Having Children: Is Climate Change Really a Reason Not to Have Children?

15 minute read

Updated on Thu Jan 28 2021

“Should I have fewer children to lower my impact on climate change?” This is a question that is often raised in the debate on how we can reduce our personal emissions.

We’ll try to answer it, focussing mainly on the developed world. For developing nations, we must take a different perspective, which will be covered in our course 'A Fair World’. Now, onto the question!

On average, each person on Earth is responsible for around 5 tons of CO₂ emissions per year. This, however, varies greatly depending on which country the person is in. In the US, 16 tons of consumption-based CO₂ are emitted per person each year. In India this number was only 1.84 tons per person per year in 2016.

Comparing CO₂ emissions across nations

The high emissions contributed by each individual in developed countries have led some to think that, by having fewer children, we can reduce our carbon footprint. Is this really the case?

Does having fewer children really reduce emissions?

Remember the climate equation from the Crash Course?

Total emissions = P x E x C

Where P = population, E = emissions per service and C= consumption of services per person. By having fewer children, we would reduce P, which would in turn decrease carbon emissions, right?

Well, let’s look at some predictions. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has a set of models that predict carbon emissions based on policy choices and technology, known as the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP). The specific model that best fits current climate policies is called SSP2.

What if we used the SSP2’s projections for carbon emissions from 2020-2100 for wealthy countries to determine emissions associated with having a child?
We find that having one fewer child in a wealthy country would reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by 7.8 tons per year over an 80-year lifespan.

Impacts of different personal actions

7.8 tons per year is a lot! However, which important aspects have we not yet considered?

Remember that a person’s carbon emissions are dependent on their lifestyle choices. It’s possible for an individual to reduce emissions by changing their lifestyle or by working to reduce the emissions of others (through volunteering or work). As well as reducing your consumption, education and community engagement can lower your overall lifetime emissions.

Population Pyramids: The need for children

There are benefits to having children too! The functionality of human society is highly dependent on a healthy, working population.

Population pyramids are used to show the distribution of various age groups in a population. We can roughly categorise population pyramids into 3 types: expansive, constrictive and stationary.

Expansive Population Pyramid

“Expansive” population pyramids are often found in developing nations. These populations often have high fertility rates and lower than average life expectancies, so their populations are growing.

Constrictive Population Pyramid

“Constrictive” population pyramids are more common in developed countries, whose populations are shrinking and ageing. "Stationary" population pyramids, by contrast, describe populations that maintain a consistent size and structure over time.

Stationary Population Pyramid

Which of the following countries have ageing populations?

Developed countries often face the challenge of an ageing population, with prominent examples such as Japan and Italy having 28 and 23 percent of their population above the age of 65 respectively.

Countries with constrictive age pyramids will likely struggle due to a shrinking workforce and an increasing cost of caring for the elderly.

Paying taxes for an ageing population

Let’s take a look at the population pyramids of a few developed regions, particularly EU28, USA and Japan:

Population pyramids of different countries

As you can see, all of these developed countries have constrictive population pyramids and will face population ageing and shrinking if birth rates continue as they are.

In Japan, the low birth rate has caused shifts in education, while an increasingly elderly population has forced the government to reconsider its policies regarding labor, healthcare, and taxation.

What can be done to address ageing and shrinking populations?

Well, increase the birth rate!

A key statistic to determine if a population will shrink is the total fertility rate (TFR): the average number of children per woman in her lifetime.

For a population to remain constant, a TFR of around 2.1 is needed. However, some developed countries have a TFR of only 0.98. How can these countries implement policies to increase this number?

In Singapore, policies have provided financial and marriage incentives, as well as support for parents to balance work and family.

Earthly's family

Policies used in other countries include maternity/paternity leave, family allowances, and subsidized child care.

But is it ethical to have children in the age of climate change? Some people in developed countries argue that having children would be unethical as it would increase the amount of people contributing to climate change and expose future generations to climate-related risks.

Children are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially children in developing countries. Climate change may incur physical harm due to high temperatures, natural disasters, and decreased availability of nutritious food. Climate change may also cause mental and psychological distress, as well as decreased availability of education for some children.

Child Earthly is sad

However, policy changes and community engagement can lower children’s climate related risks. Educating children and encouraging their participation in climate discussions can help promote sustainable development and curb individual emissions. Thus, while having children does come with risks, these risks can be lowered through lifestyle choices and policy.


Having fewer children does reduce your carbon emissions, but society will face significant problems if populations continue to age and shrink in the developed world
With policy changes and innovation, the impact of each person on the environment will be lower in the future than it is today. We must advocate for policies that can lower our lifetime emissions and make lifestyle changes that are more sustainable.

If you choose to have children, empower them to discuss and work on solutions to climate change. Together you can help construct a more positive future for everyone!

Earthly and their child planting together
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