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Having Fewer Children is the Best Way to Cut Carbon, Swedish Researchers Find

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Having one less child, going car-free, flying less, and shifting to a vegetarian diet are the most promising but rarely-emphasized options for people in industrialized countries to reduce their carbon footprint, researchers from Lund University in Sweden report in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The research team calculated the impact of having one less child at 58 tonnes per year of a parent’s life by factoring in 50% of the child’s carbon footprint, 25% of each grandchild’s emissions, and so on.

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“We recognize these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has,” said researcher Kimberly Nicholas. “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.”

Annual per capita carbon emissions currently stand at 16 tonnes in the United States and Australia and seven tonnes in the UK, far short of the two-tonne target developed countries must achieve by 2050 to avert the worst effects of climate change.

The best carbon reduction options “reduce emissions many times more than common green activities, such as recycling, using low-energy light bulbs, or drying washing on a line,” The Guardian reports. “However, the high impact actions are rarely mentioned in government advice and school textbooks, researchers found.”

The Guardian notes that overpopulation “has been a controversial factor in the climate change debate,” and Nicholas acknowledged the choices involved are anything but simple.

“In life, there are many values on which people make decisions and carbon is only one of them,” she said. “I don’t have children, but it is a choice I am considering and discussing with my fiancé. 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.”

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Having Fewer Children is the Best Way to Cut Carbon, Swedish Researchers Find"

#1 Comment By Ned Ford On July 15, 2017 @ 2:55 PM

The Guardian makes a huge mistake. The scientific article it bases its mistake upon is behind a paywall, so we can’t be sure what the original article says. But the Guardian says the unborn child will impose a carbon footprint of 5.8 tons of CO2 per year. This is higher than any current nation in the world, and twice as high as all but four nations, three of which are in the Middle-East. It is more than twice as high as U.S. per capita emissions. You could boost those emissions by 25% because the Guardian article says “greenhouse equivalent”, meaning that non-CO2 GHG’s and other forcings should be considered. 25% doesn’t change the seriousness of this error at all.

The public summary of the original letter which this argument is based on assumes that there will be no reductions in emissions, which is pretty much outside of the realm of reality since we are cutting emissions today.

I took an interest in this issue because I have mapped out the timeframe for various alternative carbon responses, and the impact of rising population, and found that rising population is operating on a different timeframe. I only read the Guardian article and spotted the error inadvertently. So if we assume something like 2 degrees is a target, population is irrelevant because those babies born in the next 20 years won’t be driving, marrying or having babies before we need to be off fossil fuels, or at least well on the way to ending our use of fossil carbon. I think we can do it faster, and that’s what I normally spend my time on.

The article mentions three other ways of cutting carbon that an individual can do. They are poorly chosen and misleading. The best thing an individual can do to cut carbon is ensure their electricity supply is 100% renewable, and buy an electric car (2 things). Flying less isn’t bad, but it takes more fuel to fly short distances per mile, than long distances, so the thing about long flights is irrelevant. Eating vegetarian is also grossly misunderstood. Most of the carbon associated with meat eating is due to fossil fuels used in preparation of feed, product and transportation, and if we make those processes sustainable, the remaining impact of livestock is sustainable. Not that there aren’t a lot of reasons to eat less meat, but the climate argument isn’t a strong one and it is certainly not one of the four most important things an individual can do.

I don’t want to claim to know the four best things. But after renewable electricity and EV’s, probably solar water heating and switching from natural gas to electricity for heating your homes and businesses are top ranks. We could do that list well enough, if we had some time and a good place to hold the discussion. But whatever the Swedish researchers found, they didn’t find the top four things needed to stop climate change.

#2 Comment By Christine Mettler On July 17, 2017 @ 12:39 PM

Hi there –

I think you might be mistaken in your estimation of our carbon footpring. The average North American has a footprint of 16.1 metric tons per year, and the average European / Central Asian footprint is 7.3. See: [2].

It’s a shame they didn’t make the article open source, though.

#3 Comment By Mitchell Beer On July 18, 2017 @ 11:05 PM

Thanks, Christine. It really is a shame that the original work isn’t more easily accessible. In the last couple of days, I’ve seen some listserv commentary about gaps in the Lund University findings. We’re hoping to pull together a follow-up story in the next week or so.

#4 Comment By Peter Sircom Bromley On August 3, 2017 @ 6:35 PM

The original paper which the Guardian article refers to (“The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual action”), links climate change to population. This is a valid point to the extent that (to put it simply) every individual uses a certain amount of energy derived from burning fossil fuels, and is responsible for a little bit more land cleared to grow food. However, the core climate mitigation strategies involve two basic types of reform. That is, we need to replace all fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices with devices that do not burn fossil fuels (as suggested by Ned Ford, above), and restore the biosphere’s carbon sinks. When this happens, having one less child will make little difference because the energy they use will not be derived from fossil fuel combustion, and land cleared for agriculture will be balanced by restored habitat elsewhere.