Countries like Brazil, Ecuador and Papua New Guinea are asking for financial compensation to address deforestation, and now Saudi Arabia wants compensation if countries reduce their oil consumption to mitigate climate change. Is it entirely far fetched to ask if individuals should be compensated for having fewer or no children?

 At a Wilson Center discussion on Wednesday, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin considered this idea and stated that having fewer children was one of the best ways that individuals could reduce their carbon footprints. Humans reproduce exponentially, and having two children instead of three could reduce energy consumption that would otherwise occur for generations. A report by Paul Murtaugh PDF from the University of Oregon found that the “carbon legacy” of having an extra child is twenty times more important than other choices individuals take over their lifetime (such as what kind of transportation they use, for example.) In the United States, a child has 160 times the carbon impact than a child born in Bangladesh, according to Murtaugh. 

Smaller Family Tree, Fewer Emissions

Smaller Trees, Fewer Emissions

 The current world population is 6.8 billion and is projected to increase to 9.1 billion by 2050. We are in a global predicament: industrialized countries are trying to constrain their energy consumption while encouraging and in some ways helping developing countries to industrialize, which will boost their energy demand. 

 Carbon credits for fewer children might be less applicable in developing countries, since industrialized countries have much higher per capita emissions. Also, according to population expert and Worldwatch vice president Robert Engelman, an estimated 200 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are risking it anyway because they have inadequate access to contraception and related reproductive health services. As Engelman explains in his book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, providing such access to all women will naturally cause fertility to decrease. Other key factors include increasing girls’ education and gender equality, which empower women to seek out reproductive health services, influence them to start childbearing at a later age, and increase their bargaining power with husbands to decide when and how many children to have.

 According to a recent report by Population Action International PDF, 37 of the 41 National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPAs) submitted to the UNFCCC by Least Developed Countries have identified population growth or high density as a factor which makes them more vulnerable to climate change. Only one of these countries, however, proposed an adaptation project that includes reproductive health and family planning. Despite calls to promote reproductive health and family planning services as a human rights issue, it remains generally absent from the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. Even if we don’t start handing out carbon credits to childless couples or parents of very small families – an idea likely to prove challenging to turn into policy – we can foster discussion about these connections to climate change. And we can help build the capacity of women and their partners everywhere to choose for themselves the timing and frequency of pregnancy.

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carbon legacy, family planning, per capita emissions, population, reproductive health services, robert engelman, women