11 August, 2020

Ten Ways the Childless Limit their Environmental Impact

Consistently ignored as an idea, having fewer children is the single best way to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint, as a reduction of just one child would save a family an average of 58 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year. This isn’t a new topic here. But I guess I’m still smarting from some friends' assumption last year that I didn’t care about the environment or the future, rather than the fact that I had a much lower carbon footprint because I didn’t have children. So I thought I’d document some reasons why my footprint is smaller as a result of not having children.

1.   I have never purchased baby wipes or nappies (diapers) or a myriad of other plastics that are necessary baby accoutrements, and I have not sent them to the landfill. 

2.       I don’t have the same food requirements or food waste that I might have if I had children, particularly fussy children. 

3.       I’ve never purchased or made new clothes and shoes for growing children every year, or had to provide school supplies. 

4.       The sheer number of brightly-coloured plastic toys or electronics that I have seen in the houses of friends and family members is mind-boggling. Sure, some of them might be passed on, but the broken, faded, left out in the rain, and simply unloved toys all go to the landfill. 

5.       Housing. We can have smaller houses (yes, I have a three bedroom house, but we thought we were going to have kids when we bought it, and will eventually down-size). We also don’t create a need for new houses. I look at my in-laws – with four children, and now grand-children leaving home, from the demand for one house, they have now produced the need for up to 12 houses to accommodate. As available and affordable housing is a major issue here in New Zealand, it is both an environmental AND social issue. 

6.       Our overall water and energy living requirements are so much lower. We don’t need to run the washing machines or dishwashers as often, we don’t have the same hot water needs to shower a family of four or five, we don’t have so many lights on at night or need to heat (or cool) as many rooms or cook as many meals, or run as many screens/devices as a family with children. 

7.       Our transport footprints are generally so much lower. There’s less of a reason to have multiple cars per family. Two cars is quite common, one to use to drive the kids around, and one to get to-from work. Then the children begin driving, and they often get cars too. We don’t drive kids around transporting them to activities (and have either shared cars or taken buses to work). I remember one of my sisters-in-law commenting that she was driving hours a day delivering children to/from sports. The environmental impact of that is so much higher than my occasional foray out to a park for a walk or to take photographs. We also don’t need to travel at peak time or have as many deadlines (sports games, music/art lessons etc), using more fuel. 

8.       Celebrations (for example, Christmas, birthdays, baptisms, graduations, etc) waste and detritus. Anyone at a family Christmas just needs to look around the room after the present-opening part of the day to think about the waste involved. The gifts themselves, the plastic packaging, the transport miles to both send gifts or to be there in person. 

9.       Air travel for necessary events. Even with the stereotype of a childless couple travelling the world (pandemics not withstanding), my travel footprint is much lower than my friends and family who have children. Whenever family events (weddings, funerals etc) or simple visits to siblings or grandparents require travel, a family is going to double or triple the carbon emissions by bringing their children. And of course they will bring their children. For example, my brother-in-law flew his three children and his wife back to New Zealand for his mother’s funeral service. That’s a perfect reasonable thing to do. They then came back a couple of months later to spend Christmas with his father. Again, a perfectly reasonable and decent thing to do. But that’s a lot of emissions in a short time. Friends travel with their children, both to see the world (as we do) and to visit families who are so often far-flung these days. But they buy four or more plane tickets rather than the two we might purchase. 

10.    Air Travel for leisure. Yes, families with children might travel less often than those of us without, simply because of the expense of transporting four or five or six people over one or two. But in my social group, they don’t seem to hold back. However, because they need to adhere to school holiday dates, they will tend to take shorter holidays more frequently, even if those holidays are simply necessary visits to family/ageing grandparents or great-grandparents. Depending which country you live in, this can be accentuated. (I’m always amazed at the limited annual leave provisions of the US, and the fact that people there might fly to Europe for just a week or ten days.) Whereas we don’t have to travel at peak times, and we can go for longer trips. We’ve always saved up our annual leave, and ensured that when we take a long plane trip (to Asia or Europe), we end up spending longer, making the most out of our long haul carbon miles. Over the last ten years, our trips to Europe and the Middle East would not have been possible with children. We would have had to take multiple shorter trips, as our friends do. Likewise, within New Zealand or Australia, we are much more likely to drive than fly. Or within Europe, we are much more likely to drive or take trains between destinations, rather than fly. But a road-trip with children might not be as easy, or as much fun. (Though that said, flying with children would be no joke either!)

 So even as I try to reduce my emissions, and endeavour to become more conscious, I (and you) can still be a little smug knowing that I have helped limit my impact on the environment and climate change.





