Cap and Trade Population

09/01/2010 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We are all aware of the Cap and Trade idea being promoted as a solution to reduce carbon emissions and thereby global warming. Once you put a price on carbon, then you must properly assess the varied sources of carbon and incentivize change as effectively as possible, which usually involves monetary motivation such as tax breaks or rebates to spur action. Aside from the pollution of large corporations, we as individuals are sources of carbon emissions, depending on our activities. For instance, by choosing not to eat meat, you are effectively not supporting an industry that is one of the most carbon-intensive. But above all the things we can do to impact global warming, the simple act of reproduction does more harm than any other activity we do, including driving a car and, well, eating a steak.

So if it holds true that the biggest negative impact each of us can have on carbon emissions is to reproduce, wouldn't it make sense to give tax credits to those who abstain from reproducing to offset their positive impact? Then they could sell those credits on the open market to couples who wanted to have, say, more than two kids, which could be a max limit for receiving a tax credit. You wouldn't be barred from having as many children as you wanted, as long as you had more than two kids, you bought the tax credits to offset your carbon-negative decision. Just like corporations who want to emit more carbon would buy credits from green companies on some sort of market or exchange, so could potential parents buy credits from childless couples to offset their carbon footprint. I must confess, I don't know how this would be implemented or enforced in this country but that doesn't stop it from being a promising idea. If we are to objectively examine sources of carbon and decide to give the most attention to changing the worst among them, then an idea like this would be the best compromise between China's one-child-per-couple policy and the 19-child-per-couple Duggars, whose incessant rutting has produced more carbon than a lifetime of P. Diddy flying his Gulfstream jet to Aruba. Daily. To burn virgin rainforest.

From a great article in Grist, I culled these excerpts to put some figures on this issue:

We're on track to hit a global population of 7 billion people next year or the year after--3 billion more than when Mills got all riled up four decades ago.  We've spewed enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to push it past the safe point, which many climate scientists agree is 350 parts carbon dioxide per million; we're already at about 390 and rising fast.  And Americans are among the most carbon-intensive people on earth.  The average American generates about 66 times more CO2 each year than the average Bangladeshi--20 tons versus 0.3 tons.

According to a 2009 study in Global Environmental Change [PDF] that took into account the long-term impact of Americans' descendants, each child adds an estimated 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to a parent's carbon legacy--that's about 5.7 times his or her direct lifetime emissions.
"Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth," said study coauthor Paul Murtaugh, a professor of statistics at Oregon State University.  "Future growth amplifies the consequences of people's reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance." 

In the developing world, where a majority of the population growth is happening, one of the biggest causes is lack of access to birth control. Women in Uganda have three times the children on average that women in the US or Canada have. But since "the average American generates about 66 times more CO2 each year than the average Bangladeshi" as I quoted above, the impact of one less child in the US far outweighs the impact of any third world child by a long shot. A new organization called PopOffsets has tried to bridge the gap between carbon offsets and contraception, which is a great start. Even a small dent in the growth of global population is a positive thing. But it is important to address the root causes of our problems rather than applying salve to the symptoms, which never really go away.

In order to get serious about carbon emissions, there is no way to avoid the subject of population growth. By incentivizing behavior, we can make a difference where it counts and avoid the dangerous trajectory that our species is on.

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