Ollie's modern life

This month, Ollie Peart counts the environmental cost of the miracle of life

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About 15 weeks ago, my partner and I acted on a shared decision that seemed quite abstract at the time. It was obviously something we’d discussed a lot, weighed the pros and cons, and assessed the timing. But ultimately there remained something slightly academic about our resolution to try and start a family. It was both a concrete decision and a hypothetical one; it was Schrödinger’s shag, if you will. 

Three weeks and one pee stick later though, the quantum probability of the growing bump inside my partner’s belly was resolved and I have, naturally enough, been absolutely shitting my pants ever since…

I’m in full on preparatory mode, although what I think I’m preparing for I have no idea. So far I’ve deep cleaned the kitchen and built a wardrobe. Not sure how that’ll help things, but the hope is it will. 

We’re doing all the things I imagine every first-time parent does; reading all the books, downloading all the apps, watching all the videos and listening to everything about babies there is in all of the world ever. It’s daunting and conflicting. Joy turns to panic, to tears, to smiles, to laughter, anger, joy, then tears again. And that’s just looking at car seats.

But there is one thing that keeps popping up from time to time and has got me pondering - will my pelvic pumps from 15 weeks ago melt the polar ice caps?

You’ve likely heard one of your mates say something like ‘having a kid is one of the worst things you can do for the planet’. Really? I mean, all they do is shit and eat for the first 18 years. Something smells funny, and it’s not the guff I just let out. I need to get to the bottom of this, so to save you the hassle, I’ve Googled it for you.

Back in 2017, Lund University in Sweden decided to do some research - they’re a university after all - to try and work out what the impact of having a child has on the climate. They found having one fewer child per family could save 58.6 tonnes of CO2 a year. Now I know what you’re thinking, how much is 58.6 tonnes of CO2? Is that a lot?  

It’s the equivalent of 86 return flights from London to New York. EIGHTY SIX! You could fly to New York and back, 1.6 times a week for an entire year, and that would be the same impact as having an extra child. Ya wot mate?!

This research, of course, led to headlines like ‘HAVING A CHILD IS THE WORST THING YOU CAN DO FOR THE CLIMATE’ and ‘Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children’ - headlines which still populate the top of the search results.

How did they figure this out though? I mean, it sounds like an awful lot of carbon. Too much. Surely there’s been a slip of the pen somewhere in the working out? Well, they figured it out by adding up all of the emissions of the child, and their descendants, assuming they have any. They then divided the result up over the parents expected lifespan. So not only are you told you’re a mass polluting monster for having children, but also when you’re going to die. Lovely. 


The research doesn’t account for the fact that our kids will be emitting far, far less carbon than we do now

But there’s a problem. They haven’t accounted for the fact that, generally speaking, as a planet, we are starting to make real progress against climate change. The average U.K citizen emits 5.3 tonnes of CO2 per year. This is still above the global average and needs to come down to around 2 tonnes per year if we are going to meet our climate goal. But it’s still 29% lower than just a decade ago which, let’s face it, is pretty good. 

Don’t get me wrong, we still have A LOT to do, but the point is, the research from Sweden doesn’t account for the fact that our kids will be emitting far, far less carbon than we do now.

So what if we DO account for that progress? Well, there’s some new(ish) research which does. It just didn’t make quite so many headlines.

Founders Pledge, a group that tries to get entrepreneurs to give some wedge to charity or something like that which I don’t really understand, have taken policy and societal changes into account, and the difference is huge. 

Not having a child still has a sizable climate impact, but rather than having to eat nothing but earthworms and live in a house made of hay for the rest of your life, you can just not fly to New York twice a year to counter it. Something you might already do.

The reality is we all need to do a lot more, in every aspect of our lives. If you’ve decided not to have children for environmental reasons, you have one up on me for sure, but that doesn’t mean you can tear it up in a gas guzzling 4x4 with a steak in your gob. Your recycling only saves 0.27 tonnes of CO2 a year, and not having a car 2.7 tonnes. This isn’t enough; we need far more impactful change before we can cheer from our solar-laden rooftops.

It might just sound like I’m trying to make myself feel better about having a child, and that’s because I am, because my mindset has had to change. I have a physical stake in the future, so I have to be hopeful about it. I want a world where my little dot can tear it up in a hydrogen powered self-driving 4x4 with a lab grown steak in their gob, and then shout at them for it.

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