Last week a report published advice to ‘have one fewer child‘ as part of a report on how governments and schools are failing to promote the most effective ways that individuals can fight climate change. They also produced some pretty eye watering estimates on how much having a child adds to our carbon footprint. Aside from the slightly awkward English, this sort of advice always sets my teeth on edge, for a number of reasons.

It’s the breeders problem!

Firstly, the advice means that a proportion of the population that will sit back and say  – ‘I have no children, therefore I’ve done my bit. It’s the breeders that are the problem, not me!’. They will generally then dust their hands off and hop on a flight to The Bahamas or somewhere, safe in the knowledge that they are really part of the solution, regardless of what they choose to do.

This is of course neither true, nor helpful. The advice in the report is aimed at young people, who haven’t yet had children. If any young person were to have fewer children entirely because of the climate impact, then there would undoubtedly be long term carbon savings. But this doesn’t sound like a realistic view of the average young person’s view of procreation to me! I would also expect that the group of young prospective parents who decide not to have a child because of the climate change impact would be minuscule, and doing all the other positive things to fight climate change already. If you fit that bill, please write and tell me.

Most people don’t have children for many, many other reasons, and climate change doesn’t figure at all. And here’s the rub: if there was no conscious decision to reduce your child count because of climate change, you can’t claim the carbon savings. Even if you choose to do this (and I applaud it), it is still necessary that every single human now alive needs to be living a two tonne lifestyle, if we are to beat climate change.

I already have children – so what now?

The advice is pretty unhelpful for those of us who already have children. It may be possible to be bowed down with the guilt of having brought more children in the world, but I’m not. I see them as a positive for the future. I  suspect that most of us wouldn’t regret having our children for a minute. Well, not most of the time anyway…..well, at least when they are being lovely….let’s move on….

Giving advice to people that they can’t possibly fulfil simply fuels a feeling of helplessness. In this case, it is even more damaging, because…..

The carbon footprint is way overstated

The study took the average US carbon footprint of each adult, and average life expectancy, and applied 50% of the lifetime carbon footprint of each child (half to each parent), 25% to each grandchild, and so forth until the line eventually runs out. So the annual carbon footprint of a child in the report includes a forecast of immense proportions, spread over a period of 150 years or more. Should parents really be held responsible for children’s choice for the whole of their lives? Aren’t children somewhat important to the survival of the race? And doesn’t that mean that by ‘front loading’ multiple lifetime emissions in this way onto the parents mean that the children effectively have no carbon footprint (because the parents have picked up the tab for generations to come?) It simply doesn’t make sense to express carbon of generations of offspring as an annual amount in this way.

The main issue I have with the calculation, however, is the assumption that parents are living an ‘average’ life in terms of carbon footprint, and that their children will continue to live in the same way for hundreds of years. In the case of my family of five, I know that our household carbon footprint for five people is around half of that for one ‘average’  American. We are close to a climate compatible lifestyle at around 3 tonnes per year. So that changes the calculation considerably, and drops the footprint by around 4/5ths when you work it out per person. This is what we know we have to do, if we don’t want our children and grandchildren to all be wiped out by runaway climate change, of course. ( Total future wipeout would make the ‘generational footprint’ a lot lower, but who would care about that then?!)

The Over Population Myth all over again

The common held belief that population is driving climate change seems to be behind all this. And I do believe it is a myth that warrants a whole post to itself in the near future, as it’s one I hear all the time as an excuse for not doing anything. For now, let me put it this way: if Oxfam are correct that the top 10% of the global population produce 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions, then it remains deeply unfair to blame the other 90% (where most of the increases occur) for the problems caused mostly by overconsumption, and in which they have had little or no part.

Til next time.

Mr GreenBeard

One thought to “Why ‘have fewer children’ is really bad climate advice”

  • Nathan A Lewis

    I think David Roberts in VOX made a similar argument.
    To me the situation calls for a WWII style mobilization. We should all try to do as much as we can in whatever way we can for as long as there is a problem. I’ve told my mom and brother that I probably wouldn’t be driving or taking the bus hundreds of miles to see them for quite some time. I’ve lived a better life than 99% of people past or present, it’s the least I can do. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying to do better.
    If someone decides not to have children because of climate change that should be honored. We can always point the finger at the rich or whoever, but we should each take personal responsibility for ourselves and try to improve every day.


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