A key aspect of The Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s (AYCC) efforts during the 2010 federal election campaign was the involvement of a character known as “Ellie the Climate Elephant“, undertaking various activities in order “to get climate change back on the political agenda” [1]. However, in relation to climate change itself, there’s another elephant in the room, in the form of livestock.

In July, 2013, AYCC held a two-and-a-half day “Power Shift” conference in Melbourne. High profile climate change campaigners involved in the event (not all in person) included: Dr James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Professor Tim Flannery, Australia’s Chief Climate Commissioner; and Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.

The program indicated that the conference was “packed full of inspiring panels, workshops, masterclasses and performances”. Apart from plenary sessions, it involved sixty-nine such activities covering topics such as “dismantling racism”, “deeper theories of change” and “diversity in movement”.

A glaring omission from the program was the issue of animal agriculture’s massive impact and the critical role that addressing that issue can play in tackling the crisis.

James Hansen has said that we need to massively reforest in order to reduce CO2 emissions to 350 ppm (parts per million), the figure adopted by Bill McKibben for his campaigning organisation [2, 3].

AYCC has confirmed in its 2012-2015 strategic plan that it is aiming for the same figure.

As I have stated in various presentations and articles, including Omissions of Emissions: A Critical Climate Change Issue and Do the math: There are too many cows! the extent of reforestation required will not be possible without a general move towards a plant-based diet.

I have referred (amongst other sources) to a report from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in 2009, which stated [4]:

“. . . a global food transition to less meat, or even a complete switch to plant-based protein food [was found] to have a dramatic effect on land use. Up to 2,700 Mha of pasture and 100 Mha of cropland could be abandoned, resulting in a large carbon uptake from regrowing vegetation. Additionally, methane and nitrous oxide emissions would be reduced substantially.”

They said a plant-based diet would reduce climate change mitigation costs by 80%. A meat-free diet would reduce them by 70%. Their assessment was based on a target of 450 ppm. The issue is even more critical when aiming for 350 ppm.

Although it is important to reduce our personal usage of energy, transportation and the like, Hansen has suggested that those issues rate below diet in regard to personal action. He has said:

“If you eat further down on the food chain rather than animals, which have produced many greenhouse gases, and used much energy in the process of growing that meat, you can actually make a bigger contribution in that way than just about anything. So that, in terms of individual action, is perhaps the best thing you can do.”  [5]

AYCC is aware of the issue, but has effectively chosen to ignore it. I understand that the organisation aims to empower young people to create cultural and political change, and that each year it focuses on key policy areas it believes are most likely to have a major impact on the climate. Examples have been a focus on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and building community support for 100 percent renewable energy through AYCC’s Repower campaign.

To ignore animal agriculture as a major annual campaign is a concern, but to do so amongst sixty-nine panel discussions, workshops and masterclasses at the Power Shift conference is astounding.

AYCC may satisfy sections the media’s desire to portray enthusiastic young people seeking to save the planet. However, that doesn’t count for much when they ignore essential components of the overall solution.

AYCC says in its values statement, “We focus on what’s needed to solve the climate crisis, not what’s politically expedient or easy.” A general move towards a plant-based diet matches such an approach perfectly.

AYCC, Aluminium and Beef

Justifiably, AYCC has highlighted the extraordinary level of emissions produced by Australia’s aluminium industry. In a 2011 “Polluter Watch Fact File“, issued in conjunction with the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria and Greenpeace, AYCC cited “a 2010 Grattan Institute report that found the nation’s aluminium smelting trade produces about twice as much pollution as the world industry average. The same report asserted that Alcoa’s Australian smelters at both Portland and Point Henry generated three times the volume of greenhouse gases per tonne of aluminium produced than that of their foreign counterparts.” [6]


Aluminium smelting

AYCC were mentioned in Australia’s federal parliament in relation to the fact sheet:

Member for Wannan, Dan Tehan, questioning Treasurer Wayne Swan on the fact sheet issued by AYCC and other environmental groups

I referred to similar figures (obtained from The Australia Institute) in my 2011 “Solar or Soy” presentation and elsewhere.

Some key points to note from that presentation are as follows:

  • Aluminium smelting consumes around 16% of Australia’s electricity. [7]
  • Aluminium’s emissions intensity (kilograms of emissions per kilogram of product) in Australia is around 2.5 times the global average due to the fact that most of our electricity used is generated by coal-fired power stations. [8, 9]
  • “Aluminium is the ultimate proxy for energy.” (Marius Kloppers, former BHP Billiton CEO) [10]

So how does beef compare?

The chart below depicts figures from an “end use” report commissioned by the Australian Greenhouse Office (now the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity of various commodities in Australia, including cement, steel, beef and aluminium. [11]

At the time, beef was more than 2.5 times as emissions intensive as aluminium smelting!

