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No, having fewer kids won't save the planet

Ramin Skibba (Different Strokes)
Filed on January 27, 2020 | Last updated on January 27, 2020 at 08.53 pm

A focus on population inevitably puts the burden on the backs of poorer people and ones in developing countries despite them not being a major cause of global warming.

The climate strikes led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and youth groups around the world have achieved great strides, growing rapidly and drawing attention to the dire climate dilemma we face today. A majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and want people to address it right now, according to a recent CBS poll.

But one popular proposal to emerge, that people should have fewer kids, probably isn't the climate panacea that would-be parents would like to believe. Going childless will do little to derail the main drivers of climate change, and asking millennials to take on that burden - as if the problem's their responsibility - only lets the fossil fuel industry's juggernaut off the hook.

The idea of foregoing children to mitigate climate change is essentially an extension of arguments that call for individuals to help save the climate by changing their consumer behaviour - say, by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, installing solar panels, eating less meat, or buying fuel-efficient cars. But it would surely take decades to substantially reduce the world's population by going childless, if that is even an achievable and desirable societal goal, and we're already set to overshoot the world's carbon budget - the level of cumulative carbon emissions that would result in reaching the critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius of warming - in the 2030s.

Climate change is a structural problem involving politics and economics, not personal choices, and solving it will require huge political and economic changes.

That's not to say that population doesn't matter. More than 11,000 scientists signed on to a paper, which came out in early November, arguing for "drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies," among other things, to avert the worst outcomes of climate change. But when it comes to carbon emissions, economics and population are inevitably intertwined. After all, it's the rich who generate most of the earth's carbon emissions. According to a 2015 study, the wealthiest 10 per cent of the world is responsible for half of global emissions. A more recent study showed that, even among people who make a conscious effort to limit their carbon footprints, emissions are closely tied to income level. So if a rich family were to decide to have one fewer kid, the family's emissions would indeed be lower than they would be otherwise.

But a focus on population inevitably puts the burden of climate change on the backs of poorer people and people in developing countries - who tend to drive global population growth - despite them not being a major cause of global warming. No one would blame climate change on Ugandans or Afghans, even though the population growth rates in those countries are among the highest in the world. Neither would anyone blame it on the Latin American immigrants contributing to the US's (slower) population expansion. Population growth in the US isn't being driven by high-income, high carbon-emitting families having more children.

Our personal choices aren't unimportant, but alone they won't cut it. So even if we all stopped having kids for the sake of the climate, it wouldn't be enough to get us to the International Panel on Climate Change's recommended goal of net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.

An obsession with population merely distracts from the elephant in the room: It lets the fossil fuel industry win. Almost 71 per cent of carbon emissions are due to just 100 companies. A third of the world's emissions come from 20 of those companies, all of them in the fossil fuel industry. Our climate crisis is not primarily a reproductive crisis but a political and economic one.

- undark.org

Ramin Skibba is an astrophysicist turned science writer based in San Diego, US


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