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In a recent article, I referred to questions I had raised over the past couple of years at public forums arranged by Australian climate action group, “Breakthrough: National Centre for Climate Restoration“. [1] The group “has been established to engage with a range of groups and activists to create the groundswell needed to build a new momentum for urgent climate restoration”.

I have cited the work of some of the group’s contributors many times in articles dealing with the need for emergency action in relation to the climate crisis. However, although two of the contributors wrote about animal agriculture’s impacts several years ago through the former Zero Emission Network, that aspect of the problem seems to be omitted from Breakthrough’s material.

A booklet prepared by another contributor, Philip Sutton, will be the subject of a panel discussion this week in Melbourne. In promoting the forum, the organisers have stated:

“Advocacy for the restoration of a safe climate calls for solutions that the world does not currently possess. The central question remains ‘is safe climate restoration possible and, if not, what level of action is now morally defensible and yet practically achievable?’ Join Breakthrough for this special panel discussion to examine and critique the recently published paper StrikingTargets [2] with author Philip Sutton.”

In addition to seeking “solutions that the world does not currently possess”, why not utilise those that we do? Why ignore action in relation to animal agriculture?

The panel for the forum comprises (using Breakthrough’s descriptions): Ben Courtice, Friends of the Earth Climate Campaigner; Andrea Bunting, Climate Activist, Researcher & Writer; Mark Wakeham, CEO Environment Victoria; David Spratt, Climate Policy Analyst; Adrian Whitehead, Save The Planet Campaign Manager.

Ben Courtice once commented on one of my articles, stating that I was incorrect in claiming that the forthcoming (at that time) Land Use plan of Beyond Zero Emissions and Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (University of Melbourne) would indicate that animal agriculture was responsible for around 50 percent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions after allowing for various factors, such as shorter-lived gases and a 20-year “global warming potential“. [3] [4] I assured him my information was correct, but there was no further comment. It has since been confirmed with the release of the plan and a related peer-reviewed journal article. [5]

I had also communicated with Environment Victoria at different times (commencing in April, 2011), asking why they had not commented on the impact of animal agriculture. Following my third request, they said they believed their resources would have most impact if they focused on the energy sector. That seems to be a common response from groups who ignore the livestock issue. I fail to see why they could not publish some comments, even if they were not willing to give it a high profile. Environment Victoria has since campaigned against cattle grazing in the highlands due to issues such as river protection, but not in relation to climate change.

Although not on the panel for the forthcoming discussion, Federal Greens member of parliament, Adam Bandt, is a Breakthrough contributor. I wrote to him about the livestock issue in 2011, but he did not respond. Also that year, I raised the issue with him at a community forum in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. I referred to the fact that the Greens were intending to support the Labor Party in exempting agriculture from the carbon tax. Adam’s only comments were that it was difficult to measure methane emissions, and that some of the carbon tax revenue would be used in research. In my view, the first comment was not valid, and the second questionable. After a further attempt, I eventually received a response from a member of Adam’s office team, but there was no indication of meaningful action.

I had originally raised the issue with the Greens in 2008, and received very disappointing responses from Bob Brown’s office and Christine Milne at that time.

Despite these concerns, I was pleased to see that the organisers of the forthcoming discussion were inviting questions prior to the event. I’m including the questions that I have submitted here (with references added), as a means of highlighting what I consider to be some of the key concerns. Those concerns include the fact that an approach which ignores animal agriculture seems contrary to Breakthrough’s approach on other aspects of the climate crisis. I have referred to many of the issues in previous articles.

Quite apart from the issue of climate change, the “moral concern for others” expressed in “Striking Targets”, “especially for the most vulnerable majority of the world’s people and species” would seem consistent with a transition away from animal agriculture, which currently involves the forced breeding and slaughter of around 70 billion land animals per year, plus the death of trillions of sea creatures. The ratio of livestock to wildlife is now around 8 to 1, when only 10,000 years ago, all animals were wild.

Question 1

In “Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action” (2008) [6], Philip Sutton and David Spratt (as indicated by the sub-title) stressed the need for emergency action. They said (p. 145, with my capitals here):

“If left unchecked, the dynamics and inertia of our SOCIAL and economic systems will sweep us on to ever more dangerous change and then, most likely within a decade, to an era of catastrophic climate change.”

They quoted Winston Churchill from 1936:

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients of delays, is coming to a close. It its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

In “Striking Targets”, Philip’s measures to restore a safe climate include drawing down atmospheric CO2 and returning concentrations to pre-industrial levels

However, he does not talk about the critical role of animal agriculture.

Its impact arises from many inter-related factors, such as its inherent inefficiency as a food source; the massive scale of the industry; land clearing far beyond what would otherwise be required to satisfy our nutritional requirements; greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide; and other warming agents such as black carbon.

