A growing contingent of young people are refusing to have kids — or are considering having fewer kids — because of climate change. Their voices have been growing louder over the past year. UK women set up a movement called BirthStrike, announcing that they won’t procreate until the world gets its act together on climate, and high-profile US figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez amplified the question of whether childbearing is still morally acceptable.
One of the main worries cited by this contingent is that having a child will make climate change worse. Their logic is that anytime you have a kid you’re doing something bad for the planet. You’re adding yet another person who’ll cause more carbon emissions, plus their children, plus their grandchildren ... and so on, in a never-ending cascade of procreative shame.
Driving this logic are studies claiming to show that having a child leads to a gargantuan amount of carbon emissions — way, way more than the emissions generated by other lifestyle choices, like driving a car or eating meat. Media reports have trumpeted the takeaway that if you want to fight climate change, having fewer children is far and away the best thing you can do.
But that’s just not true, according to a new report by Founders Pledge, an organization that guides entrepreneurs committed to donating a portion of their proceeds to effective charities.
The problem with most studies on the climate impact of various lifestyle decisions is that they don’t account for likely changes in government policy in the future. But climate policy will almost certainly get much stricter over the course of our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes, the Founders Pledge researchers say.
That does seem likely, at least in some countries, as advances in clean tech are easing the transition to green energy and some governments are already jumping on board. For example, the UK is now legally required to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, and the sale of pollution-causing cars will be banned there as of 2035. These sorts of policies limit how much environmental damage our descendants can do.
The Founders Pledge report used countries’ climate targets and projected policies to estimate how many metric tons of carbon can be saved by avoiding various lifestyle choices.
“Once we take account of policy,” the report says, “some decisions, such as switching to an electric car, increase in impact; others, such as buying green electricity and flying within the EU, are much less impactful than they first appeared; and some are unaffected.”
But the biggest surprise has to do with the impact of having kids.
Comparing the climate impacts of our lifestyle choices — with and without accounting for policy
The best way to see how much each of our lifestyle choices affects the climate is to look at a couple of charts.
To start with, take a look at this chart, which shows how many metric tons of CO2 you can avert by making various decisions. This chart does not account for changes in government policy.
If you’re just looking at this sort of chart, the takeaway seems clear: Having one fewer child is far and away the best thing you can do to save the planet, right?
Not so fast.
These estimates assume that your descendants’ carbon emissions will continue at a constant rate into the future. That’s extremely unrealistic for two reasons.
First, emissions per person are trending downward in most rich countries. It might not seem that way given the failures of US climate policy, but it’s true; even in the US, per capita emissions have been declining since 2005. (Note that this does not mean Americans are doing great. Although per capita emissions are inching down, they’re doing so from a very tall height because the US is the world’s worst emitter per capita.)
Second, many places now have legally binding climate targets and carbon-pricing schemes that compel them to decarbonize (at least in some sectors) in the next few decades. That includes the EU, the UK, Switzerland, California, and the 10 northeastern US states that make up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
As more governments enact policies to protect the climate — like imposing carbon prices and including sectors like road transportation and home heating in carbon markets — they’ll mitigate the direct impact your children and grandchildren will have on the climate. As the Founders Pledge researchers explain:
In a system with a firm binding cap on emissions, having a child who consumes polluting electricity would increase demand for emissions allowances, but this would necessarily lead to emissions reductions somewhere else, leaving overall emissions unaffected. This is known as the “waterbed effect” in the literature: if you push down emissions in one place, they pop up elsewhere, and vice versa.
In the real world, things can get a bit messy, so the waterbed effect may not work out exactly as it does in a theoretical model. But the fact remains that government policy makes a huge difference. And when you take policy into account, the picture looks very different.
Here’s the same chart as before, but this time with an extra bar showing how the estimates change when we account for changes in policy.
As you can see, having one fewer child still comes out looking like a solid way to reduce carbon emissions — but it’s absolutely nowhere near as effective as it first seemed. It no longer dwarfs the other options.
On this model, instead of having one fewer kid, you can skip a couple of transatlantic flights and you’ll save the same amount of carbon. That seems like a way more manageable sacrifice if you’re a young person who longs to be a parent.
What’s better than having fewer kids? Donating to effective climate charities.
When considering the lifestyle changes we can make to help the climate, we typically think about things like flying less, driving less, and eating less meat. And to be clear, those are all great things to do. But there’s another great action that tends to get less play in these conversations: donating to effective climate charities.
It’s important to remember that not all charities are created equal. Some claiming to do good for the climate may actually do nothing — or worse than nothing. But a few climate charities have proven to be extraordinarily effective.
