A new study published in Environmental Research Letters has looked at the best ways to combat climate change. And the best option is one that many of us don’t like to think about. When it comes to climate change, having fewer children is probably the single best decision you can make. In fact, it’s the most impactful by a long shot.

Having one fewer child saves 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year. To put that in perspective, living car-free only saves 2.4 tonnes. And al that recycling you’re dong will only show an improvement of .21 tonnes. In other words, one person abstaining from having a child is the equivalent of almost 280 people recycling. 280. 

Deeply Personal Choices

“We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has,” said  Kimberly Nicholas, one of the research team and a member of Lund University in Sweden. “It is our job as scientists to honestly report the data. Like a doctor who sees the patient is in poor health and might not like the message ‘smoking is bad for you’, we are forced to confront the fact that current emission levels are really bad for the planet and human society.”

“In life, there are many values on which people make decisions and carbon is only one of them,” she said. “I don’t have children, but it is a choice I am considering and discussing with my fiance. Because we care so much about climate change that will certainly be one factor we consider in the decision, but it won’t be the only one.”

And while Nicholas is right— not every family will decide to have fewer children because of climate change. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of making big changes. To stop severe climate change, emissions need to get below two tonnes of CO2 per person by 2050. We currently stand at seven tonnes per person in the UK and a whopping 16 tonnes per person in the US and Australia. Going vegetarian, getting rid of your car, and avoiding long-haul flights are other ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint. But, as the data shows, they make far less of a difference than having fewer children.

Making Adoption A Real Option

Though a lot of people balk at the idea of not having children of their own, it’s time for that view to change. Because having fewer children of your own can also mean adopting— and we need to stop thinking of adoption as a last resort. There are children out there who need families desperately need families. We desperately need to slow down climate change. Why isn’t adoption more popular?

If you can change the life of a child completely while making a difference to the environment, is it really that important that the child looks exactly like you? It’s time to let go of our egos and our instincts and look at the bigger picture— there’s so much to be gained by adopting, for ourselves, for underprivileged children, and for our environment. So let’s stop treating it like the worst-case-scenario, let’s stop saying “There’s always adoption…” with a grimace, and let’s start taking it seriously.