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

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.

"People always consider the financial costs, and they consider the time cost," said Paul Murtaugh, one of the Oregon State researchers, who said that he does not have children but that he is open to the idea despite his research. "We're just attempting to put on the table the ballpark estimate of the environmental cost."

So what, exactly, is the world supposed to do with this information?

The researchers behind both studies are emphatic that they do not want people to be forced not to have children. But Martin, whose group sponsored the British study, said governments could help stop unwanted pregnancies by offering contraception and, in rare cases, abortion.

The British study found that $220 billion, spent over the next 40 years, might prevent half a billion births and prevent 34 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The cost, measured in 2020, would be about $7 for each ton reduced, the report said -- far cheaper than solar power at $51, or wind power at $24.

Long-Shot Odds

But, for now, the world does not seem very interested.

"I don't know how to say 'No comment' emphatically enough," said David Hamilton of the Sierra Club. "I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, but the primary solutions to climate change have to deal with what we do with the people who are here," such as pushing for more renewable energy and a limit on U.S. greenhouse gases.

The idea of using condoms to fight climate change still has the same long-shot odds as the idea to make the world's clouds more reflective, or to seed the ocean with iron to supercharge its carbon-capturing plankton.

The Obama administration declined to comment when asked about the family-planning idea. At the United Nations, which is overseeing global negotiations on reducing emissions, an official wrote in response to a query that "to bring the issue up . . . would be an insult to developing countries," where per-capita emissions are still so low compared with those in the United States.

So the idea is not for everyone. But it made sense to climate activist Mike Tidwell of Takoma Park. He said that worries about climate change were part of his decision not to have more children after his son was born 12 years ago.

"There are moments when I say, 'Wow, it would be nice to have a second one,' so parenthood didn't pass so quickly," he said. "I see some of the consequences of this choice that involved, for me, climate change."

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