Technical Summary

Family Planning and Education

Population growth is a direct function of fertility, mortality, and migration. 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 estimated future population growth and 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.  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 voluntary reproductive health care.

Educational attainment also influences the dynamics of fertility and therefore projections of future population growth. Among educational factors influencing population growth, universal access to and equal quality of education, as well as reproductive health-specific education, are predominant. In most contexts, education influences timing of marriage, timing of births, desired family size, and total number of births. Men and women with more schooling tend to marry later, delay childbearing longer, and have fewer children than their peers with less education. The impact of education on 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.


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 to 2050 on emissions from energy use, building space, food, waste, and transportation by comparing two scenarios: a high adoption scenario, in which there is increased adoption of family planning, and a Reference Scenario with 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,  and international migration (World Population Prospects, 2010). Using these parameter inputs, the UN generates several variants of population projections, including high, medium, constant, and low variants. This analysis adopts a blend of the UN 2015 high, constant, and medium variants, depending on the current net reproductive rates (NRR) and economic status of countries as the Reference Scenario. An ambitious population scenario was constructed from the UN medium and low variants representing a declining fertility trend in high and medium fertility countries attributable to an optimistic assumption of effective uptake of family planning and education.

Each Project 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 blended high population scenario. 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 to 2050 were generated based on only one growth scenario, which is assessed in comparison with a Reference Scenario. More aggressive population reduction scenarios were not considered.

Financial Model

No financial analysis was conducted for family planning.


The results of Scenario 1 and 2 show that reducing estimated population size could avoid 85.42 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions from 2020 to 2050. It is assumed that this impact is a result of a combination of providing voluntary reproductive health resources and universal access to and equal quality of education to boys and girls.


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 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 per year in 2050. However, if the population were to follow the high variant, emissions would increase by 1.7 gigatons of carbon 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 among 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 1960s, 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 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.