Why Empowering Women is Good for the Weather

Alice He


September 23rd, 2012

An explanation of the link between women’s rights and climate change.

In my most recent article, I shed light on how changing demographics can lead to a change in climate. More specifically, climate change can be affected by ageing population, declining household size and urbanisation. Slowing population growth can contribute a 16-29% cut in our 2050 emissions target – this brings the question of how policies targeted at family planning and fertility rates can mitigate climate change. I will begin with a broad overview of how climate change relates to human emissions, funnelling down to considerations of birth control and female education.

Compared to natural emissions of CO2, human emissions are tiny. However, natural sinks exist to absorb the natural production of CO2, but with the coming of human industrialisation this balance has been tipped. The question of alleviating climate change, if it is to be an issue within our power and responsibility to solve, should therefore focus on controlling anthropogenic climate change. Since carbon emissions have been the core trigger of climate change, climate change policies should tackle human carbon emissions either through firms or households.

Current policies, like cap and trade schemes tend to focus on carbon abatement at the firm level. However, less discussion has been given to policies that target households as the unit for carbon abatement, even though households play a significant part. Australian households generate almost one fifth of Australia’s total carbon emission – an average of 14 tonnes per household per year. The potential of households for reducing carbon emissions is illustrated by a study in the U.S. which claimed that smarter use of home technologies and conscientiousness in non-business travel can save 20% of household direct emissions and 7.4% of U.S.’s national emissions.

In 2006, Australia was the highest emitter of carbon on a per capita basis amongst OECD countries. On average each person emitted 28.1 tonnes of carbon. It follows that having less people is one way to lower carbon emissions. Such ideas give rise to more radical schemes such as offering consumers in developed nations a chance to offset their carbon emissions by paying for contraception measures in poorer countries in an attempt to curb global population. But family planning is not the only means. Fertility rates are traditionally correlated with education, wealth and urbanisation. Past research agrees that education is generally a more decisive influence on a women’s decision to reproduce. The link can be explained in a number of ways:

Firstly, in the most obvious way, lack of schooling translates to a lack of understanding or a lack of means to acquire correct information on contraception and prevention of pregnancy. A powerful illustration of this is studies in Mexico, Nepal and Zambia which showed that unschooled women had more trouble understanding radio messages on health in their native language than primary school women.

Secondly, there is a theory that schooling introduces western values of a child-centred family, whereby parents are committed to the wellbeing and development of their children, thus investing more in each child at the expense of using their resources to reproduce more children. Commonly termed as the quantity-quality trade-off, this is another means by which family size can be reduced.

Thirdly, educated women may have a greater say in the domestic decision-making process, and therefore able to exhibit greater autonomy in the number and spacing of children in the family. However the effects of this are more ambiguous. Although there is consensus that educated women are more respected, this does not necessarily translate to higher status within the family, particularly when women lack control over family property or income. In addition, modest exposure to schooling can instead reinforce mainstream values of female deference and modesty.

Finally, by educating women, they are given higher opportunities for employment and career advancement, thus raising the opportunity cost of marriage and motherhood.

To an extent, one can argue that empowering women can mitigate climate change. By allowing women rights to health care, education and economic opportunity – basic human rights from the perspective of a developed nation – women have the means to postpone, or not participate in childbirth, thereby lowering fertility rates and avoiding otherwise higher consumptions of carbon.

Since female education, wealth and urbanisation lead to lower birth rates, and are also considered hallmarks of a developed nation, it is possible to view development as a means of climate change. This is a new perspective and limited in the sense that ‘development’ encompasses too many facets of a country or society to conclusively be a solution to climate change, nonetheless, demographic development is one area that can have a significant impact on climate change.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • Cordelia

    I am skeptical that demographic development through economic development can have a significant impact on climate change. The demographic development described, especially through the education of women is a result of the same economic development which has occurred in the western world and resulted in high levels of co2 emissions. Thus, to me it is more likely that in educating people in developing nations, the effect of the economic development which it brings will far outweigh any effects of demographic change in terms of its impact on climate change. Female education, wealth and urbanisation are considered hallmarks of a developed nation, but development cannot be viewed as a way of mitigating climate change when it is the primary source of climate change.

  • Alice He

    Hi Cordelia, thanks for the comment! I agree that development has had an (overwhelmingly) net negative impact on climate, however even though most of the economic development in the past has increased emissions, that is not to say that all development is bad for the earth. There are some aspects of development (like what I mentioned in this article) that interestingly enough may actually reduce climate change, that is not to say that they compensate for the negative effects of development. And it may be that even though educating women may potentially lower birth rates, which could have a positive impact on climate change, having more women participate in the the workforce may for example, increase the size of the workforce and thus aggravate global warming by increasing the use of carbon-emitting work-related technologies. There are many variables/contingencies of proposed ‘solutions’ to climate change. But all other things being equal, empowering women could have a good effect on climate.

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