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The environmental impact of having children

By Allix Denham 

When they were young, a friend of mine’s children would fall asleep in the back of the car, so she spent many hours driving around the countryside, enjoying the peace. Another friend insisted on having a gas-guzzling 4×4 for the school run, because that’s what all the other mothers drove – anything less, she feared, and they’d end up worse off in an accident.

Neither friends were deliberately trying to increase their carbon footprints, they were just doing what they thought best for their kids.

All the mothers I know have struggled to get their children to eat properly. It’s estimated that in the UK 7 million tons of food are thrown away each year, most of which could have been eaten. How much of this waste is down to the culinary whims of children?

We’re all guilty of rampant consumerism, and kids have come to expect the latest toys, smartphones and electronic gadgets. It’s my impression that most parents oblige, with little thought towards the manufacturing process, the finite rare earth metals required, the packaging and transportation, and the impact each has upon the environment.

Then we throw it all away – in the US it’s estimated that around three million tons of electronic products are dumped every year. (Buying refurbished products saves both money and the planet – I’m writing this on my refurbished laptop, still going well.)

Obviously, the environmental impact of children is far greater in the developed world. A study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that every child born in the US adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to each of their parent’s carbon footprints, compared to 1,384 in China, and just 56 in Bangladesh.

Not only is the developing world going to catch up, but the global population is exploding, and set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Considering there were just over 2.5 billion of us in 1950, this figure is staggering.

Having smaller families is the message promoted by international organisation Population Matters. ‘Your choice about how many children you have is important,’ they write. ‘Each additional child will have more impact on the environment and consume more resources. And the impact will continue for that child’s life and the lives of all of his or her descendants.’

And what kind of life can they expect? Journalist Erica Gies, who is childfree for environmental reasons, has a stark warning: ‘If we don’t curtail our numbers proactively, nature will do it for us, harshly and suddenly, via disease, famine, drought, mega-storms, or wars.’

Non-parents come into a lot of flak, largely unwarranted. But as far as the environment is concerned, we’re really doing our bit.

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