Figure 1: Comparative Greenhouse Gas Emissions Intensity


The comparison in absolute terms was also dramatic, as our annual tonnage of beef production is around 10% higher than that of aluminium. [12, 13].  The following chart (including aluminium within the category “basic non-ferrous metals”) from the same report compares emissions in absolute terms [14]:

Figure 2: Comparative emissions in absolute terms


The key reasons for beef’s high level of emissions in the figures are:

(a)   deforestation for grazing and feed crop production;

(b)   enteric fermentation within the animals’ digestive system, producing methane which is predominantly released through belching; and

(c)   excrement which releases methane and nitrous oxide.

The figures do not take into account factors such as black carbon from livestock-related savanna burning or tropospheric ozone.

The extent of any sector’s contribution to deforestation will vary over time, and it is possible that the beef industry’s share of deforestation has reduced from the figure of 85.1% used in the analysis, due to a ban on broadscale land clearing in Queensland with effect from January, 2007.

However, the current Liberal National Party government led by Premier Campbell Newman has introduced new legislation to again allow significant levels of land clearing. Land that was protected under Labor’s legislation can now be cleared if deemed to be of “high agricultural value”. [15]

Also, the results were based on the carcass weight of beef. As only around 55% of the carcass is used for meat, the emissions intensity based on served meat would have been around 93kg, rather than the reported figure of 51kg.

It is also critical to note that while cleared land continues to be used for cattle grazing, it cannot be re-forested.  Since European settlement of Australia, livestock are responsible for approximately 70 percent of land clearing. [16]

In Queensland alone, from 1988 to 2008, around 78,000 square kilometres of land were cleared for livestock. That’s equivalent to a 33 kilometre tract of land between Melbourne and Cairns (distance 2,317 km). [17]

Figure 3: Depicting the extent of Queensland land clearing


Much of the deforestation associated with livestock results from the grossly inefficient nature of meat as a food source.  For example, it takes around 13 kilograms of grain, fed to a cow, to produce 1 kilogram of meat. [18]

When animals graze, or when we convert foods like soy or corn to meat via the digestive system of animals, far more land is required than if we relied directly on plants as our food source.

If anyone is concerned about their ability to obtain (for example) protein, they only need to look at herbivores such as elephants, cows and gorillas, who obtain ample protein from their plant-based diets.

In early 2012, AYCC campaigned against a call by federal member of Parliament, Rob Oakeshott, when he intended supporting a motion calling for the burning of native forests to qualify for renewable energy subsidies. What about forest destroyed for livestock?

“Brightsiding” Climate Change

Australian author and climate change researcher, David Spratt, has written of the dangers of “brightsiding” climate change. He uses the term to describe the tendency of many environmental NGOs to act on the belief that only positive “good news” messages work, thereby avoiding “bad news” such as climate change impacts. The “good news” stories are “first and foremost” about renewable energy. [19]

AYCC seems to fall into the “brightsiding” camp, although it claims to “talk about the problem and climate change impacts where necessary”. It prefaced those words by saying “the climate crisis can ignite fear and often paralyse people, so we must remain positive and solutions-focused to motivate people to act . . .”

AYCC may be unwilling to highlight measures that it believes would not be readily accepted by its supporters, despite saying “we believe the climate crisis can be solved and will not shy away from the big ideas that are necessary for a sustainable future”. The organisation’s leaders may find the livestock issue too inconvenient a truth to tackle in their own lives.

If AYCC wants to lead in this area, I believe it should adopt the approach of Grist’s David Roberts, quoted by David Spratt: “If you think there’s an existential danger facing the country, you say so. That’s part of what it means to be a leader.”

I am unaware of David Spratt himself tackling the livestock issue, and am hoping that he will do so at some stage.


I have written before that we can no longer regard food choices as being personal when the impacts of those choices have far-reaching consequences for our environment and in other respects.

AYCC describes itself as “a real force to be reckoned with”. Why not use the power implied by that statement where it can be most effective?

Offering vegan and vegetarian options at AYCC functions does not represent meaningful action on this issue.

