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The Best Lifestyle Choice for Saving the Planet Just Might Surprise You

New research shows that having smaller families is the most effective way to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
Baby in bed with fingers in mouth
Tara Moore / Getty Images

Want to do all you can to help the environment? You have lots of options, of course, from driving less and recycling more to installing solar panels on your roof. But provocative new research shows that the most effective way to fight climate change is to have fewer children.

Researchers in Canada and Sweden compared 31 green-oriented lifestyle choices of people living in industrialized nations to see which was best at curbing emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Their calculations showed that having fewer children brought the biggest reductions, followed by ditching your car, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet.

“Until we’ve completely decarbonized society, adding another person to the planet is always going to add more emissions,” says study coauthor Seth Wynes, a graduate student in geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “We don’t want to knock recycling, but some people…are ready to step up their game and do something a little more challenging for the environment.”

Switching from plastic to canvas shopping bags cuts about 11 pounds of carbon dioxide from your carbon footprint each year, the study showed. Going meatless cuts way more — almost a ton. But each child you don’t have cuts your carbon footprint by 65 tons a year, say Wynes and his collaborator, Kimberly Nicholas of Lund University in Sweden.

Image: Reduce Your Contribution to Climate Change
Reduce Your Contribution to Climate ChangeSeth Wynes & Kimberly Nicholas / Environmental Research Letters

Those figures are based on the greenhouse gases your child and their offspring would have put into the atmosphere as a result of their daily living. Each parent is responsible for half of a child’s lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, a quarter of his or her grandchildren’s emissions, and smaller fractions of more distant descendants’ emissions, according to the study.

Obviously, society would eventually collapse if everyone stopped having children. And Bastien Girod, a sustainability researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, isn’t sure that having smaller families is a realistic solution to the global warming problem.

“People want to reduce environmental emissions, but they will start where it hurts least,” he says, adding that the biggest impact will come from many people taking small steps rather than a few people making drastic lifestyle changes.

And he says that our children may prove to be the ones who come up with even more effective approaches to protecting our planet.

“Children cannot only be part of the problem, but also part of the solution,” he says. “To say having less kids is the best thing you can do for climate, I wouldn’t subscribe to that.”

Another problem with the fewer-children argument is that it would take centuries to reduce the number of people on the planet, Chris Goodall, an author who writes about sustainability and energy, told The Guardian. “In some ways [the study] will just reinforce the suspicion of the political right that the threat of climate change is simply a cover for reducing people’s freedom to live as they want,” he added.

Wynes acknowledges that how many babies to have is a very personal decision. His research isn’t meant to guide national policies or to pressure people into having smaller families, he says. But it could give people more information to consider when they’re deciding how many children they want.

“For me personally, the climate is very important…I want to leave a healthy atmosphere for future generations,” he says. “It’s something I’m going to be cognizant of, but not everyone is in the same place.”

The findings were published July 12 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.


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