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No Climate for Kids: Are Parents to Blame for Climate Change?

If you’re ever in a debate and want to use emotion to triumph over logic you might implore, “won’t somebody please think of the children?”. In the Simpsons it was Helen Lovejoy’s catchphrase, used to justify crack downs on bears, illegal immigrants and anyone else she had it in for.

But it is not just an emotional argument. In decade spanning, global problems such as climate change the impact on our children is one of the key reasons why we fight. Bequeathing a damaged, overheated planet to future generations is simply morally wrong. Some people are so worried about this that they have decided not to have any children at all

In recent years though a new viewpoint on children and climate change has emerged. This one suggests that children are not just the victims of climate change, but also the cause of climate change. It’s all very well reducing fossil fuel use, but by far the best thing any of us can do for the climate is have fewer or no children.

I’ve noticed this argument increasingly used in recent years. Perhaps with two small kids of my own I’m a little sensitive to the accusation that it’s not the jet set that’s causing climate change, but breeders like myself.  So, what’s the truth here – should we all be throwing away the nappies to save the planet?

The Science of Little Emitters

Whilst overpopulation has been on the environmentalist agenda for decades, the view that children are bad for the climate really started to gain ground in 2017.  This was when the paper ‘The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual action’ was published. The paper compiled a list of the most effective actions individuals could take to reduce their personal carbon emissions and compared them to actions suggested in Canadian school textbooks. It found that the textbook suggestions were far from the most effective. 

So far, so dull. But the paper contained a rather staggering claim. In the average developed country, an individual could reduce their annual carbon footprint by doing things such as living car free (saves 2.4 tonnes) and avoiding a transatlantic flight (1.6 tonnes). But these were absolutely dwarfed by the savings from having one less child, which cut emissions by an enormous 58.6 tonnes per year. Unsurprisingly this fact was reported very widely in the mainstream media

For context, that 58.6 tonnes per year is around six times greater than an average UK citizen’s per-capita emissions. So how was this calculated? The 2017 paper was a literature review: the authors didn’t do their own calculations, but rather analysed existing scientific literature to bring together findings from a range of sources. The figure for having one less child is from an obscure 2009 paper, ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals’ . 

The methodology used here was, on the face of it, quite simple. Each parent is assumed to be responsible for the carbon emissions of their entire lineage. You’d be responsible for half the emissions of your children, a quarter of grandchildren and so on until your lineage diluted away to nothing. This is why the figure is so high - under this methodology a parent is responsible for the emissions of their descendants, stretching centuries into the future.

Criticism of this approach have focused on the fact that technological and social changes should mean that our descendants will have lower emissions than ourselves. This is a little unfair, as the authors did explore the impact of a range of scenarios. Their ‘pessimistic’ scenario assumed that fertility rates would stay unchanged and per-capita emissions would remain high, whilst their ‘optimistic’ scenario assumed that people would have fewer children and that emissions would be radically cut. In a developed country such as Japan, the decision to have a child would add (in total) between 2829 and 233 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere depending on the scenario applied – quite a range.

The science here seems both comprehensive and sound. So surely this means that the accusation is true: parents really are climate criminals. Well, not quite. Let’s look at the issue more broadly.

Climate Change is an Urgent Problem

Climate ostriches aside, I doubt you’ll find anyone who would deny that climate change is an urgent problem. Whilst the doomsday scenarios of Extinction Rebellion don’t always match up to the measured science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change there’s no doubt that carbon emissions need to be radically cut in the next 10 – 30 years.

With urgency in mind you’ll quickly see the problem with the huge carbon saving ascribed to having one less child. That 58.6 tonne annual saving doesn’t all occur now, it’s distributed over centuries. Turning down the heating saves emissions today; deciding to forgo children does not. 

“Ah ha!”, I hear you say, “Think of all of the emissions from food, clothes, nappies and those awful SUVs parents buy”. Which is of course true. Babies might be small, but their carbon footprints can be big. So, if a couple decide not to have children their household emissions will surely be much lower than if they went ahead and reproduced? Well, possibly, but possibly not.

The simple reason for this is that the biggest determinate of household emissions is income. If you earn it, you’ll spend it (or save it to spend later). And everything you spend money on has an emissions impact. Children on the whole do not earn money and are a significant drain on their parent’s financial resources. 

The best way of thinking about this is to imagine a stereotypical happy middle-class couple over their lifetime together. In their early days they might live in a city flat, enjoy lots of romantic European city breaks and buy the latest electronic gadgets. When kids come along, they move to a bigger house, holidays become a fortnight in Cornwall and most of their disposable income is spent on the kids. As the kids fly the nest their free cash increases, Dad buys a sportscar and they head off on regular cruises. Their desire to have gadgets, cars and holidays didn’t disappear during middle-age, but the financial demands of supporting children meant they couldn’t fulfill them.

