurdles for advocates over the past several years. President Donald Trump is responsible for dozens upon dozens of environmental policy rollbacks — including moves that limit women’s access to reproductive health care. He has pulled US funding from the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency, the biggest provider of contraception worldwide, for three years in a row. Domestically, the Trump administration has also attempted to give employers greater ability to deny insurance coverage for birth control.
“We’re not saying that the burden is solely on women to advance the solution [to climate change],” Chissell cautions. But the report makes clear that the status of women and girls globally will be crucial to how we shape the world that’s to come.
Gender also plays a role when it comes to who faces the first and worst ravages of climate change. Women make up a majority of the world’s poor, which can make them disproportionately vulnerable. In the wake of disasters made worse by climate change, like hurricanes, women also face an increased risk of sexual violence. Anything that might help women gain some ground — like, say, having the power and resources to make healthy and informed decisions about their bodies, lives, and families — will be crucial to surviving on a planet that’s in crisis.