My attitude towards the environment and dealing with climate change is that of striking a balance between the understandable panic from climate scientists and the practicalities of what’s possible.
I would argue that the priority, for the time being, should be to go after the “low hanging fruit” and make the bigger and relatively painless cuts first, and in the UK that generally means improving the energy efficiency of buildings (approximately 42% of the UK’s energy consumption), better transport (39%) and to a lesser extent low-carbon electricity. There is little point proposing some of the more extreme measures that you hear from some quarters (e.g. banning cars, short haul flying or even pets). For at the moment, such things aren’t going to be supported by the majority of people, which makes implementing them in any democratic society impossible.
Meat is murder….for the climate!
This delimma is perhaps best expressed by looking at the issue of meat and its climate impact. I bring this up as a result of a recent BBC Horizon episode, “Should we eat Meat?”. This program discussed the environmental impact of food production and in particular meat production. Already between 30-40% of world food production is feed to animals and vast amounts of land have been turned over to support animals, which is believed to have almost doubled over the last few decades, often resulting in the clearing of forests and intrusion of grazing into wilderness areas. It is now estimated that 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are from meat production. Which isn’t difficult to believe when you realise that a cow belches out between 70-120 kg’s of methane per year (I do wonder sometimes if we could rig cows up to the gas grid and harvest all that gas, but I’m sure there’s some practical obstacle…and the animal right people would probably complain!).
And more worryingly these trends are set to continue if not get worse, as affluence in Asia appears to be leading to ever higher consumption of meat. It’s been suggested that emissions related to meat production may increase by 80% or possibly even double between now and the 2050.However, it is important we keep our eye on the bigger picture. For example at one point in the aforementioned documentary the narrator, Dr Michael Mosley), suggested that meat produced at a feed lot has a lower carbon footprint than meat produced by grass fed cattle, as a consequence of the reduced amounts of methane produced. While this is technically true (at least in America, where there is a large debate regarding grass v’s feedlot), it’s a bit like arguing that a Hummer running on ethanol is better for the environment than one running on petrol.
Again we have to look at the bigger picture. A fairer comparison would mean accounting for the carbon footprint of all of that corn fed to cattle at a feedlot (which tends to be fairly carbon intensive) and the fertiliser they need to grow such crops and their disposal policies for many tons of cow “waste” a day, which in the absence of a natural means of disposal (the advantage of allowing cows to graze in a field). One also has to consider food miles, an important consideration when comparing local farmers markets to supermarket stocked food.
Also it should be remembered that a lot of the land we have traditionally used for grazing has often been unsuitable for growing crops. In the British Isles for example the bulk of the hill farming areas have traditionally been used to breed livestock because you can’t really grow anything on these hillsides, save the odd crop of root vegetables on the flatter parts of the valley floor. Aside from that all these places are good for is breeding sheep, cattle, deer, midges and suicidal poets!
Environmentalists will point to the high carbon footprint of such animals as sheep, cattle and deer. But we have to keep in mind that if, say, we were to abandon such farms as part of some climate change mitigation measure, given that the land would be taken over by nature, i.e. wild deer, sheep and goats populations….it would continue to produce greenhouse gases. So in essence we’d be merely pulling an Enron style accounting trick moving a chuck of carbon emissions from the “caused by humans” column to the “caused by nature” one.
Furthermore allowing animal populations to breed out of control isn’t good for the environment. Already there are problems in Scotland with the vast size of the country’s deer herds, both the wild ones and those managed by estates. These represent a serious threat to what’s left of the ancient Caledonian forests, as well as efforts to establish a viable timber industry in Scotland (again, useful in combating climate change). Go to any highland forest these days and you’ll find these 7 foot high deer fences around the trees to keep the deer out (Indeed when out for a cycle some months back I had to lift my bike over one of these fences, not fun!).
And also we are only considering the carbon production of such highland farms, what about the carbon absorption? One of the advantages of the British Isle’s “bracing” climate is that plants grow like crazy, absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow.
Properly managed therefore I would argue that your average Scottish croft farm, while not perfect from an environmental point of view, are among some of the most sustainable food production methods available. And this is reflected in other traditional farming methods practiced worldwide. The Tsembaga tribe of New Guinea for example practice a form of sustainable slash and burn agriculture along with animal husbandry (specifically pigs). They produce a yield of 16.5 times the energy back from food that the put in. By contrast a US Corn farm has an energetic efficiency of just 2.4 and a US rice farm 1.37 (from a slightly dated source, “Energy” 2nd ed by G. J. Aubecht, 1989). And these figures don’t include food miles or post-harvest processing.