  1. Great post! I've seen a number of articles about the generation directly below me (so adults in their twenties...I think this is Generation Alpha and not Millennials) where people are intentionally choosing not to have children for climate reasons. They're still young, of course, and they could well change their minds, but the dialogue is definitely there. It's partly because of the climate cost of having children but also because they don't want to produce children that will have to live in the world we are making. It strikes home with me. I do not regret my children, but I do feel incredible guilt at the life sentence they will be saddled with. If I were a decade younger, and just thinking about having children now, knowing what I now do about the state of the world, I could see how I would reach a different conclusion.

    We try really hard to pass clothes down and not buy too many toys, but it is sometimes really overwhelming. The shoes are the worst. My kids walk everywhere (which is a good thing) but this means their shoes can never be passed down and if we're really unlucky I have to buy them another pair before they've outgrown the size

    1. Yes, good points. I wonder sometimes if I was thinking about having children now, whether I would have started trying or not, given everything you've raised.

  2. Not going to lie, I do love the occasional reason to be smug. This is a great list. Although we are frequently asked, "Oh, just you two then?" about our house, which is bigger than the one we had when we'd hoped for a child, but it is the perfect house for us at this moment in time and we've rigged it up with smart lights and a smart thermostat and all that crazy stuff so that it's actually energy efficient, more so than our old house. And there's no kids to go around turning on lights and leaving them on, or raising the thermostat like I used to do not-so-secretly as a teen. :) I agree with the less driving around and the utter waste created by early childhood --it's astonishing and I know I wanted to try at least "hybrid" cloth diapers but I think I would have bowed to the convenience of plastic pretty quick and not felt too bad about it. But it's a trade.

    Love the list, love the touch of snark, and I say yay, celebrate all the places where No Kidding lives get the upper hand! :)

  3. Very interesting!! I hadn't thought much about this until this past winter when a co-worker shared with me that she and her husband decided to not have kids for this very reason! (I mean, I realized I wasn't adding to the trash pile of dirty disposable diapers, but I didn't realize how BIG of an impact raising children has on the environment.)

  4. Concerned for you with new outbreak. Not sure if you are N or S Island. Know infections are N. HOPING you are not impacted... as I am in impacted part of a highly impacted nation this may sound odd. But it has been so very very lovely to think of you living a far more normal life and it has been such a comfort. Be safe. Be careful. Thank you for writing!!!! Really helps a lot.

    1. Thanks so much for your concern. Yes, it seems that we would be silly to complain given what the rest of the world is experiencing!

      It was inevitable that this would happen, with thousands of NZers returning home every week (although they have had to go into mandatory isolation facilities for two weeks). So far, I am not really affected. I'm in Wellington, in the very south of the North Island. Whilst Auckland is in a form of lockdown again, we have gone to a heightened level of action in the rest of the country, so we can still go out (we met friends for dinner on Wednesday night, for example), but need to social distance and trace our movements for contact tracing. Of course, that might change too. But we've had 100 glorious days of freedom and - most importantly - safety.

      Sending love.

  5. THANK YOU SO MUCH for answering.
    I am near San Francisco so the rest is obvious. Am very senior so am and have been since March VERY SIP and watching in horror magical thinking. You all EARNED your safety and I remain so awed and proud of your leadership.
    Was once in Wellington. ABSOLUTELY beautiful and really magical. Was only on N. Island, but worked for years with people living in other parts of NZ and they, like you, were always gloriously wonderful, and kind, and gentle, nice, normal people. Maybe in a future world borders can be more open again.
    Keep safe, enjoy your world, hold us in the light (we need the hope) and know you are deeply appreciated.
    I call myself rose. Thank you for allowing anon's.

    1. Rose, thank you for such a lovely message!

  6. Terrific list. #1 on its own is a BIG DEAL.

  7. Hi Mali, I love this post so much! I feel so better after I read we do really big things for our enviroment. It makes me smile on the train. Other people must think what's wrong I am. ;-)

  8. Great list! As Turia pointed out, I know a lot of younger people who are questioning whether to have children because of the climate impact, and also the impact climate change is having on their future. Very sad. :( The only advantage I think that parents MIGHT have over us is that kids are taught a lot about the environment & recycling, etc., in school these days & some will keep their parents on their toes about it. ;) Dh isn't always that careful about what goes in garbage & what gets recycled or composted, and when I call him on it and he makes a face at me, I tell him, "It's a good thing our daughter isn't here, because SHE would set you straight!" lol