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How to spend $1m reducing climate change

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Issue date: 
November 9th, 2010
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Suppose you had $1 million to spend on tackling climate change.  How would you spend it to get the best bang for your million bucks?

Would you spend it on stopping the slash-and-burn of forests?  Perhaps on switching to nuclear energy?   More energy-efficient buildings?  Building cleaner power stations?

According to a recent paper by David Wheeler and Dan Hammer, climate change experts at the Center for Global Development, the answer is (drum roll): you would do much, much better to spend your money on a combination of family planning and girls’ education in developing countries.

This table, based on data in their paper, shows how many tonnes of CO2 would be abated for your $1m:

Intervention Tonnes of CO2
Family planning & girls’ education combined 250,000
Family planning alone 222,222
Girls education alone 100,000
Reduce slash and burn of forests 66,667
Pasture management 50,000
Geothermal energy 50,000
Energy efficient buildings 50,000
Pastureland afforestation 40,000
Nuclear energy 40,000
Reforestation of degraded forests 40,000
Plug-in hybrid cars 33,333
Solar 33,333
Power plant biomass co-firing 28,571
Carbon Capture and Storage (new) 28,571
Carbon Capture and Storage (retrofit) 26,316

The logic, of course, is that if there are fewer people on the planet, then we will generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  Population policies are important because there are many people in developing countries who want smaller families, but don’t have access to the family planning services they need to achieve this.  Education is important because educated girls want (and are more able to insist on) smaller families.  That’s why these interventions are important and cost effective, both individually and especially when done together.

Win – win

This approach is particularly attractive because, in addition to helping to slow global warming, there are other, very significant benefits for the citizens of developing countries of access to family planning and to education for girls.

The other day I reported here that if donors invested about $180 million a year to provide modern contraception to every Ethiopian woman who wants it, this could set off a virtuous circle of rising income per capita, lower desired family size, greater use of contraception, lower numbers of children, and so rising income per capita.  My back of an envelope calculation found that a decade of access to modern family planning would have roughly the same effect on incomes in Ethiopia as the entire international aid programme in Ethiopia does today.

As well as environmental and economic benefits, there are important social and health benefits for women and their families, which strengthen the case for these investments over and above the cost-effectiveness figures shown above.

Making choices

Of course in an ideal world we would do all of these things.  But although it is inconvenient to acknowledge it when you are busy trying to save the world, resources for averting climate change are limited. We should make informed choices to reduce carbon emissions in the most cost-effective and sustainable way we can with the resources available, to secure the biggest and broadest benefits.   These figures from the Center for Global Development imply that investment in family planning and girls’ education would be a far better investment than the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which aims to spend $30 billion a year on incentives for developing countries to reduce deforestation and forest degradation.

We would get three or four times as much bang for our buck – in terms of climate change benefits – from population policies and girls’ education as we would from even the most cost-effective investments in forestry (stopping slash-and-burn), and in addition we’d get the broader economic and social benefits for the people of developing countries.

So why isn’t this, in fact, where we are spending the climate change money?  Something to do with the power of industry in the environmental lobby? (Update: See Eliot’s comment below)

(The figures in the table above are calculated from Table 2 and and Table 5 of The Economics of Population Policy for Carbon Emissions Reduction in Developing Countries, David Wheeler and Dan Hammer, Center for Global Development Working Paper 229)


Extpub | by Dr. Radut