My colleague Steve Sorrell at SPRU has written chapter and verse about these so called ‘rebound effects’, this paper is a good example. Rebound effects are hideously complex, but the message for having children is quite clear. All things being equal, if you decide not to have children, you’ll have a higher disposable income over the child rearing years. Unless you spend this carefully on low carbon products and services the climate benefits of your decision to forego children will be marginal at best.

Can We Claim the Good Stuff Too?

So that's the technical stuff out of the way, but what about the more philosophical arguments of pinning the emissions of an individual’s entire lineage onto them alone. Perhaps the most obvious is that you’re not to blame, it’s your parents. Or your grandparents. This is a little unfair on your olds. We might be making a decision to have children in the age of climate concern, but our parents almost certainly didn’t. It’s simply not an issue they had the chance to consider in the same way that we can.

A more reasonable argument is that if the negative impacts of someone’s lineage can be blamed on them, surely they can claim the positive impacts too? Looked at it this way parents have vastly higher carbon emissions, but also contribute enormously more to society in the way of labour, taxes, innovation, scientific breakthroughs and what have you. Those clever scientists developing COVID vaccines may want to revel in their achievements, but they should actually belong to their parents. 

Perhaps a better way of considering the issue would be to set a cut-off date. Before this date a child’s impacts on the world – good and bad – could be assigned to the parents; after this they would be the responsibility of the child themselves. Some have argued that 18 would be the right age here, when the child becomes an adult and most parents are scaling back their influence over their child’s life. 

It Takes a Village to Need a Child

The old phrase goes that it takes a village to raise a child, not just parents. Even in the age of the nuclear family the number of people involved in raising a child is vast: midwives, doctors, nurses, teachers, family, friends and neighbours all have important roles to play in developing a child into a functional, independent adult.

We might also say that it takes a village to need a child. Individual parents might want children, but they generally don’t need them. Society as a whole though needs a dependable stream of labour to keep our civilisation going. Both parents and the childfree are dependent on future generations to carry out the thousands of essential tasks that keep us alive and comfortable.

Having considered that you might ask yourself, how many children do we actually need. Unless you have a huge downer on the human race (and haven’t watched the marvelous film Children of Men) your answer would probably be an ideal fertility rate of between 1 and 2. Much over 2 and population continues to climb, below 1 and the burden of carrying the older generations may become too much for the young to bare. 

The latest figures for England and Wales are that for women born in 1973 the average number of children is 1.65. 19% have no children at all, although I should stress that not all of that 19% will be childfree by choice. This trend for smaller families or no children at all seems set to continue, which begs the question of who should support children – just their parents or society as a whole?

Current arrangement in developed countries see the childfree support parents. The costs of children’s healthcare and education are paid out of general taxation and parents are afforded some tax breaks and benefits. Meanwhile parents shoulder the bulk of the day-to-day reproductive labour necessary to raise their children. This arrangement broadly supports the idea that children are a societal good, and that the whole community should support them. 

The idea of pinning the carbon emissions generated by children (and their descendants) runs counter to this concept. Rather than carbon emissions being distributed over everyone who benefits from their existence they’re lumped purely on the ‘manufacturer’, i.e. parents. This is a bit like saying that the carbon emissions caused by manufacturing iPhones are nothing to do with the UK as they’re made in China. 

Perhaps, as with manufacturing, we should be encouraging (or even require) parents to reduce the emissions associated with their children, but accept that these emissions belong to all of us rather than solely the parents.  

Back to School

If you’ve arrived here researching whether not having a child really is the equivalent of 37 transatlantic flights a year then I can conclude as follows: no. The calculation gives carbon emitted centuries in the future the same weight as carbon emitted now. It also implies that parents are solely responsible for all of the benefits and disbenefits that their entire linage will bestow on the world. 

Climate conscious individuals who have decided not to have children need to be aware of the choices that their unconstrained disposable income gives them. Assuming they have the same household income as their sprogged up friends, their decisions can lead to higher or lower household emissions, depending on whether they choose to spend their cash on holidays in the Caribbean or renewable generation for their home.

For the scientific community there are lessons here for how studies are incorporated into literature reviews and reported in the general media. It’s hard to find fault with the original 2009 paper that generated the ‘58.6 tonnes per year’ figure. It states its methodology and explores the sensitivities around its results. However, it is clearly one of a myriad of ways that carbon emissions can be allocated to individuals - it is an opinion rather than a fact. It should not be compared to the emissions from, for example, a flight where the task is simply to calculate how much carbon squirts out of the back of an aeroplane and divide it up by the number of people onboard.

What's interesting is that this figure for 'one less child' has circulated largely uncriticised for 3 years now. Perhaps in the future the media could use a test that a child could apply. If the annual carbon saving attributed to a single action is more than the amount that an average individual generates in any one year then use some healthy scepticism and look into the methodology in more detail. 



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