Why parents shouldn’t be saddled with environmental guilt for having children


Warum Eltern nicht mit Umweltschuld belastet werden sollten, weil sie Kinder haben

The environmental costs of childbirth are at the center of climate ethics debates. Credit: MJTH/Shutterstock

Whether residents of high-income countries have a moral obligation to have fewer children is increasingly debated in climate ethics. Due to the expected high carbon impact of future population growth, some climate ethicists voice support for non-enforced population control measures such as B. Reduced tax credits for children.

This debate has attracted wide public attention and made family planning a key issue in climate change prevention.

Much of the debate is underpinned by an influential US study published by Oregon State University in 2009. The premise of the study is that an individual is responsible for the CO2 emissions of their offspring, weighted according to their relationship. A grandparent is responsible for a quarter of each of their grandchildren’s emissions, and so on.

The birth of a child sets in motion a cycle of continued procreation over many generations. The emissions of future generations are contained in the carbon inheritance of their ancestors.

The CO2 exposure of children

Based on this logic, the authors determined that one child adds 9,441 tons of carbon dioxide to each parent’s carbon inheritance. This equates to more than five times their own lifetime CO2 emissions. The potential savings from reduced reproduction are therefore dramatic.

This result is usually taken at face value in both academic debates and popular discussions, while its details and assumptions are rarely questioned. However, the outcome depends on the assumption that all future generations will indefinitely emit emissions at 2005 levels, an assumption that now far exceeds the target.

For example, US per capita emissions fell 21% from 2005 to 2019, before they were artificially suppressed by the COVID pandemic. And they are likely to decrease further in the future.

Large public investments are accelerating the transition to carbon neutrality. The most recent US Inflation Reduction Act allocated US$369 billion (£319) to fight climate change.

Net zero has also become a legally binding target in many countries. The European climate law, for example, aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across the EU by 2050.

Rethinking the CO2 exposure of children

In light of these efforts, the key assumptions underlying the study need to be reconsidered.

Instead, using the same reasoning that led to large carbon impacts on reproduction, we propose that having a child today may be far less environmentally damaging than is commonly believed.

If countries with high per capita emissions reach net-zero by 2050, then a child born in one of those countries in 2022 would only emit emissions up to the age of 28. After 2050, they and their descendants would no longer cause any additional emissions. Adding their lifetime emissions therefore gives a much lower carbon load.

Assuming emissions decrease linearly to zero by 2050 and the child does not reproduce during that time, a child born in 2022 will add seven years of carbon emissions to each parent’s lifetime carbon footprint. This is because over the 28 years to 2050, a linear decline can be modeled as an average of half the total (14 years), with each parent responsible for half their child’s footprint (seven years). Subsequent generations add zero emissions to this amount.

The difference between this potential scenario and the accepted “constant emissions” scenario is stark. However, even this much lower result can still overestimate the carbon impact of a child.

This figure assumes that one child causes additional emissions equal to the per capita rate in their country of residence. However, children tend to participate in lower-emission activities than adults. They share a household with their parents and will not drive their own car or commute to work for much of the time by 2050.

Especially in the immediate future, when per capita emissions are at their highest, a child is likely to emit far fewer emissions than their country’s per capita average.

Net zero commitments must be met

Striving for net zero can significantly reduce the climate impact of having children in countries with high per capita carbon emissions. However, this remains dependent on the fulfillment of this obligation.

Progress towards net zero is faltering as current climate policies in many countries fall short of their promises.

Despite a net-zero strategy, Britain’s progress towards carbon neutrality has been limited. UK emissions rose 4% in 2021 as the economy began to recover from the pandemic – and many other countries with high per capita emissions are in a similar situation. Prime Minister Liz Truss’ cabinet appointment has also cast doubt on Britain’s commitment to climate goals.

Therefore, despite our reassessment of the 2009 study, it remains far from being a firm case for reducing the CO2 impact of reproduction.

As a society, we have the power to embark on a credible net-zero journey. This also means rejecting the widespread tendency to respond to climate change through individual lifestyle adjustments rather than through institutional and structural changes. Should net zero be reached, it would be possible to have children without being burdened with environmental debt.


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Citation: Why Parents Should Not Be Loaded with Environmental Debt for Having Children (2022, September 23) Retrieved September 23, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-parents-shouldnt-saddled-environmental -guilt.html

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