The Newest Carbon Offset: Condoms for Africa?

By Eliza Strickland | December 4, 2009 7:00 am

condoms.2Scientists have argued before that controlling the earth’s burgeoning population would be one of the most effective ways to slow global warming, since keeping millions of little consumers from being born would reduce the amount of fossil fuel that would have to be burned to keep them warm and fed and happy. Now, an advocacy group that focuses on overpopulation is taking the argument the next step, suggesting that people or companies looking to offset their carbon dioxide emissions should buy contraception that would be distributed in poor countries.

Optimum Population Trust (Opt) stresses that birth control will be provided only to those who have no access to it, and only unwanted births would be avoided. Opt estimates that 80 million pregnancies each year are unwanted. The cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the trust claims that family planning is the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions [The Guardian].

The group, which has the backing of the original “population bomb” scientist Paul Ehrlich, claims that the CO2 emissions from one person’s round-trip flight between London and Sydney, Australia could be offset by preventing one birth in Kenya. The scheme, called PopOffsets, has a basic online calculator that individuals and organizations can use to determine how much donated money it will take to offset their carbon emissions.

But some commentators see a serious problem with the program: carbon emissions are exponentially higher in the industrialized world, where birth control is already widely available. BBC environmental analyst says that reducing the number of people born in the US would make a big difference in achieving reductions in CO2 levels. Our correspondent added that carbon emissions from people in much of sub-Saharan Africa are so low that they can barely be counted [BBC News]. PopOffsets own carbon calculator shows that the average Kenyan is responsible for .3 tons of carbon emissions per year, while an American is responsible for a whopping 20.6 tons annually. Other pundits say the scheme has creepy connotations. Says one: “Population offsetting” – even the name gives me the shivers – smells of warped imperialism, bordering on Brave New World [The Guardian].

The tide of expert opinion may be turning against carbon offsets in general. A travel company that was one of the first to offer offsets for flights, Responsible Travel, has declared offsets a distraction from meaningful action against global warming, and has shut up shop. Says company founder Justin Francis: “It’s perceived as this magic pill, this get out of jail free card if you like, that means you don’t need to change your behaviour. You can go on flying just as much as you were before, you can run your hotel the way you were before, but through this magic pill somehow you can assuage your guilt. We need to be reducing the amount we pollute and I think carbon offsetting is a distraction from that” [BBC News].

Related Content:
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80beats: During Africa Visit, Pope Knocks Condoms for HIV Prevention

Image: flickr / Alaskan Dude

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
  • JJ

    This is simply a ridiculous idea for those reasons. It seems to be a political ruse with the underlying goal of preventing the spread of AIDS in Africa, but why don’t they just come out and say that? (probably because we have no more money to hand out) I really believe the government is using the carbon emissions argument to push other agendas. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think the true underlying carbon agenda involves cutting ourselves off of foreign oil and collecting more taxes for big government if cap and trade legislation were to pass. Current “climate change” data is inconclusive in proving man made trends. I’m no climatologist, but anyone with half a brain can tell the yearly temperature trends have been getting milder over the last 10 years. If they had to change the rhetoric from “global warming” to ” climate change”, I think that’s a hint that nobody really knows the answer.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Catherine

    yick, creepy. I don’t need to tell people in other countries what to do so I can feel better about carbon offsets, I’m not having any kids & I don’t drive.

  • Simon

    JJ, when big oil spends big bucks on propeganda it may sound like there is a dispute over climate change. If you look at the data for yourself, it is obvious that man is killing himself.

  • Mike

    All that wasted sun energy on the continent that could be captured to help bring “progress” to Africa – um, to run all the factories that China is going to build to make trinkets and “must haves” for us to buy and keep prices low at Wal-Mart.

    Regardless, I am all for population control – it’s either going to be forced on humanity one day by some creepy world dominant power or set by nature. We just can’t have 10, 15, 20 billion + people…rich countries like us can’t even take care of it’s millions of homeless and sick…well we don’t anyway.