Blog Author: Paul Mahony (also on Twitter, Slideshare and Sribd)


[1] AYCC Strategic Plan 2012-2015

[2] Hansen, J, Kharecha, P, Sato, M, Ackerman, F, Hearty, PJ, Hoegh-Guldberg, O, Hsu, SL, Krueger, F, Parmesan, C, Rahmstorf, S, Rockstrom, J, Rohling, EJ, Sachs, Smith, P, Konrad, S, Van Susteren, L, von Schuckmann, K, Zachos, JC, “Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature” http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1110/1110.1365.pdf

[3] Hansen, J; Sato, M; Kharecha, P; Beerling, D; Berner, R; Masson-Delmotte, V; Pagani, M; Raymo, M; Royer, D.L.; and Zachos, J.C. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”, 2008. http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf

[4] Stehfest, E, Bouwman, L, van Vuuren, DP, den Elzen, MGJ, Eickhout, B and Kabat, P, Climate benefits of changing diet Climatic Change, Volume 95, Numbers 1-2 (2009), 83-102, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-008-9534-6 (Also http://www.springerlink.com/content/053gx71816jq2648/)

[5] Russell, G, “Dietary Guidelines Committee ignores climate change”, 24 March 2012, http://bravenewclimate.com/2012/03/24/dietary-gc-ignores-cc/

[6] Weaver, A, 23 June, 2011, “Jobs could be lost”, The Standard, http://www.standard.net.au/story/793254/jobs-could-be-lost/

[7] Hamilton, C, “Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change”, (2007) Black Inc Agenda, p. 40

[8] Turton, H. “The Aluminium Smelting Industry Structure, market power, subsidies and greenhouse gas emissions”, The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper Number 44, January 2002, ISSN 1322-5421, p. ix, https://www.tai.org.au/documents/dp_fulltext/DP44.pdf (accessed 16 July 2010 and 3 May, 2012)

[9] Turton, H. “Greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries Where does Australiastand?”, The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper Number 66, June 2004, ISSN 1322-5421, p. viii, https://www.tai.org.au/documents/dp_fulltext/DP66.pdf (accessed 16 July 2010 and 3 May, 2012)

[10] Campbell, K., “If we had the electricity, we could go ahead with Mozal III and Hillside III+”, 24 February, 2006, http://www.miningweekly.com/article/if-we-had-the-electricity-we-could-go-ahead-with-mozal-iii-and-hillside-iii-2006-02-24 (accessed 22 March, 2009 and 3 May, 2012)

[11] George Wilkenfeld & Associates Pty Ltd and Energy Strategies, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990, 1995, 1999, End Use Allocation of Emissions Report to the Australian Greenhouse Office, 2003, Volume 1, Table S5, p. vii

[12] Knapp, Ron, Australian Aluminium Council, Letter 10 April 2008 to Prof Ross Garnaut, Garnaut Climate Change Review (Table 3),

Click to access D08%2046236%20ETS%20Submission%20-%20Australian%20Aluminium%20Council.pdf

[13] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Report 7215.0 – Livestock Products Australia”, Dec 2006, p. 20

[14] George Wilkenfeld & Associates Pty Ltd and Energy Strategies, ibid,  Volume 1, Figure 7.7, p. 111

[15] Roberts, G, “Campbell Newman’s LNP bulldozing pre-election promise”, The Australian, 1 June, 2013, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/campbell-newmans-lnp-bulldozing-pre-election-promise/story-fn59niix-1226654740183

[16] Derived from Russell, G. “The global food system and climate change – Part 1”, 9 Oct 2008, (http://bravenewclimate.com/2008/10/09/the-global-food-system-and-climate-change-part-i/) and “Bulbs, bags, and Kelly’s bush: defining `green’ in Australia”, 19 Mar 2010 (p. 10) (http://hec-forum.anu.edu.au/archive/presentations_archive/2010/geoffrussell-hec-talk.pdf), which utilised: Dept. of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, State of the Environment Report 2006, Indicator: LD-01 The proportion and area of native vegetation and changes over time, March 2009; and ABS, 4613.0 “Australia’s Environment: Issues and Trends”, Jan 2010; and ABS 1301.0 Australian Year Book 2008, since updated for 2009-10, 16.13 Area of crops

[17] Derived from Bisshop, G. & Pavlidis, L, “Deforestation and land degradation in Queensland – The culprit”, Article 5, 16th Biennial Australian Association for Environmental Education Conference, Australian National University, Canberra, 26-30 September 2010

[18] Derived from W.O. Herring and J.K. Bertrand, “Multi-trait Prediction of Feed Conversion in Feedlot Cattle”, Proceedings from the 34th Annual Beef Improvement Federation Annual Meeting, Omaha, NE, July 10-13, 2002, http://www.bifconference.com/bif2002/BIFsymposium_pdfs/Herring_02BIF.pdf, cited in Singer, P & Mason, J, “The Ethics of What We Eat” (2006), Text Publishing Company, p. 210

[19] Spratt, D. “Always look on the bright side of life: Bright-siding climate change advocacy and its consequences”, April 2012, http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/75392680/brightsiding-climate-3.pdf


Tropical Rainforest © Naypong | Dreamstime.com

Molten metal poured at foundry © StevenGullen | iStockphoto