Should You Include Your Children in Your Carbon Footprint Calculations?

In her first column for T Australia, the author and legal advocate Bri Lee confronts a new ethical dilemma facing young people.

Article by Bri Lee

Bri LeeDigital Illustration: Aleksandra Beare

We may not inherit the sins of our fathers, but we do get their carbon emissions. When I saw a pram on fire outside Parliament House in August, I felt a shock of recognition: that’s what it feels like. That’s what’s at stake. That’s how dire it is. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had just released a report saying that it was a “code red for humanity”.

We are already seeing the catastrophic symptoms of the climate emergency in the increased ferocity of natural disasters like bushfires, floods and droughts. And the IPCC science proves that humans — especially since the Industrial Revolution — have warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land. Some of the predicted rise in sea levels is now irreversible for centuries to millenniums.

The pram on fire isn’t just some general stand-in symbol for “the future”. The report was shocking for young people trying to plan their future and family. Writing for the youth-focused news site Pedestrian. TV, the journalist Elfy Scott said: “The morning after the IPCC report was published, my group chats with friends began flooding with distressed messages about changes to life plans and anxieties about having children if this is the future we’ll be forcing them to endure.” She cited a study in the journal Climatic Change in which 96.5 per cent of respondents aged 27 to 45 said they were “very” or “extremely concerned” about “the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world”. A global study published in The Lancet in 2021 found that four in 10 people aged 16 to 25 were “hesitant to have children” as a result of the climate crisis.

In response to the IPCC report, Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed “the developing countries of the world” for the majority of emissions and hung his hopes on “technology” saving the day. But in October, ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, he changed tack, announcing a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. The problem is that his government can’t actually articulate a plan to reach the new target.

Back in May, the Lowy Institute reported that six in 10 Australians think we should be taking steps to address climate change right now “even if this involves significant costs”. But there’s a problem with public education — apparently people don’t actually know what it might cost them to make a difference. In an Ipsos survey of more than 21,000 individuals from 30 countries, about 70 per cent of the respondents said they knew what actions would most effectively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Most of them were wrong.

People chose “recycling as much as possible” or “buying energy from renewable sources” as the two most effective changemakers for people living in wealthy nations, but these actions don’t have nearly as much environmental impact as we’d like to think. The response people chose least was, in fact, the most significant change we can make: having one less child. Rethink the burning pram. When wealthy people reproduce, they disproportionately exacerbate today’s climate emergency.

Research conducted by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that between 1990 and 2015 the wealthiest one per cent of the world’s population created more than twice the CO2 emissions of the poorest 50 per cent combined. Australia’s per capita emissions are among the highest in the world. This flips the script of “developing countries” being to blame. The real question is whether we place child- bearing in an “other” category of moral inquisition. Going without a car is the second-most impactful thing a person in a wealthy country can choose to do for the planet. But owning a car is a choice of finance, convenience and status; having one less child is likely a matter of the heart, family and identity.

Some philosophers argue that it is faulty rationale to attribute a child’s carbon emissions to their parents rather than each individual being responsible for their own consumption. And so science presents us with a deep philosophical question: is each of us responsible for the actions of our children? Do we take credit for them? Do we accept liability?

A parent may choose to distance themselves from the environmental impacts of their child, but their child cannot opt out of a planet on fire. In May, Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled in Sharma v Minister for the Environment that the minister has a duty of care to Australia’s children not to exacerbate the impact of the climate crisis. An extension of the Vickery coalmine in New South Wales would potentially see an extra 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide shot into the atmosphere and the court found that given the rather hellish state of things, approving the extension may amount to negligence. The decision has been appealed, of course, but for now the precedent stands. These legal proceedings were brought by eight teenagers with an 86-year-old nun acting as their litigation representative.

Bri Lee, the award-winning author and former judge’s associate, known for probing institutional — and personal — flaws. Photography by Saskia Wilson.

“They’re a credit to you,” we often say to the parents of good kids. Do the parents of these teenagers take credit for raising changemakers? Do they think the activism of their offspring lightens their own carbon footprint? I wonder what these eight teenagers think about the tonnes of emissions they produce each year, and those of their parents; intergenerational credits, intergenerational liabilities. Are they less likely to become parents themselves, and is it because of the child’s footprint or because they don’t want to bring a child into a burning world?

Another compelling argument to consider in the “one less child” debate is that a relatively small number of companies are responsible for the majority of global emissions. Getting individuals to stress about solar panels and keep-cups (and fertility!) is a good distraction from the responsibilities of big business. In 2017, the Carbon Majors Report showed that just 100 fossil fuel companies were the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. So, do we wash our hands of it and say the companies are responsible?  In 2019, The Guardian asked 20 of the worst polluters about their responsibility; of the eight that replied, the report says, “Some argued that they were not directly responsible for how the oil, gas or coal they extracted were used by consumers.” That old chestnut: supply and demand unencumbered by policy.

So, what do you think? Was there a moment in your past (or perhaps your future) when you were deciding whether or not to try to have a child (it could be your first or your fifth) and something like “legacy” came into the equation? When you think of the word “legacy” in connection to the next generation, do you consider your legacy to be the things you leave for the next generation, or is your legacy the people of the next generation? You may want to reply “both”, but the choices we face as citizens and parents (or potential parents) often pull us in opposite directions.

It’s easy to imagine how extraordinarily difficult it would be for a family with multiple kids to choose to make the environmental choice of going without a car. It’s also easy to understand how caring for a child might feel like a commitment to caring for the future itself. We are, ultimately, pulled in all different directions. But the average Australian leaves a devastating environmental legacy and the young people inheriting this situation don’t have the luxury of getting philosophical about it because the government keeps fighting them. Just imagine what Morrison — who said the protests out the front of Parliament House in August weren’t “the Australian way” — thinks of those eight teenagers suing for their future.

Perhaps what needs to shift is the notion that a legacy can only go in one direction. What if, instead of leaving a legacy for the next generation, we spoke about creating a legacy with them? Is it so radical to suggest we actually listen to the young people we claim to “provide” for? What if those eight teenagers have started a living legacy that the rest of us — regardless of age — can both take from and add to? Can’t we imagine living in a country with policies that mean the best thing a person can do as a parent is also the best thing they can do as a citizen? Wouldn’t it be great if we could hand over a planet on which a young person’s decision about whether or not to have kids was actually about heart, family and identity instead of carbon footprint and the risk of extreme weather events?

As I write this, I’ve just learned that the Federal Court has heard the latest arguments for Sharma v Minister for the Environment. Lawyers cited cases that determined who was negligent and responsible for preventable asbestos-related deaths. Question is, do we have to wait for irretrievable devastation to be wrought before we can ask for accountability? The court will deliver a judgment in the coming months and then whoever loses will appeal and eventually the issue will go to the High Court. Let’s not wait for that day to decide what legacy we want to create, together, now.

A version of this article appears in print in our fourth edition, Page 45 of T Australia with the headline:
“Kids These Days”
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