Opinion A pair of doctors have said that British parents should have fewer children, because kids cause carbon emissions and climate change. The two medics suggest that choosing to have a third child is the same as buying a patio heater or driving a gas-guzzling car, and that GPs should advise their patients against it.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, John Guillebaud (emeritus professor of of family planning at UCL) and Pip Hayes (a GP) raise the spectre of global population explosion, and suggest that the children of the developed world are a particularly severe carbon burden.
The Optimum Population Trust calculates that “each new UK birth will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse gas emissions . . . than a new birth in Ethiopia." Should UK doctors break a deafening silence here? “Population” and “family planning” seem taboo words ... isn’t contraception the medical profession’s prime contribution for all countries?
Unplanned pregnancy, especially in teenagers, is a problem for the planet, as well as the individual concerned. But what about planned pregnancies? Should we now explain to UK couples who plan a family that stopping at two children, or at least having one less child than first intended, is the simplest and biggest contribution anyone can make to leaving a habitable planet for our grandchildren? We must not put pressure on people, but by providing information on the population and the environment, and appropriate contraception for everyone (and by their own example), doctors should help to bring family size into the arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high carbon cars.
In quoting the Optimum Population Trust - a population-reduction pressure group - the two docs are quoting themselves: both are involved in the running of the Trust. The Trust's position on UK population is clear:
In the UK, that population should be allowed to stabilise and decrease by not less than 0.25% a year to an environmentally sustainable level, by bringing immigration into numerical balance with emigration, by making greater efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies, and by encouraging couples voluntarily to "Stop at Two" children.
Rosamund McDougall, policy director at the Trust, told us an environmentally sustainable population for the UK is in the 17-27 million range - on an "equal shares basis" applied to world resources. The only way any more people would be OK would be in the event of a "major breakthrough in renewable energy or food production".
Asked if, say, fusion power would permit a relaxation, McDougall was highly sceptical. "They've been talking about that for 20 years," she said, suggesting that a big increase in the efficiency of solar power was more plausible. But until that happens, the UK (and the rest of the world) should seek to seriously reduce its population.
Dr Hayes is certainly more than willing to advise her patients on matters that many would say are outside the remit of a GP. Her practice exhorts its patients not to fly on holiday, "but if you are flying this year, please consider offsetting your carbon emissions". Dr Hayes also requests that her patients "will walk or cycle whenever possible", so as not to damage the environment as well as for their own health. She herself is off on sabbatical to Madagascar and Australia - no doubt having offset the carbon from her flights.
What do we think? Is it a GP's job to teach us how to save the planet? Are babies really the same as patio heaters?
Or should the crusading medicoes maybe focus in a bit more on their core business? How would the doctors like it if barristers started handing out prescriptions, or accountants took to offering minor surgical operations? Maybe the docs should leave the eco advice to climate scientists or someone like that.
Meanwhile the plainly necessary task of mouthing off about things one doesn't really know anything about could be left to, oh, journalists, politicians - you know, scum. ®