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Around the world many girls leave school before completing their education. It's said that those who stay to the end of high school have more agency and choice, but also earn more money and have fewer and healthier children.

Tom Heap hears how education and access to family planning don't just impact family size, it can also propel young women into positions of leadership where they can help their communities adjust to climate change.

Dr Tamsin Edwards of King's College, London helps Tom calculate just how useful secondary education for girls can be in the fight against climate change.

Listen now on BBC Radio 4


What our experts say

We invited Society Fellows David Johnson, CEO of the Margaret Pyke Trust, and Professor Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, to offer some observations on the potential of empowering girls to stay in education for longer and have the opportunity to make more diverse life choices. Their points take some of the themes of the programme a step further, and some relevant links are offered below:


David Johnson

As long ago as 1968, the International Conference on Human Rights included in its proclamation that “parents have a basic human right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children”. The human right to family planning is hardly a recent development and yet, by some estimates, there are 270 million women and girls who want to stop or delay childbearing, but are not using any modern method of contraception. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights”. There is a growing recognition that this SDG target is not only fundamental for girls’ and women’s health, wellbeing and empowerment, but also as part of climate and biodiversity action.

Project Drawdown considers universal education and family planning as essential in achieving the United Nation’s 2015 medium global population project of 9.7 billion people by 2050. Without investment and support of these human rights-centred solutions, the world’s population could be 1 billion people higher. The researchers model that “the impact of this population difference […] could be as high as 85.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide, just within the window of 2020-2050".

Project Drawdown research follows on from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noting, in its Fifth Assessment Report, the value of family planning for both improving health, slowing population growth and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. UNEP’s fifth Global Environment Outlook  makes similar connections, and specifically calls for greater access to family planning programmes along with women’s education.

Reproductive health and rights are also important for biodiversity. The Margaret Pyke Trust is the only member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with 50 years’ family planning expertise. In November 2020, the nations of the world and NGOs which are members of the IUCN voted, in a landslide, to pass the Trust’s motion, “Importance for the conservation of nature of removing barriers to rights-based voluntary family planning”.



Professor Mark Maslin

This programme is an opportunity for many to reflect on how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are mainly caused by the wealthiest in our global society which is reflected in my own research.

The difference between the two most extreme future scenarios given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in terms of population, is 20 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. It assumes low population growth but also the style of economy into which the population growth occurs. Van Vuuren et al. (2018) and Dodson et al. (2020) are useful papers to read in relation to these numbers. However, there is no reason to assume that with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the current rate of development the medium United Nations' estimate will not be reached.

Women's education is essential in building climate resilience, developing more sustainable agriculture and boosting local economies. However, its direct effect on global emissions will be small as the richest 10% of the world's population currently emit 50% of the carbon dioxide. Consumption, not population size is the main control on greenhouse gas emissions."


Further reading


About the series

39 ways to save the planet is a new radio series by BBC Radio 4 developed in partnership with the Society and broadcast in 2021. It showcases 39 ideas to relieve the stress that climate change is placing on the Earth. In each 15 minute episode Tom Heap and Dr Tamsin Edwards meet the people behind a fresh and fascinating idea to cut the carbon.

Programme website

Over the course of 2021, the Society will be producing events and digital content to accompany the series.

Episode 4: Educating and empowering girls

Listen now on BBC Radio 4


Featured card image: BBC

Featured banner image: Kamaji Ogino/Pexels

An IUCN Task Force is now being set up to work on the next steps, but it seems likely that this is the first major step in bringing family planning into global conservation policy. One example is a project focused on making improvements to family planning provision integrated with work to save the endangered Grey Crowned Crane in Uganda (see right).

In short, removing barriers to family planning is a relevant and appropriate cause for conservationists to embrace, for the sake of their missions, for the lives of women and children and for a better world."