The problem as regards meat is that our demand for meat has exceeded that which can be produced by sustainable means. This has forced us to give over not just grazing land, but land which could otherwise be used to grow crops, to provide food for livestock. It has also led to the clear cutting of forests, particularly in South America, to increase land available for food production, much of which is fed to animals to support meat production. In essence we’ve exceeded the earth’s “carrying capacity” for meat production and in order to meet increasing demand we have to pay a higher and heavier price for each kilo of meat.
While there are many health benefits of becoming vegan (a similar program on BBC’s Horizon also addressed these), advocating it as a climate change prevention measure is probably unsellable politically (you’re not going to get the majority to support it just to shave a few grams of carbon emissions). A better strategy might be to argue about bringing meat production levels down to a level we can sustain long term. One recent study suggested that no more than 2 portions of red meat and 7 of white meat per week would seem a more reasonable target, at least within the UK. Again, it’s all about balance.Travelling without moving
And we’ll likely face a similar dilemma with practically everything else in the next few decades.
For example, one of the key issues regarding peak oil isn’t that we’re “running out” of oil or other fossil fuels (unfortunately there’s still plenty left, more than enough to cause dangerous climate change). It’s that the global demand for oil and gas has, since 2006, been exceeding the amount that can be extracted from conventional sources. This has forced the world to rely more and more on unconventional sources, which tend to be both more expensive and have a much heavier environmental footprint than conventional fossil fuels. In short, we have to run faster just to stand still.
Indeed one could argue that the entire debate about climate change is one of balance. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as noted, the natural world emits significant quantities (as do volcano’s and other geological processes) of the stuff, and the greenhouse effect is central to how the planet’s climate operates. However since the industrial revolution we’ve been emitting far more greenhouse gases than the atmosphere and the biosphere can cope with. A situation not helped by us tearing down rainforests, one of the very mechanisms the biosphere relies on to lock away excess carbon.
So again it’s a question of balance, we could probably maintain our current farming methods and a meat heavy diet. But, we’d need to find a non-fossil fuel means of meeting all of those energy inputs and eliminate other sources of emissions to compensate. Such as, for example, eliminating all non-zero emissions vehicles. Or alternatively, we keep the cars (although we’d still need to find an energy source to power them long term) but cut back on meat production substantially (i.e. Jeremy Clarkson needs to consider becoming a vegan!).
And since we’re speaking of farming there’s also water resources to consider. Now it should come as little surprise living on a planet where two-thirds of the surface is covered in vast oceans and where we have thousands of tons of water floating over our heads (called “clouds”), that the earth is not short of water and there is little danger of “running out” of the stuff.However the problem is that where we need water isn’t necessarily where most of the fresh water resources are located. For example farms in India or the Mid-western USA farmers are frequently forced to rely on ground water pumped up from underground aquifers. And the water levels in these have been dropping alarmingly recently. Again a switch to meat doesn’t help as animals tend to have much higher water demands than crops. All well and good in Scotland when over 4 metres worth of the stuff literally falls out of the sky each year, but not everyone is “blessed” with such rainfall.
Indeed even within the British Isles there can be water shortages, particularly in the South East, where most of the population live. You may enquire; why not just build a big aqueduct between Scotland and Southern England? Of course one has to consider the expense of that, not just to build it, but maintain all of that pumping equipment. And it’s not just a shortage of fresh water, but dealing with waste water that’s the problem. In many parts of the world there is in fact plenty of water, it’s just it’s been contaminated by pollution or sewage from some source or another.
So again it’s a question of balance, there is a certain level of water use that is sustainable. Exceed this and suddenly you’re being forced into making lots of very expensive decisions, as well as imposing a substantial strain on the environment (which long term may well result in less water being available). Thus better conservation of water resources is probably better than spending loads of money on massive civil infrastructure projects, but also better management of waste water.
And it’s probable we’ll have to make some tough choices about whether for example farming in certain arid areas of the world should be sustained long term. Particularly once climate change starts making for erratic rainfall patterns and droughts in certain vulnerable regions, notably the Mid-Western states of the USA.
This is why sometimes wonder if the symbol of the environmental movement, rather than a Panda, should instead be a set of weighting scales.