When It Comes to Pollution, Less (Kids) May Be More

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

To heck with carbon dioxide. A new study performed by the London School of Economics suggests that, to fight climate change, governments should focus on another pollutant: us.

As in babies. New people.

Every new life, the report says, is a guarantee of new greenhouse gases, spewed out over decades of driving and electricity use. Seen in that light, we might be our own worst emissions.

The activist group that sponsored the report says birth control could be one of the world's best tools for fighting climate change. By preventing the creation of new polluters, the group says, contraceptives are a far cheaper solution than windmills and solar plants.

It is an unorthodox -- and, for now, unpopular -- way to approach the problem, which can seem so vast and close that it is driving many thinkers toward gizmos and oddball ideas.

"There is no possibility of drastically reducing total carbon emissions, while at the same time paying no attention whatever to the drastic increase in the number of carbon emitters," said Roger Martin, chairman of the Optimum Population Trust, a British nonprofit that sponsored the report and whose goal is to rein in population growth in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. "For reasons of an irrational taboo on the subject, [family planning] has never made it onto the agenda, and this is extremely damaging to the planet."

The Cost of Each Life

It is nothing unusual, of course, to think that the Earth could really use fewer of us.

In the 1700s, Thomas Malthus worried that population growth would outstrip the food supply. And a decade ago, writer Bill McKibben connected environmental concerns to his decision to have one child in a book called "Maybe One."

What is new, in the British study and in a separate report from Oregon State University, are statistics that show exactly how much each life -- and especially each American life -- adds to the world's emissions.

In the United States, each baby results in 1,644 tons of carbon dioxide, five times more than a baby in China and 91 times more than an infant in Bangladesh, according to the Oregon State study. That is because Americans live relatively long, and live in a country whose long car commutes, coal-burning power plants and cathedral ceilings give it some of the highest per-capita emissions in the world.

Seen from that angle, the Oregon State researchers concluded that child-bearing was one of the most fateful environmental decisions in anyone's life.

Recycle, shorten your commute, drive a hybrid vehicle, and buy energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances and windows -- all of that would cut out about one-fortieth of the emissions caused by bringing two children, and their children's children, into the world.


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