No Children By Choice, Where Feminism Meets Ecology

There's plenty of talk these days about forgoing children for the sake of the environment. But are people really opting out of the reproduction route?

A number of young people are prioritizing the environment over having kids.
A number of young people are prioritizing the environment over having kids.
Léa Iribarnegaray

PARIS — Reducing the amount of meat we consume, avoiding air travel… These are just some of the individual measures people can take to help reduce their carbon footprint and fight climate change. But of all the behavior changes people can make, one of the most effective, according to researchers at Lund University in Sweden and the University of British Columbia in Canada, is to have fewer children.

To put it into perspective, a baby produces roughly 58 tons of CO2 per year. In contrast, the combination of a vegetarian only diet (-0.8 tons), stopping air travel (-1.6 tons) and cutting car use (-2.4 tons) saves approximately 4.8 tons per year. And while not having children — or only having one — to save the planet may seem a bit of a drastic recourse, it's an idea that seems to resonate with a growing portion of environmentally conscious young people.

Whether they'd actually put the idea into practice is another question. It's also difficult to quantify the impact of the discourse. But it's clearly an idea that is out there and that young people are taking seriously. In the United States, these young people even have a catchy name: GINKS, short for "green inclination, no kids."

"If we want to save this planet, we have no choice to tackle the problem of human overpopulation," says Lailani Münterm, a former racecar driver and environmental activist with a large following on social networks. Another active voice on social media is the British NGO Population Matter, which promotes a life "without children," or with "fewer children."

But are people actually putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak? "We need to make the distinction between people who have a temporary ambivalence towards parenthood and those who are definitive in their choice," says Magali Mazuy, a researcher at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED).

"There is a margin or vagueness that is difficult to quantify," she adds. "But it's possible that the period of austerity and the precariousness of youth that we are currently experiencing has an impact on the way they will project themselves, even if pressure to have children remains strong."

The fertility rate in France remains the highest in Europe, with an average of 1.88 children per woman, thanks in large part to government policies that encourage larger families.

The most recent figures on people wanting children date back to the 2010 Fecond survey carried out by INED and the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM). At the time, approximately 5% of people surveyed said they did not want to experience parenthood. Since then, though, the birth rate in France has seen a steady decline.

INED's 2019 Population review suggests that the decline in fertility mainly concerns 20-29 year olds. What's not clear is if that means people are just waiting longer to have children, of if they don't intend to at all.

Whatever the motivation, the choice remains controversial.

In reality, the motivations of people choosing not to conceive at these ages are complex and varied, and few young women claim to renounce motherhood out of pure pro-environmental activism.

Lisa Noyal, a 21-year-old journalism student in Cannes and a vegetarian-turned-vegan, is boycotting air travel and babies. "Global warming, animal extinctions, pandemics… For me, ecology is the main reason for not having children," she says. "But beyond that, I just never felt the desire."

Whatever the motivation, the choice remains controversial. Many of the young women interviewed for this story say they received similar reactions when talking about these issues with friends, family members or even health professionals. People tell them: "Just wait and see — you'll feel differently in 10 years." One young woman recalls a gynecologist telling her: "I swear you'll change your mind. What if your future partner wants it?"

A young girl is carried while holding a balloon — Photo: Mika Baumeister

At 25, Marie feels a bit alienated because of her commitment to not having children. "It isn't really the norm. We don't fit in the box. People think we have a problem, that we've got a screw missing," she says. "It should really just be a personal decision. I mean, no one asks a pregnant woman why she made that choice."

Sociologist Charlotte Debest, author of the book The Choice of a Life Without Children, thinks that young people today are more inclined to imagine lives without children as still being successful. Anne-Laure, a student at the National Maritime School of Le Havre who plans to be a naval officer, is a case in point.

"I care about my freedom! I don't want to have something that would keep me tied down," she says. "The environmental side of it is just one of my reasons. A child would represent a financial burden and, above all, a break from my career."

The choice intersects with feminist views that are blossoming among young women because, although long idealized, motherhood also leads in many cases to an unequal distribution of tasks. "Young women don't see themselves taking on all the household tasks," says Magali Mazuy. "They don't want to do all the childcare, plus the cleaning, etc... and they imagine that if they do have children, they will be primarily responsible for all that."

Not surprisingly, female university graduates are the most likely to consider not having children. With longer schooling, a later entry into maternity (in France in 2019, the average age of childbirth was 30.5 years), they invest in other spheres and see not having kids as a real possibility.

Economic realities also play a role. The material conditions of entering into adult life, such as access to stable employment and home ownership, are not the same as 20 years ago. So, faced with an uncertain future and an economic crisis, starting a family is no longer the most obvious choice.

"Under the current conditions we are living through, it seems unimaginable for me to bring a person into the world who will have to inherit all our problems, without having asked for it," says Laura Schwab, a young woman who recently changed cities for the sake of a new job and made the decision to go the sterilization route.

As required by law, Schwab had to wait four months — to reflect — before undergoing the procedure. Now that it's done, she says she has no regrets. Quite the opposite, in fact. "I feel liberated," she says.

Tristan, 33, also made it recently to the end of the sterilization process. He says he chose sterilization not for environmental reasons, but because he "loves his job" and doesn't have time for children. "It would ruin my life," the actor, who frequently travels for work, explains.

"Everything is fine," he adds, talking about the results of his last spermogram. "There are no more swimmers in the pool."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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