‘The narrative really has to change’: Professor Dasgupta on why family planning should be on the environmental agenda

'The narrative really has to change': Professor Dasgupta on why family planning should be on the environmental agenda

Economist sits down with BusinessGreen to discuss the response to his landmark review into the economics of biodiversity

Eminent development economist Partha Dasgupta has slammed the government’s decision to slash its overseas family planning aid budget just months after his landmark review into the economics of biodiversity warned investment in family planning and reproductive health programmes could help reduce humanity’s toll on nature.

Speaking to BusinessGreen last week shortly after he was awarded the Kew International Medal, the Cambridge professor reflected the UK’s cuts family planning aid budget last April, arguing it was evidence the conclusions of the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity were yet to be embedded across all parts of government. 

The Treasury-commissioned report, published in February, warned a failure to put nature at the heart of economic decision-making had placed the world at “extreme risk” from escalating climate impacts and resource supply shocks. It concluded radical action was needed to make natural capital a central pillar of global economic decision making and prevent further destruction of the natural asset bases that human life and the global economy depends on.

Dasgupta said he was pleased with an “excellent” response to the Review from the Treasury, but less optimistic its findings were being incorporated into other government departments. “Natural capital should be incorporated into the activities of all departments of government, not just the Treasury and Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs),” he said. “Foreign aid, for example: I was disturbed that within months of the review coming out, the amount given in the aid budget for family planning went to zero, was slashed.

“That was entirely against the review, which took family planning, in Africa, for example, to be an extremely important expenditure. The population is rising there at a furious rate, and it is tied up with women’s empowerment.”

In its official response to the Dasgupta Review, published in June, the Treasury vowed to deliver a “nature positive future” whereby the environment is left in a better state than the current generation found it and pledged to ensure economic and financial decision making supports these aims. It confirmed it would introduce a new target for species abundance in England for 2030 in the Environment Bill, review the implementation of environmental guidance set out in its ‘green book’ to ensure it informs all government decisions, and introduce a new biodiversity ‘net gain’ requirement for all national significant infrastructure projects.

But in April, the UK – one of the world’s leading donors to family planning initiatives – cut it funding to the UN family planning programme by 85 per cent, citing the Covid-19 economic slump as the reason it was withdrawing approximately $180m in funds it had previously committed into the United Nations Population Fund’s budget.

Speaking to BusinessGreen after being the guest of honour at a ceremony held at a lecture theatre at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in south-west London, Dasgupta branded the FCDO’s move a “disappointment”. If there is one policy or programme of work set out in his review that he would like see government prioritise in the lead up to the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow and the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in China next year, it would be to “put human population on the agenda”, he emphasised.

The topic may be contentious, but it should not be ignored, Dasgupta argued. “Human population is a factor sitting out there in all the equations we write down about the demands we make on nature, and everybody accepts that,” he explains. “It comes down to the fact there are so many people, and each is demanding so much.”

Linking population to environmental sustainability is highly controversial, with critics wary of the poor human rights record and racist undertones of some of the population control programmes introduced in the second half of the 20th century when the issue enjoyed widespread support from Western policymakers and NGOs. In the 1970s, several million Indian men and women were sterilised, in many cases through coercion, in an initiative partially funded by the World Bank, the Swedish International Development Agency, and the United Nations Population Fund. The same decade saw the launch of China’s one-child policy which has been criticised by campaign groups as a violation of sexual and reprodutive rights. Feminist scholars have argued that when the overriding goal of family planning has been to reduce population, the results have actually been detrimental to women’s health.

As such, environmentalists today are typically reticent to discuss how reproduction and environment overlap, with the majority of scientists and campaign groups choosing to focus on reducing consumption over population growth. Sir David Attenborough has faced criticism in the past for his comments on overpopulation. Like Professor Dasgupta, he is a patron of Population Matters, a UK- based charity that focuses on achieving a “sustainable human population”.

Campaigners have also questioned whether an approach focused on reducing population growth is fair or ethical, given is is the world’s wealthiest people, who live in countries with low and falling fertility rates, who are historically responsible for the lion’s share of environmental destruction due to their high carbon, high consumption lifestyles. There has also been some recent evidence that global fertility rates are slowing, regardless of the limited targeted policy focus on population growth.

But Dasgupta contended the fundamental economics of biodiversity set out in his review mean policymakers should engage with the controversial topic. Human demands on nature far exceed its capacity to supply the economy with the goods and services it relies on, and an approach that ignores the opportunities presented by ramping up family planning efforts would be unwise, he argues. Given the myriad wider benefits of family planning programmes for women in developing countries, a failure to engage on the issue would be the equivalent of governments “biting off their nose to spite their face”, he said.

