Despite chronically low fertility throughout the Western world, there are still those who claim they are not having children for the sake of the planet.  Worse still, there are still those who claim others should be 'educated' to have fewer children for this reason.

The New York Times recently ran a story citing numerous would-be parents who are “acutely aware that having a child is one of the costliest actions they can take environmentally”, with one saying if it weren’t for climate change she would “go off birth control tomorrow”.  Unfortunately the article didn’t quote any actual science pointing to the catastrophic future it predicted.

However, having fewer children consistently features on lists which are then used to educate school students and other would-be parents about how they can reduce their carbon footprint.  This journal article, published late last year, claims that having fewer children need to be emphasized more in educational messages given to adolescents and consumers about ways to reduce climate change:

Wynes and Nicholas (2017) make two important claims that deserve greater attention in achieving this objective. One is that some of the highest impact actions individuals can undertake to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been overlooked, especially in government recommendations to consumers.

In particular, they point to choices to have one fewer child, to live car free, to avoid airplane travel, and to eat less meat. They find that the first two of these in particular have much greater impact than more frequently recommended actions. Secondly, they point out that adolescents, who they see as an ideal demographic to consider such choices, are not presented with information about the impact of significant lifestyle changes in climate change educational materials.

However, as always, it is important to consider how such claims are justified; especially before deciding we will convince our children that small families are preferable in countries already struggling with chronically low fertility.   Not to mention the flow-on effect the peer pressure and judgment from those who think this way might have on others in the long-term; It is not easy bringing up children in a society that no longer accommodates or sees as normal traditional motherhood and larger families. 

Spencer James, an assistant professor in the Family Life Department at Brigham Young University, presents an interesting critique of the study’s conclusion that having fewer children should be top of your climate change reduction action list.  It emphasises the need to look beyond such study claims:

To arrive at this eye-popping number of 58.6 tons-per-year of carbon saved, Wynes and Nicolas relied on an earlier piece that calculates the amount of carbon for which each person’s entire progeny is responsible. (As an aside, this earlier piece was accepted for publication in 2008, meaning its estimates come from a time when carbon emissions were 35% higher than they are today, so the numbers used to estimate each person’s carbon footprint are likely overinflated in the first place.) According to this method, each parent is responsible for 50% of his or her children’s emissions, 25% of his or her grandchildren’s, and so on; these figures are then totaled and divided by the number of years a contemporary person is expected to live.

Thus, the 58.6-tons figure is not actually carbon savings this year. It’s not even savings next year, nor the year after that: To arrive at such a dramatic conclusion, the authors employ an entirely different timeframe without making this clear to the reader. That is, the numbers of 58.6 tons vs. 2.4 tons for car-free living (or 1.6 tons for avoiding transatlantic flights) are not in any way comparable! Living without a car this year will save 2.4 tons in carbon emissions this year. But choosing to not have a child this year will not save a comparable 58.6 tons this year. Rather, that’s the total amount of carbon emissions saved over many, many generations (one’s entire progeny!) totaled and then averaged for each year of a woman’s expected lifetime. Hardly the same thing!

Will having fewer children have the outlandish effect the authors of the journal article propose? Almost certainly not. In fact, the benefits of having one fewer child will take centuries to materialize because the carbon savings will require many, many decades of foregone fertility before those savings are realized.

Of course there are also the numerous negative effects of reduced fertility to consider.  These include labour shortages, the loss of human capital to actually devise solutions to world problems such as pollution, the suffering of less than adequately supported elderly due to a reduced labour force, the loss of the character and values developed in our children within a family unit which includes two or three siblings (think the “little emperor” problem China has long grappled with which is now also affecting the West), not to mention the joy family and children bring to a society which values them.  Some also lament the cultural change that immigration deemed necessary to prop up their country’s labour force brings to their communities when a country’s own mothers are having few or no children.

Let’s also not forget that, according to Oxfam research, the richest 10% of people produce half of Earth’s climate-harming fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%, making it hard to say that emissions are an over-population problem.  

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...