The Rio Agenda: Population is Part of Sustainability

Jan 18th, 2012 | By | Category: Family Planning, Rio+20 Earth Summit

By Suzanne York,, January 17, 2012


photo: Creative Commons / Chin tin tin

Some top thinkers recently gathered in Washington, DC to strategize on population, women’s rights and environment issues. Experts met at the Aspen Institute on January 12th to discuss “The Road to Rio: Climate Change, Population and Sustainability” and find ways to collaborate and shed more light on these topics at the upcoming Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, taking place June 20-22, 2012.

Talks focused on the need, in light of the pressing problems facing us, for some new approaches to sustainable development and how policy makers and activists can tie this into the global unmet need for family planning information and services.

Carmen Barroso, regional director of International Planned Parenthood for the Western Hemisphere, focused on rights and family planning. Approximately 215 million women, or 1 in 6 women of reproductive age want to avoid or delay pregnancy. She called access to family planning out for it is – a human rights and social justice issue. Moreover, Barroso noted that “…it is just common sense – universal access to family planning is a key intervention for sustainable development.”

Robert Engelman, president of Worldwatch Institute, and author of More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, said “Empowering women to realize their reproductive intentions would slow and eventually end the world’s population growth much faster than demographers now anticipate.” Moreover, he stated, “Research suggests the savings in greenhouse gas emissions could be similar in 2050 to those achieved by stopping all deforestation by then, but the environmental benefits of a stable population are multiple and will keep compounding over time. Access to family planning is a concrete intervention that is relatively low-cost, especially considering these multiple benefits.”

They were there to ensure population growth and reproductive health rights makes the Rio+20 agenda, but truly the heart of the matter is what type of world and society we want to leave for future generations.

Mary Robinson, chair of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health and former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, stressed the imperative to take serious action today. “Rio+20 presents an opportunity for leaders to make courageous decisions now to ensure that our children and grandchildren inherit a livable world. The environmental and reproductive health activists must move forward together and create a more just future for all.” Robinson doesn’t want people to look back “at the mistakes we are making now” and think, “how could they be so stupid, how could they be so shortsighted? …”

The consensus is that investing in family planning, reproductive health and women’s empowerment can be one inexpensive path to sustainable development and healthy families and communities. We should be pursuing the low-hanging fruit when it comes to addressing the impacts of population growth, environment, and gender rights. Yes, much more will need to be done, from reducing unsustainable rates of consumption to increasing renewable energy to improving income inequality; but why not start with something proven to better the lives of women and families?

Peggy Clark of the Aspen Institute summed it up nicely when she said “We must return again to the fundamental premise of what we mean by sustainability…and which extends beyond environmental concerns to include women, rights, population and equitable economic development.”

Suzanne York is a writer with the Institute for Population Studies (IPS)/

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