The High Carbon Impact of Having Children

We’ve heard about the environmental impact of various birth controls, and now a new study released by Oregon State University examines the environmental impact of having children. According to an article in the New York Times:

"Take, for example, a hypothetical American woman who switches to a more fuel-efficient car, drives less, recycles, installs more efficient light bulbs, and replaces her refrigerator and windows with energy-saving models. If she had two children, the researchers found, her carbon legacy would eventually rise to nearly 40 times what she had saved by those actions."

The carbon impact varies based on geography. The article adds:

"An American woman who has a baby will generate nearly seven times the carbon footprint of that of a Chinese woman who has a child…"

The whole study pretty much confirms the obvious: having more people causes more pollution. What’s interesting is that there are finally some numbers showing exactly what the impact is. The study also begs other uncomfortable topics to be discussed, overpopulation among them. But other than that, I think it highlights the importance of making smart reproductive decisions. It seems like there’s now a "going green" slant on arguments for better sex education in our country, plus yet another reason to adopt.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • invalid-0


    While I do think adoption is generally a good thing, the impression I get from reading this article is that the extra pollution comes “having children,” not “giving birth,” and so merely adopting doesn’t seem like a good solution to the problem of extra pollution, (unless by “having children” was supposed to mean giving birth to one’s own children; if so, there should be more clarification.)

  • invalid-0

    Arg. I realize this blog entry is more summarizing the Times than anything else, but the whole “environmentalist argument against children” seems always to come down to blaming women for . . . being the ones with the uteruses, I guess.

    We all know that *people* have a high carbon impact, especially in places where the standard of living is high. Deciding to focus specifically on people who happen to be children, and specifically by implying that the responsibility for their carbon impact lies with an individual parent’s (mom’s) “decision” to have kids, is just a wee bit problematic.

  • invalid-0

    What a problematic debate. The act of “having” children (and as the previous poster mentioned, you mean raising, not birthing) is by nature full of variables. I could birth and raise 50 children, breast feed all of them, use cloth diapers or go diaper free, we could all work on the sustainable farm in my backyard, use composting toilets ride used bicycles and the 51 of us would have a smaller carbon footprint than one SUV driving television watching processed food eating man. Let’s stop with stupid arguments and get down to the real carbon problems: industrial farming, and total oil dependence. This is a ridiculous -and insulting- distraction. (Never mind the elitist neo-colonial politics of adoption!)

  • invalid-0

    Just to clarify I’m not opposing adoption, I’m just saying that to hail it as an easy solution is problematic, and opens another complex can of worms. Thanks!

  • invalid-0

    I’m seriously uncomfortable with this post. As someone else already mentioned, you’re putting all the responsibility for childbearing and raising children on women. But I’m also concerned that the argument against giving birth for environmental reasons could be used as yet another method for shaming women for having children. Besides that, is a woman truly responsible for all the behavior of their children? Say, for instance, I raise my two children to be environmentally conscious (as I do), but then they grow up and through their own choice begin engaging in seriously destructive behavior. Am I responsible for this if I have raised them otherwise and encourage them to behave otherwise?

    Beyond that, Joe, being that you’re a man, you’re speaking from a privileged position of never having to deal with the reality of pregnancy.

    This post is just an all around fail.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I trust that women are smart enough and responsible enough they don’t need to have the truth concealed from them before they make decisions.

  • invalid-0

    We have no idea what the sustainable World population should be. The last ecologist foolish enough to get quoted guessing retracted his estimate of 200 million after the press went nuts because that coincided so neatly with the then current US population alone.

    Whatever. 6 or 7 billion is excess. The good news is that we won’t starve until after the climate changes. (Already in progress, of course, and it is a trailing indicator. We know no way of reversing carbon emissions into our finite atmosphere.)

    We need to reduce the population, especially the Western population which is so hard on this small planet’s atmosphere, but also any population with ambitions to emulate the West, especially any population with ambitions to achieve the American Way of Life.

    We are about to demonstrate the inadvisability of monoculture on the largest possible scale.

  • invalid-0

    Yawn. Joe, when you have been producing and preserving the vast bulk of your own food, and air drying your laundry whenever possible, and living w/o air conditioning for the last 30 years, and when you have recycled and personally reused every viable bit of hardware, clothing, glass implement and paper product, and when you have heated your home with high-efficiency woodstoves “powered” by the dead elms (decomposing and releasing all kinds of carbon) that litter your property…you can bitch about the number of kids we have. (Three)

  • invalid-0

    I have no problem with women being told “the truth”. I simply fail to believe that you, Amanda, or Joe here has a monopoly on truth. The environmental impact any given individual has is highly debatable and individualistic. The matter is simply nowhere near as cut and dry as this post makes it out to be.

  • invalid-0

    Okay, the EE has called me out for being defensive and, oh…just a tad self-righteous. He gets why, because he’s been around the bonfire a time or two. So once more…I have been party to this discussion on many occasions, and I have yet to see the conversation NOT degenerate into the question of just who SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT be having children. I won’t go there and I do not think it will benefit the cause of reproductive rights to open this door.

  • lineline

    This is for sure not a comfortable thing, especially as historically relating birth control policies to the environmental impacts as led to all the fun of racism, then eugenics, and just plain ol’ punishing women for having babies (since that happens all by them damn women’s selves).

  • invalid-0

    Yes, the argument is shameful toward women and placing the blame on them for environmental problems is absurd. These problems arise from more destructive forces and things that can be changed. What do they expect us to do–just stop having kids and let the human race die so we can “save the planet”. Ridiculous.

  • invalid-0

    I am a woman and could not agree more with this posting (or the research). Furthermore, I’d like to have children someday but not more than two. The OSU research involves complex modeling, but the math is really very simple. Every child has a carbon footprint of some size and will likely grow to be an adult with a carbon footprint who will have a child with a carbon footprint and on and on and on. This would not be such a problem except that the population is growing. It is not growing as fast in the U.S. as elsewhere, but it is growing and our per capita carbon footprint is huge. This exponential growth needs to be turned around here and elsewhere. The way to make that happen is for no one to have more than two children. Free vasectomy’s anyone?

  • invalid-0

    Jeez, so many people here in complete denial about the obvious “realitycheck” supported by this study: There are too many people in the world, consuming too many resources. The solution is to have fewer children. PERIOD. Quit splitting hairs over your sustainable lifestyle, use of cloth diapers, short-term reproductive rights agenda, possession of a uterus, feminist indignation, etc. etc. ad absurdum. If you want to save the planet, don’t make more than 1 baby, or better yet, don’t make any. If you’re selfish & insist on cranking out many little copies of yourself, like most humans, then accept the reality that you’re hastening the collapse of the ecosystem that sustains human life. We’re past the point where there’s ANY danger of the human race dying out from insufficient reproduction; what’s going to end the party is our incredible, exponential SUCCESS at reproduction/consumption. Exponential growth can have only one outcome in a closed system: COLLAPSE. Technology won’t save us forever.