“Poorer women, in the poorest countries, need this service that is being denied to them because rich people say, we can’t discuss it, it’s too delicate,” he said. “Maybe their own leaders say, it’s our business, this [intervention from developed nations] is imperialism, colonialism. But I’m thinking of it from the point of view of the girl who is 17 who doesn’t have access to family planning and is having a baby every 18 months. Where is colonialism there?”

And while developed nations may be responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions and consumption, it is important to see biodiversity loss as a regional economic problem as well as a broader, global issue, according to Dasgupta. The loss of ecosystems and erosion of natural capital exacerbated by growing populations in sub-Saharan Africa – where the fertility rate is around 4.7 and the population is growing at two per cent annually – is set to cause enormous economic hardship for local communities and economies, he predicted. As an example, the population of Nigeria, is set to double from 100 million to 200 million within 20 years, with devastating consequences for the nation’s natural resources, he said. As such, it is in developing countries interest to bring their fertility rates down to shore up their future economies. “The narrative really has to change,” Dasgupta said.

In response to the criticism of the cuts to the family planning budget, a spokesperson from the FCDO said:  “The UK remains fully committed to defending and supporting sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. Empowering women is one of the smartest investments we can make to lift people out of poverty, increase prosperity and ensure that communities are more resilient to the effects of climate change. That’s why we are spending more than £1.3bn on global health programmes around the world this financial year, including funding programmes on voluntary family planning and reproductive rights.”

Earlier this summer, green groups expressed disappointment at the government response to the Dasgupta Review, which was published in February, arguing it fell far short of the game-changing policies published after the publication of the influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2006. Dasgupta refused to be drawn on the Treasury response to his report. “How [The Treasury] carry it through isn’t something I can judge,” he said.

But he acknowledged that progress on tackling the climate crisis remains far from where it should be, offering a somewhat damning assessment of the 2015 Paris Agreement. “Paris was a dead failure, let’s face it,” he said. “Nations haven’t got a tool to ensure the commitment – they have a commitment problem. So, some of the more enlightened countries can take action, in the way the UK is. But there are huge complaints is all [nations] are looking at is your production side, that you are consuming stuff which is coming from elsewhere.”

The Dasgupta Review makes clear business has a major role to play in steering a path towards a more sustainable future where natural assets are priced correctly, even if such reforms are not always in the private sector’s short-term interest. The research calls for an international organisation to be set up to monitor and value natural assets, similar to the way the World Bank advances the cause of global economic development, and the IMF seeks to maintain financial stability. But Dasgupta admitted he was “pessimistic” on the pace of progress within the business sector to ascribe a better value to public goods, such as open oceans and tropical forests. “I don’t see anything happening over the open seas, I don’t see anything happening over the tropical rainforest,” he said. “Some charity might buy an acre of land to manage and protect it, but that is small beer compared to rates of deforestation… I don’t think it has occurred to anyone, all that stuff is out there, and we are using it and we aren’t paying for it.”

The rapidly growing carbon offset market is also a major cause for concern, he added, arguing that the overriding focus of the emerging market on carbon could have a devastating impact on biodiversity. This is because carbon alone does not define an ecosystem’s heath, he emphasised. “You can see the clash between climate scientists and biodiversity scientists,” he said. “It’s a very natural thing for a climate economist to talk about carbon offsetting markets. But to an ecologist, this is a horror. You’re saying that you can remove the size of Portugal from the Amazon, but replace that biomass in some other parts of the world and you have an offset?”

Professor Dasgupta is the first economist to win the prestigious Kew International Medal, which is awarded annually for internationally recognised work aligned to the mission of Kew. Previous winners include Sir David Attenborough, former president of Ireland and chair of the Elders Mary Robinson, and former Colombia president Juan Santos.

“To say that I am honoured would be the biggest understatement,” Dasgupta said upon receiving the award. “I don’t believe I will ever receive such an honour as this, for reasons that should be clear. For an economist to receive an award from the temple of the foundations of biodiversity is unusual to say the least. This is the temple, Kew Gardens.”

He praised Kew Gardens for its crucial role in educating the public on the importance of protecting and treasuring biodiversity, arguing that greater awareness about the role of nature could create a new incentive to slow rates of exploitation and destruction.  

“We need to create an affection for nature, that desecrating nature is in a sense desecrating ourselves,” he concluded. “Now how do we that? Education, we need to understand nature – what Kew does for example. To develop an affection for an object like a tree or a plant requires an understanding of the amazing mystery of what’s going on in keeping it alive.”

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