Biggest Way To Slow Global Warming? Have Fewer Children

by Valerie Williams
Originally Published: 
Image via Shutterstock

Researchers determined it’s the single most impactful way to slow global warming

Those of us who believe in the very real threats posed by climate change are already making efforts at reducing our carbon footprints by recycling, eating less meat, and biking or walking when possible. As it turns out, the biggest way to stop global warming is a bit more personal — and extreme.

Have fewer children.

The conclusion was reached by researchers at Lund University in Sweden who sought to find the most impactful ways humans could slow global warming through lifestyle changes. The study’s co-author, Kimberly Nicholas, explained on NPR’s Morning Edition that they knew their findings could be difficult for people to digest. “I knew this was a sensitive topic to bring up. Certainly it’s not my place as a scientist to dictate choices for other people. But I do think it is my place to do the analysis and report it fairly.”

The study’s findings conclude that there are four “high-impact” ways people could take action to reduce CO2 gas emissions:

  • Have fewer kids
  • Live without a car
  • Avoid air travel
  • Adapt a meat-free diet

Even if every bulb in your home is energy-efficient, you bike to work, and recycle as much as possible, none of those small changes can come close to the impact of those four lifestyle choices.

And out of those four changes, having less children made the biggest impact. By a lot.

One less child means 58.6 metric ton CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year. Per year. In a time where people are living longer than ever, it’s easy to see how less people could make a huge longterm difference in global warming.

For comparison’s sake, to help drive the point home, living car-free for a year only saves 2.4 tCO2e per year. So a family could have one less child or 25 people could live car-free for a year to achieve the same effect. Avoiding air travel saves 1.6 tCO2e per year and eating a plant-based diet, just 0.8 tCO2e.

Which isn’t to say small changes don’t add up as far as carbon emissions, especially if those small changes are adopted by a lot of people, but the study proves less humans on earth is the fastest way to slow the effects of global warming.

Nicholas says that around the world, many government resources don’t focus on the big changes that could add up to a significant positive effect. “Something really important we found is that most government recommendations weren’t really talking about what makes the biggest difference, and they weren’t qualifying how big of a difference it made,” she explains.

Just spit balling here, but thinking that government officials suggesting people have fewer kids might not be the most popular policy.

She says the study wasn’t intended to instruct people on their family-planning, but to educate them. “I think the decision to become a parent is a really personal decision. I think the way people relate to it in terms of climate change depends on their view about climate change. If they don’t believe or don’t know the science, I feel like it makes them angry. I think if they do know the science and are overwhelmed by it, they feel guilt or despair.”

It’s hard to imagine factoring in climate change along with everything else a couple has to consider when planning their family size. But it never hurts for people to know that every human being on the planet has the potential to damage it just by existing. Knowing that fact might not motivate most families to have fewer kids, but it could help them stick to more earth-friendly practices in their lives in order to offset their carbon footprints.

As for Nicholas and her own family, she and her fiance have yet to decide if they’re going to have a child. “Because we care so much about climate change, it is a factor we’re considering. But it’s not the only one.”

This article was originally published on