If parents have one fewer child they can prevent 130 tons of carbon dioxide from spewing into the atmosphere each year, a new study suggests. By comparison, avoiding a roundtrip transatlantic flight saves merely two tons and driving a hybrid saves only 1.3 (tell that to your douchey neighbor and his Prius). Recycling? Not even one quarter of a ton.
The uncomfortable implication is that, while we’re all focusing on reducing our carbon footprints through grand, meaningless gestures like planting trees or swearing off meat, we’re studiously avoiding more challenging lifestyle changes that could actually make a difference. At the same time, the authors of the study, published in Environmental Research Letters, realize that asking parents to have fewer kids in the name of climate change isn’t a popular stance.
“We recognize these are deeply personal choices,” coauthor Kimberly A. Nicholas of Lund University in Sweden told The Guardian. “But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has. It is our job as scientists to honestly report the data. Like a doctor who sees the patient is in poor health and might not like the message ‘smoking is bad for you’, we are forced to confront the fact that current emission levels are really bad for the planet and human society.”
For the study, Nicholas and colleagues analyzed research from several different countries, and tallied up the emissions attributable to various lifestyles. For the carbon chalked up to each child, they relied upon a 2009 study that attributed half of the lifetime emissions of each child—and 25 percent of the lifetime emissions of each grandchild—to the parent. “Under current conditions in the United States,” the authors of the 2009 study reported. “Each child adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions.”
Overall, Nicholas and her team identified four “high impact” ways to cut carbon emissions: having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet. Buying fuel efficient vehicles, recycling, and hang-drying clothing are conspicuously absent from their high impact list. “All of those are good things to do,” Nicholas told The Guardian. “But they are more of a beginning than an end. They are certainly not sufficient to tackle the scale of the climate challenge that we face.” Despite this, the researchers found that textbooks and government documents tend to promote these relatively low-impact lifestyle changes, with nary a mention of “high impact” interventions.
Prior studies have found that each person must cut his or her carbon emissions to roughly two tons by 2050 in order to keep the warming of our planet below two degrees celsius. “We estimate that an individual who eats meat and takes one roundtrip, transatlantic flight per year emits 2.4 [tons of carbon] through these actions,” Nicholas and colleagues write in their study. “Exhausting their personal carbon budget, without accounting for any other emissions.”
For climate-conscious parents (and meat eaters, and frequent flyers) these results may seem catastrophic. But Chris Goodall, an author who has written about cutting carbon emissions, argues that having fewer children is not be only answer—and may not be the best one, either. “Population reduction would probably reduce carbon emissions, but we have many other tools for getting global warming under control,” he told The Guardian. “Perhaps more importantly, cutting the number of people on the planet will take hundreds of years. Emissions reduction needs to start now.”
Besides, even tNicholas balks at the idea of taking her own advice and having fewer kids solely to save the planet. “I don’t have children, but it is a choice I am considering and discussing with my fiance,” she told The Guardian. “Because we care so much about climate change that will certainly be one factor we consider in the decision.”
“But it won’t be the only one.”