Population Matters

Smaller families most effective action on global warming

Smaller families most effective action on global warming

Credit: @roxeneandersonphotography

Last week, researchers from Lund University and University of British Columbia published a widely-reported article highlighting the top ‘high-impact’ actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon emissions and fight climate change. Having fewer children was overwhelmingly found to have the greatest impact. The findings were in line with another recent report which identified steps to manage population growth as among the most effective measures available to reduce global emissions. 


Meeting climate targets

Each year, countries such as the United States and Australia are producing 16 tons of CO2 per person. Yet in order to avoid severe global warming, it is estimated that carbon emissions must fall to two tons per person by 2050. With this in mind, researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas set out to find which individual lifestyle choices could have the greatest potential to reduce emissions, thereby helping us meet our climate targets.

Researchers reviewed multiple actions which can help reduce individual emissions. They identified four high-impact actions with the greatest potential to reduce our individual emissions.

Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017


  1. Having one fewer child

  2. Living car-free

  3. Avoiding airplane travel

  4. Eating a plant-based diet






In a statement made to The Guardian, Nicholas commented: “We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has.” She also acknowledged that while massive changes will need to be undertaken in order to seriously grapple with climate change, it is important to show that individuals have an opportunity to be part of the solution.


Adopting ‘high impact’ actions

Although having one fewer child far outweighs any other action in terms of reducing individual carbon emissions, it is rarely mentioned as part of a strategy for combatting climate change.

Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

In a survey of government resources across Canada, Australia, the United States, and the European Union, recommendations were found to focus significantly on actions with low to moderate-impact, such as upgrading light bulbs and recycling.

In response to this, Nicholas said the low-impact actions were still worth doing: “All of those are good things to do. But they are more of a beginning than an end. They are certainly not sufficient to tackle the scale of the climate challenge that we face.”

The key message here is that individuals can make a difference when it comes to reducing emissions and combatting climate change. It is important, however, for people to know which actions they can take in order to have the greatest impact overall.


Spreading awareness via our institutions

Population Matters is currently campaigning to persuade organisations which educate the public about the natural world to explain human impact more clearly. Our belief is that by spreading awareness—both of our human impact on the natural world as well as what we as individuals can do to limit our carbon footprints—this will help to inform future actions that people choose to take.

For more on this and our recently launched ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ campaign, please visit here.


To stay up-to-date with the latest facts and figures related to population and our human impact on the world, make sure to refer to our website as well as to follow our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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