24 June 2021

Falling birth rate: poll suggests environmental concerns a driver

With today’s data from the Office for National Statistics showing birth rates in England and Wales continuing to fall, [1] an opinion poll conducted by smaller families campaign charity Population Matters, shows that nearly a third of 18-24yr olds (32%) say their understanding of the environment has made them want to have fewer or no children, while very similar proportions (31%) cite concerns about the negative environmental effects of having children as influencing them to have fewer or none. [2, 3]  

The UK’s Total Fertility Rate (broadly a measure of family size) has been declining since 2012 and now stands at 1.53 children per woman. Last year’s ONS birth figures showed the lowest fertility rates for women under 30 since records began in 1938. [4]

The Yonder poll of a representative sample of UK adults was conducted in May and found that one-in-six young people (18-34 years old) don’t want children at all (16%) and the majority wanted two children or less (60%). [5]

Population Matters director Robin Maynard says:

“We’re all interested in the effect of COVID-19 but let’s keep an eye on the big picture. The last thing that young people thinking about having children want to be told is that they aren’t having enough. They know, as the poll confirms, that choosing a smaller family means less pressure on our environment, a better quality of life and the ability to invest more in the children they do have. The ‘bad news’ here isn’t that people are having fewer children, but that the perilous state of our environment is making so many young people want to have fewer children. Young people understand what’s at stake here, and that’s where the attention of our leaders should be too.

“It’s time to end the false economic panic over low birth-rates and embrace the positives. Policymakers should stop worrying about how many taxpayers, consumers and workers there are, and prioritise people’s quality of life, personal wellbeing and the health of our planet, not the crude measure of GDP.”

The poll explored the number of children people have and want, experiences and perceptions of judgement over family size, and the influence of environmental awareness on family size choice. Detailed results include:

Two children remains the most common preferred family size across all age brackets. 37% of those polled wanted two; 7% saying they wanted just one child; 18% no children.  (The “replacement rate” at which population stabilises is 2.1 children.) 16% wanted three children; 8% wanted 4 children; 3% wanted five or more, making a total of approximately a quarter wanting families of three or more. [5]

Childfree Jenny Chapman (33) says:

“My impact on the environment is something I care deeply about. I am so lucky that I have been able to make the very personal decision to be childfree without pressure from others, although being called selfish continues to baffle me. “Expectations of women have come so far in the last century but I want every woman who wants to be childfree to be able to confidently make the decision without the fear of judgment and ridicule. On an individual level, not having children gives me so much freedom – I have the time, energy and finances to live such a rich and rewarding life filled with hobbies, volunteering and friendships.” 

Father of a six-year-old, Gregory Hamilton (44) says:

“Initially we made our one child choice for entirely environmentally sustainable reasons. We slowly discovered that our decision has allowed us the freedom to be more present for our child and in turn allowed her the freedom to be a child. To explore, to learn and to play without the ever-present rush from pillar to post demanded of modern society. It has meant that we have more of that most precious commodity with her – time. Now, even in a world with no environmental pressures, we wouldn’t change a single thing.”

A 2017 study suggested that by far the single most effective measure an individual in the developed world could take to cut their carbon emissions over the long term would be to have one fewer child. It concluded that this action could reduce emissions by as much as 20 times any other action it evaluated, including plant-based diets, being car-free and reducing flying. [8]

Full poll results available here.

Contact: Alistair Currie, Head of Campaigns and Communications

E: alistair.currie@populationmatters.org; T: 0208 123 9170 (24hrs)


Yonder (formerly Populus) conducted an online sample of 4,177 UK adults 18+ between 30th April and 6th May 2021.  Data is weighted to be representative of the population of the UK.  Targets for quotas and weights are taken from the PAMCO survey, a random probability F2F survey conducted annually with 35,000 adults. Yonder is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by it rules.  For further information see http://www.britishpollingcouncil.org/  The sample size of 18-35 year-olds was 1,239. 

[1] Office for National Statistics Provisional births in England and Wales – 2020 and WQuarter 1 2021 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/articles/provisionalbirthsinenglandandwales/2020andquarter1jantomar2021

[2] Question: In regard to your plans about children in the future, does or has your understanding of environmental problems such as climate change affect your plans?

[3] Question asked: In regard to the plans about children in the future, does or has concern around environmental effects of having children, such as the climate emissions they may produce, affect your plans?

[4] Office for National Statistics Births in England and Wales 2019 (released 22 July 2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/bulletins/birthsummarytablesenglandandwales/2019

[5] Question: In an ideal world, how many children, if any, would you like to have in total?

[6] Questions asked: (a) Do you feel or have you ever felt judged negatively for the amount of children you have and/or the amount of children you want? (b) To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: I feel that people who choose to have an only child are judged negatively. (c) To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: I feel that people who do not want to have children are judged negatively.

[7] Wynes, Seth, and Kimberly A Nicholas. 2017. “The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions.” Environmental Research Letters 12(7).  https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541

Population Matters is a UK-based campaigning charity, promoting a sustainable global population through ethical, choice-based means, to improve people’s lives and protect the natural world.


135-137, Station Rd, London E4 6AG

Charity no: 1114109


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