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Jáchym Judl: What would your great-great-grandparents say? The story of an individual’s carbon footprint

26.8.2019 Jáchym Judl
Jáchym Judl

Seth Wynes and Dr. Kimberly Nicholas of Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies wrote a paper that has gained wide attention since its publication in 2017 thanks to the unorthodox message it sends: a decision of having one fewer child is the most effective personal carbon footprint mitigation action one can take. Or putting it the other way around: having one child adds almost 60 tCO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) to the personal annual carbon footprint of a parent living in a developed country. The average Finnish carbon footprint is just over 10 tCO2e. Unsurprisingly, the paper also caught the attention of Finnish media.

Most recently the paper was examined in an article published in Helsingin Sanomat on 18 August 2019. The underlying message was in line with that of the original paper – children hugely affect their parents’ personal carbon footprints. Before drawing far-reaching conclusions and making recommendations to the public regarding reproduction and family planning, the concept of a carbon footprint and the methodology used in the study and its pitfalls need to be better understood.

The methodology used in the original paper builds on the idea of carbon legacy. According to the concept, a parent is fully responsible for his or her own carbon emissions, as well as 1/2 of his/her child’s emissions, 1/4 of his/her possible grandchild’s emissions, and so on. According to the same logic, our own carbon emissions are fully attributable to our parents’ personal carbon footprints. The methodological issue is evident. This methodology inevitably leads to multiple counting of carbon emissions, as is clearly explained by Philippe van Basshuysen and Eric Brandstedt.

Carbon footprint must be measured in relation to time. Typically this is done on an annual basis, such as for example in Ilmastodieetti (the climate diet calculator developed by SYKE). The methodology applied by Wynes and Nicholas, however, attributes emissions occurring in the (distant) future, caused by future generations, to a person’s annual footprint. This logic operates on impacts of future consumption that are currently unknown and it leads to comparing the incomparable, as well as steering the discussion away from the much-needed carbon mitigation actions that have more immediate effect. These include, for example, sustainable diets, low-carbon mobility, carbon-free energy production, energy efficiency of buildings, sustainable agriculture, and urban planning. In comparison to having or not having a child these actions become irrelevant if the methodology used in the paper is applied. Not to mention that it is a somewhat philosophical contemplation of whether parents should be held responsible for the lifetime environmental impacts of their descendants, as was also discussed well in van Basshuysen & Brandstedt.

It all comes down to (sustainable) consumption and production.

Few will argue that human population has no impact on the planet Earth and its climate. The global human population has increased from around 3 billion in the 1960s to almost 8 billion today. The evidence that human activity negatively impacts the climate exists and is beyond dispute. However, one may ask whether sending out the message that “having one child less is the most effective climate action” will have desirable consequences in a country with the best educational system, a country that is striving to be the world leader in circular economy and is aiming for climate neutrality and beyond – but where at the same time the fertility rate is low and decreasing.

It all comes down to (sustainable) consumption and production. Personal carbon footprint is a function of income, individual consumption choices, and the carbon intensity of products and services that are consumed. When comparing two citizens in a given year, both with a similar income, their personal carbon footprints will be a result of the consumption choices they make, regardless of the number of kids they have. Different situations in life, naturally, lead to different needs and choices. Some may lead to an increase in personal carbon footprint, some may not. This applies to every individual.

Adult individuals are responsible for their own actions. This responsibility cannot be imposed on their ancestors. However, although individuals should make climate-smart choices in their everyday lives, it is industry, business, policy-makers, and politicians that play crucial roles in making the choices available and as easy as possible. A humane solution to the climate crisis should not be to (indirectly) blame people for reproduction which is, among other things, a natural instinct.

The growing human population negatively stresses the environment and climate. In order to rapidly decrease global carbon emissions, we need breakthroughs in technological innovation, political courage, change in consumption patterns, and in the perception of economic growth as the ultimate prosperity indicator. To limit population growth in the medium to long term, and to sustain human life, we need, among other things, to improve women’s rights, education and healthcare. In that way we can avoid recommendations for more radical measures.

Jáchym Judl is a researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Production and Consumption. He is involved in the Canemure and Circwaste projects in which SYKE works together with regions, municipalities, citizens, and stakeholders in identifying and propagating best practices that accelerate the shift to a carbon-neutral and circular Finland. He is a father.

Opinions of blog contributors do not necessarily reflect the official views and opinions of the Finnish Environment Institute.

Kommentit (6 kommenttia)
Kimmo Silvo
klo 8.12
A well argued and elegantly written response to this intricate issue!
Eduard Bakštein
klo 13.41
Jáchym, thanks for your excellent summary. I wish it got the same attention the original paper got!
Jáchym Judl
klo 13.07
Thanks for your kind words! They are a motivational boost.
Jaakko Karvonen
klo 9.15
Very good indeed, and answered noted all my questions and more about the publication (which I haven't read myself), as it seems already,,, let's say, strange.
Seppo Käyhkönen
klo 21.53
Well, there are those that beleave that the earth is flat. Then there are the climate change denialists and here we have a fact denialist. Earth has limited resources it's just impossible to have unlimited growth with limited recourses. The technological
leap that would be nessesery, to make the current population we have on earth sustainable, is unrealistic in the requided time frame, not to mention the sosial and economical changes needed. I know it hurts many peoples feelings, but the most efficient way
to make human life sustainable on this earth is limiting the population. How this is obtained fairly and equally is open for debate, but the facts are not.
Jáchym Judl
klo 18.35
Thank you for your comment, Seppo. I absolutely agree that it is not possible to have an unlimited growth with limited resources. That is why, for example, I write that "growing human population negatively stresses the environment and climate", that we
need "a change in consumption patterns" or that “to limit population growth in the medium to long term […] we need […] to improve women’s rights, education and healthcare”. The fact is that the main increment in global population takes place in regions where
there is a lack of the three last conditions mentioned. For many it is not a voluntary choice to have, or not to have, children. In my view it should be. Another fact is that with increased wealth we also tend to consume more (energy, food, manufactured goods).
As I write, “personal carbon footprint is a function of income, individual consumption choices, and the carbon intensity of products and services that are consumed”. Therefore it is necessary to target the latter two points. It will require an enormous effort,
especially in countries with rather high carbon footprint per capita (like in Finland), but it can also be seen as an opportunity. The main point of my text is the methodology used in the study that is frequently cited by media. I argue that the way how the
authors allocated carbon footprint of descendants to their ancestors should be viewed critically. There is no denial of facts in that.