Can having fewer children save our planet?

By Editor on 9th Oct 2019

Of all the things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint, there’s one which, while being the most effective, is also the most contentious – not having a child.

A new study, published in Environmental Research Letters, sets out the impact of different actions we can take-and compares them. By far the biggest impact is having one fewer child, which the researchers calculated equates to a reduction of 58 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life.

The figure was calculated by adding up the emissions of the child and all their descendants, then dividing this total by the parent’s lifespan. Each parent was allotted 50% of the child’s emissions, 25% of their grandchildren’s emissions and so on.
Therefore having one fewer child will save 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year.  This compares to living car-free ( a saving of 2.4 tonnes of CO2): Buying green energy (1.47 tonnes): Replace a typical car with hybrid (0.52 tonnes) and switching to an all-electric car (1.15 tonnes).

It notes that a US family choosing to have one fewer child would be responsible for the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teens who “adopt comprehensive recycling” for the rest of their lives. Looking at the environmental costs of having children should maybe prompt us to look at l two things: One is to have only a small family. The other is being a ‘climate-conscious’ parent: try to keep ‘childhood emissions low’ and raise educated, motivated children who are more likely to fight for political progress on climate change and make individual changes themselves.

The Guardian reported that a believer in this idea, Gwynn Mackellen identified herself as an antinatalist, a philosophical movement based around the idea that it’s cruel to bring sentient lives, doomed to suffering and to causing suffering, into the world. She was quoted as saying, “I think our culture is very pro-natalist and it’s to our detriment. I would like to see us voluntarily reduce our population.”

A new organization, BirthStrike is suggesting that “The threat of ecological and civilization collapse is certain unless we transform our systems as a global community, justly and swiftly. Our future and that of our children is in the balance. Those who have signed up to BirthStrike are raising awareness by saying this is now affecting the human ability and desire to give birth.

“The threat of ecological and civilization collapse is certain unless we transform our systems as a global community, justly and swiftly. Our future and that of our children is in the balance.”

In the UK Population Matters advocates population control saying: “More people inevitably put more demands on the planet. More people require more food, water, sanitation, homes, public services, and amenities – but our Earth is struggling to cope. Populations of wild species have plummeted, global temperatures are rising, our seas are full of plastic and forests are disappearing”. They add, somewhat ominously, “Humans are directly responsible for the sixth mass extinction and the climate crisis, the most serious environmental threats our planet has ever faced.”

In the rich world, we consume at astronomical and unsustainable levels. Today, a child born in the US will produce 160 times more carbon emissions than one born in Niger. We are already using the resources of more than one-and-a-half planets. Everyone has the right to a good quality of life and with increasing global affluence, our collective impact will increase even further. This is why we cannot ignore this problem.”

The United Nations makes a range of projections for future population growth, based on assumptions about how long people will live, what the fertility rate will be in different countries and how many people of childbearing age there will be. Its main population prediction is in the middle of that range – 9.7bn in 2050 and 10.9bn in 2100.

It also calculates that if on average, every other family had one fewer child than it has assumed (i.e. ‘half a childless’ per family), there will be one billion fewer of us than it expects by 2050 – and nearly four billion fewer by the end of the century (within the lifetimes of many children born now). If that happens, our population will be less than it is today. In some countries such as Japan, Singapore and Germany, falling birthrates may ultimately impact their carbon footprints. The USA has been consistent at just over 2.0 children per family (Singapore is.0.8, by comparison).

And with the cost of bringing up a child estimated at over $230,000, maybe it’s not just the planet, you’ll be saving by having one less child.

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