Looking Beyond Rio to London

06/28/2012 10:58 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2012

Conspiracy theorists in the U.S. believe that foreign powers and the United Nations are secretly subverting the U.S. Constitution and working towards one world government. They think that the 'conspiracy' is so advanced that the UN is deploying -- for some unknown, clandestine purpose -- fleets of "black helicopters" in this country.

The truth is, as was amply demonstrated at the Rio+20 Earth Summit last week, international governance is in a state of woeful disrepair. For better or worse, there is nothing approaching one world government. From time to time the nations of the world unite to confront a common threat, like the destruction of the ozone layer, but such cooperation is all too rare.

The stark reality is that we need a lot more international cooperation on climate change and a number of other planetary threats. Thirty leading scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Center have identified nine "planetary boundaries," which, if crossed, could cause irreparable harm to the planet and humanity. They report that we have already exceeded three of those important boundaries: climate change, nitrogen loadings, and the rate of biodiversity loss. With respect to the other six boundaries -- ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone, aerosol loadings, freshwater use, land use charges, and chemical pollution -- we are getting dangerously close.

In addressing these and other challenges, the delegates to the Rio+20 Conference stopped far short of making any binding commitments. They even backed away from pledges aimed at eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, they sanctioned the drafting of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and sought to strengthen the role of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in securing international cooperation on pressing environmental problems.

In other words, they kicked the environmental can down the road.

The hope is, and it's a fragile one, is that the new SDGs and a strengthened UNEP will achieve what the Earth Summit could not produce: binding commitments or some form of international cooperation aimed at balancing the demands of a growing world population with the capacity of the planet to meet those demands.

While Rio+20 did not produce any major environmental breakthroughs, there is hope on another front: population. An international family planning summit, convened by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will take place in London on July 11, World Population Day. A number of foundation and donor countries will increase their commitments to family planning with the goal of extending contraceptive and reproductive health services to another 120 million women in the developing world by 2020. Such a target, if realized, would go a long ways towards the goal of ensuring universal access to reproductive health services.

The Guttmacher Institute recently estimated that there are 222 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern contraceptive method. If those 222 million women adopted a modern contraceptive method, Guttmacher estimates that:

• Unintended pregnancies would decline by two-thirds, from 80 million to 26 million.
• There would be 26 million fewer abortions (including 16 million fewer unsafe procedures).
• There would be 21 million fewer unplanned births.
• Seven million fewer miscarriages would occur.
• Pregnancy-related deaths would drop by 79,000. Most of this reduction (48,000) would take place in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest levels of both maternal mortality and unmet need for contraception.
• There would be 1.1 million fewer infant deaths.

Doing so would dramatically reduce projected population growth in the developing world, making it far easier for developing countries to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change, water scarcity, and food insecurity. Also, there would be less deforestation and environmental stress.

Eliminating barriers to contraceptive use and making contraceptive services available to another 120 million women in the developing world by 2020 will not solve all the world's environmental problems. Far from it. There is no substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions or curbing our depletion of scarce resources; the U.S. and other developed nations will still need to do their part. But lowering fertility rates in the developing world could dramatically improve development prospects and reduce the number of people who could be endangered by climate change, food shortages, and water scarcity.

If all goes well, next month's London summit will produce what Rio+20 failed to produce: verifiable commitments. After 15 years of declining donor nation support for international family planning assistance, that would be a major step towards a better world.