In a 2018 report, Founders Pledge highlighted two groups: the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, an intergovernmental organization of rainforest nations that played a huge role in reducing emissions from deforestation, and the Clean Air Task Force, a US-based nonprofit that’s helped reduce air pollution. According to Founders Pledge’s calculations, by donating to these groups, you can avert a metric ton of CO2 for somewhere between 12 cents and $1. (For comparison, most organizations can’t avert a metric ton for less than $2. The average American causes around 16 metric tons of emissions per year.)
In the new report, the Founders Pledge researchers compare how many metric tons of CO2 you can avert by donating to these charities versus by making other lifestyle decisions.
The findings are striking, as you can see in this chart.
It turns out the impact of donating $1,000 to effective climate charities totally dwarfs the impact of having one fewer child.
“Personal donations are by far the biggest lever that individuals have on the climate, and should be a top priority for climate-conscious individuals,” says the report.
Take all this with a grain of salt, though. This report is engaged in the tricky business of coming up with estimates based on projections about the future. It’s hard to project with certainty exactly what sort of policies will be in place a few decades from now because, well, governments don’t always keep their promises.
The authors acknowledge that their estimates “should not be taken as exactly precise, as there are different assumptions and uncertainties flowing into the analysis.” Nevertheless, they offer a couple of reasons to think their conclusions are robust.
“Firstly, jurisdictions that set themselves ambitious climate targets tend to achieve them or, if not, the failure to achieve interim targets at least creates strong political pressure to correct course,” they write. “Secondly, climate targets need to be missed very significantly to change our conclusions. Even when assuming the US will only decarbonize by 2080 ... the emissions of an additional child are still only by about 14 [metric tons] per year, equivalent to a yearly donation of $140.”
This should not be misinterpreted as saying that you can emit as much as you want and then use donations to offset that. (No offset is guaranteed to avert as much CO2 as advertised; what is guaranteed to work is simply emitting less CO2 to begin with!) Instead of thinking of donation as a form of offsetting, think of it as a way to supercharge the positive impact you can have.
The other big reason some people don’t want to have kids in the era of climate breakdown
In addition to the concern that more children will make for a worse climate, there’s another fear driving some of the young people who’ve decided to forgo childbearing. It’s the fear that having a kid in this day and age dooms that kid to a miserable life on a miserably hot planet.
This comes down to a philosophical question about what parents owe their kids. For example, if you believe it’s a parent’s duty to give kids a life that’s reasonably likely to contain more happiness than suffering, you might ask whether you’ll be able to fulfill that responsibility in an era of climate breakdown.
Some people look at the odds that major wildfires or floods will strike their region and just don’t feel confident that they’d be able to provide a secure enough future for a child. This is most salient for low-income people, people of color, and people who live in developing countries because they’ll be hardest hit by climate change.
It’s important to note that such concerns should not be used as a way to pressure other people about their reproductive choices. One of the problems with the discourse about population and climate is that it can be easily distorted for unprogressive goals, like promoting population control in poor regions. Since most rich countries already have very low birthrates, the argument that people should have fewer kids may disproportionately affect people of color in the developing world. While some do want access to better family planning services and contraception, others want large families, and it’s ethically problematic to steer them away from that in order to address a climate crisis that rich countries created.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time in history that a generation has had to ask whether childbearing is morally acceptable. Many asked themselves the same question during the Cold War, when the fear of nuclear annihilation reached a fever pitch. And as the writer Mary Annaïse Heglar has pointed out, black people in the United States asked it, too, knowing that to bear children would be to enter them into a violently racist system.
One thing that has kept people having kids anyway is the idea that we can never quite see what’s around the bend. There’s hope in that. Perhaps nuclear war won’t break out. Perhaps racist laws will be struck down. Perhaps a few kids in the next generation — including your kid, maybe! — will be the ones to figure out how to use clean energy to save the planet.
That brings us to the most significant point of all. The various lifestyle choices we make on an individual level are important because they do add up. But what’s going to be far more important than how many kids you choose to have is how soon your country goes off fossil fuels. A mass transition to clean energy sources, which will come via changes in government policy, is the big win we need to concentrate on.
Even if we were to dramatically cut birthrates — even if you and everyone you know were to have zero kids — our climate would still be doomed if we don’t move away from fossil fuels. That’s the crucial factor here, and it makes sense to focus on that rather than focusing our attention on an individual choice that yields less impact than advertised and constitutes an enormous sacrifice for many would-be parents.
And there’s one more thing to consider here. It’s an obvious fact, but one that too often gets left out of conversations on climate and kids: Children aren’t just emitters of carbon. They’re also extraordinarily efficient emitters of joy and meaning and hope. Those sentiments are what will hopefully motivate us to keep pushing for the changes our world desperately needs.
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