    JJ – forget climate change or warming…focus on the fact that fossil fuel buring is still dirty and polluting, whether or not our use of it has possibly contributed to or caused climate change. I think that stops the argument, it’s dirty, it mucks up the air and spreads soots and heavy metals and that stuff is not an Al Gore or liberal conspiracy.

  • Carter

    JJ – Climate change data proves man-made trends. Read up. The reason why the term is officially “climate change” is because, although the average temperature of the Earth rises a few fractions of a degree yearly and evaporation rates increase as a direct result (not an insignificant fact!), different parts of the globe respond differently due to nuances in climate control systems. Now, fortunately for me I have a whole brain, and I can still tell that the Minnesotan winter has been getting milder and milder. I remember a Halloween, I believe in 1991, where it dumped a good 3′ of snow here in Minneapolis. This year, though, it rained in December. While this is clearly circumstantial, anecdotal, and qualitative evidence, to me it seems like a distinct trend.

    Well, besides what emissions of all sorts are doing to our atmosphere and the thermal exchange system of Earth, let’s consider this. CO2 levels in the air are higher than they have ever been as far as we know. This means that they are higher than ever in the last 800,000+ years, as far back as we can look today in ice cores. In fact, they are nearly 150% higher than pre-industrial levels and continue to rise. Anyone with half a brain can see that this will have far-reaching consequences, one of which is, apparently, faster growth in Minnesota’s lumber tree farms. Oh, and the Sahara’s advancement. Hmm.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    ” since keeping millions of little consumers from being born would reduce the amount of fossil fuel that would have to be burned to keep them warm and fed and happy.”

    Which are three things that routinely don’t happen in Africa. It’s like they’re equating the fossil fuel footprint of an African child to a child of a fully industrialized nation.

    African children aren’t consumers. They’re survivors.

  • Carter

    Nick – I agree. We should focus the condom and family planning campaigns in industrial nations and industrializing nations, where one less unwanted child would make more of an impact. However, we must remember that overpopulation is one of the major factors in causing the problems that people living in rural or impoverished regions of Africa. But in terms of carbon emissions, I suppose most coming from Africa would originate from the burning of wood for fuel, livestock farts and overgrazing, jungle deforestation, and in a few cases the fuel required to produce and distribute aid. So a family planning campaign that receives enough attention and funding could have great benefits if applied to certain regions of Africa for both regional economic and global climate issues. But the program does not equate the emissions of an African child to the child of a fully industrialized nation. Rather, it states that the two are not even close. And let’s not forget that not every African child is a ‘survivor’ in the sense you indicate! Africa is a very large continent with a good deal of very large cities. To find someone in Africa who is truly not a consumer at all, one would have to venture to, say, the Kenyan bush where a few remaining hunter-gatherer societies live in peace, mostly unaware of the issues facing our beleaguered earth today.

  • kook

    Wow, I hope conspiracy nuts around the world and in Africa don’t read this, because it validates their idea that there is some global conspiracy to control population through AIDS, fear, and now “carbon offsetting”

    Seriously, this article reeks of New World Order, Alluminati stuff even though it’s not.

  • too bad so sad

    When we give third world people enough aid to limp along, they breed and we have a bigger population to airdrop rice to. America can’t afford her carbon footprint and allow crushing overpopulation in other countries at the same time. The world is Americas grape, there’s just enough juice in it for us.

  • http://www.peterlimburg.com Peter R. Limburg

    I agree that offering birth control to some people in Africa will not do much to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, if it were used (and remember that in many African societies it is considered desirable to have many children), it could provide enormous benefits in conserving the already scarce water resources of that continent and combatting soil erosion. It would also reduce inter-group competition for scarce resources such as farmland and grazing land.
    I have personally seen the consequences of land degradation due to overgrazing, which follows human population increase, in East Africa. They are tragic.
    Overpopulation is at the root of every environmental problem, whether it be industrial toxins in developed nations or destruction of the land, as in Haiti and large parts of Africa. It is a problem that must be dealt with if humanity is to survive in any decent kind of condition.

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