Most of us know how to reduce our carbon footprints—we should drive less, cut back on meat consumption, and switch to energy-efficient appliances.
But a new study suggests we need to aim higher.
Editor’s Note: this study offers entirely different ideas as best options.
Published this week in Environmental Research Letters at IOPscience, the authors of the study analyzed a variety of lifestyle changes people can make to reduce carbon emissions, and compiled a list of the four most high-impact actions we can take to lower our carbon footprint.
The number one recommendation for people living in developed countries?
Have fewer kids.
The authors, Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas, say that having one less child could eliminate a staggering 58.6 metric tonnes of carbon emissions each year. They calculated this figure by estimating the carbon emissions per lifetime of each child and its descendants, and dividing it by the parents’ predicted lifespan. For comparison, the second most impactful change is to go car-free, which would cut about 2.4 tonnes of carbon per year from our footprints.
Saudi Arabia, the United States, Australia, and Canada are among the countries with the highest carbon emissions per capita, and thus the countries that could make the most impact by changing our lifestyles.
The average number of children born to mothers in the United States is 2.4, according to a 2015 Pew Research study—so following the study’s recommendation would mean shifting Western society toward having only one child per family.
It’s a controversial recommendation—how do we weigh something so personal, like the size of the family we’ve always dreamt of, against the fate of the planet?
How do we make the hard decision of whether to give our child a sibling, or do our part to control a growing, unsustainable population?
I made my choice before this study came out—I have two children. When I was in sixth grade, a teacher asked our class to write about what our life would be like in 20 years. Much of my prediction was frighteningly accurate: I wrote that I’d have two kids and I’d mostly wear sweaters and jeans. Other parts didn’t come to be—like my forecast that I’d work for the family insurance agency, or that Ronald Reagan would still be president. My parents had two kids, and I figured I would, too.
Then, when I was 24, my only sibling died. After having the unique experience of knowing what it was like to have a sibling, and then suddenly be an only child, my vision of having a family with at least two kids was cemented.
While plenty of people would bristle at being told how many kids they should have, there are many benefits of having just one child. Besides the marked environmental benefits, having a single child—or for that matter deciding not to have any children—means more financial, emotional, and temporal resources for the child we have. Smaller families means we can get by with smaller cars and homes, and pay less in childcare. It also means parents could enjoy a house free of sibling rivalry. As more families move toward having a single child, the slight stigma attached to only children will likely fade.
The study posits that we begin by aiming education on these high-impact changes at teenagers, who are more open to exploring the benefits of smaller families than their parents or grandparents may be.
Besides having one less child per family and going car-free, the authors say that avoiding air travel and eating a plant-based diet are the two other most impactful changes we can make.
What do you think? Is having less children a viable solution to curbing climate change? Does the environmental crisis affect your family planning?
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: David Swift/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Social Editor: Callie Rushton