I raised the issue with Philip in a question at the Breakthrough Summit in June, 2014 and again at his “Post-Paris” presentation last month. Why is he not giving the issue the attention it requires?

James Hansen has said we will not reduce CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm (still well above pre-industrial levels) without massive reforestation and addressing the issue of soil carbon loss. [7] He has not stated it to my knowledge, but we will not enable forest and other wooded vegetation to regenerate to the required levels without a general move away from animal-based food products.

At the “Post-Paris” presentation, Philip said that reforestation might cause us to encroach on areas currently used for food production. However, a move away from animal agriculture would require far less land than at present. The issue was highlighted in a 2009 report from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in which the authors stated [8]:

“. . . 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 CO2 concentration of 450 ppm. The issue is even more critical when aiming for lower levels.

Similarly, in a 2013 paper, researchers from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota stated [9]:

“The world’s croplands could feed 4 billion more people than they do now just by shifting from producing animal feed and biofuels to producing exclusively food for human consumption”.

The lead author, Emily Cassidy, has said:

“We essentially have uncovered an astoundingly abundant supply of food for a hungry world, hidden in plain sight in the farmlands we already cultivate. Depending on the extent to which farmers and consumers are willing to change current practices, existing croplands could feed millions or even billions more people.”

I respect much of the work of Philip and David. However, when witnessing people with that level of concern for the planet failing to meaningfully address the livestock issue, I feel a sense of frustration and despair.

We need to inform the general population of the true extent of the crisis, and the emergency measures required. Governments need to ensure that the environmental costs of animal agriculture are factored into the consumer price, thereby reducing demand and production, and causing consumers to seek low-emissions alternatives.

If interested, you can see more at my page Climate Change and Animal Agriculture. [Postscript: It includes many articles on the subject, including my recent article, Chickens, pigs and the Amazon tipping point.]

Question 2

Expanding on my earlier question, have Philip and the panel considered the amount of land clearing in Australia for animal agriculture?

Supplementary material from a Feb 2015 journal paper commissioned by Meat & Livestock Australia conservatively interpreted figures from the Queensland government’s Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) to estimate that from 1981 to 2010, over 8 million hectares (80,000 sq km) were cleared in that state for beef production. [10]

The extent of such clearing is equivalent to a 10 kilometre (6 mile) wide tract of land extending 3.3 times between Melbourne and Cairns. That’s similar to a 10 km wide tract of land winding around the US east coast 3.3 times from Boston to Miami. [Image and US comparison added for this article.]

Figure 1: Depiction of Queensland land area cleared for beef production 1981-2010

Aust-map

Clearing reduced but did not cease after a so-called ban was introduced at the end of 2006. The “ban” was lifted in 2013, and it is estimated that the extent of clearing tripled between 2009/10 and 2013/14.

Around 40% of the clearing was of re-growth, which highlights the fact that forest and other wooded vegetation will often regenerate if given the opportunity.

That’s just one example of livestock-related land clearing. In total, it represents around 70% of clearing in this country since European settlement. [11]

A report by the World Wildlife Fund has identified eastern Australia as one of eleven global “deforestation fronts” for the twenty years to 2030, due to livestock production. [12]

Question 3

Also, have Philip and the panel considered the impact of animal agriculture on the Great Barrier Reef?

We hear much about the impact of warming and increased acidity of the ocean, along with dredging, but very little about the 4.5 million head of cattle in the reef’s catchment area. [13] The Queensland Government’s 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement confirmed that grazing areas in the catchment were responsible for the following pollutant loads to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon: (a) 75 percent of suspended solids (sediment); (b) 54 percent of phosphorous; and (c) 40 percent of nitrogen. [14]

The release of nitrogen and phosphorous, and the associated nutrient enrichment, contributes significantly to outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish, which have had a massive impact on the reef.

Even without climate change, the reef’s demise would probably be assured due to cattle grazing.

Conclusion

We are running out of time to influence the Earth’s climate system in a positive manner. There may be some hope if we focus on animal agriculture in addition to other issues, such as fossil fuels. If we do not, then climate change campaigners may be well-advised to simply lie on the beach and relax, rather than worrying about its eventual inundation by sea water, as there is little point being concerned over inevitable events.

Author

Paul Mahony (also on Twitter, Facebook, Scribd, Slideshare, New Matilda, Rabble and Viva la Vegan)

References

[1] Mahony, P., “Activist, not Automaton”, Viva la Vegan, 14th October, 2015, http://www.vivalavegan.net/community/articles/1108-activist-not-automaton.html

[2] Sutton, P., “Striking Targets: Matching climate goals with climate reality”, Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, August, 2015, http://media.wix.com/ugd/148cb0_2cec8c5928864748809e26a2b028d08c.pdf

[3] Mahony, P., Omissions of Emissions: A Critical Climate Change Issue, Terrastendo, 9th February, 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/02/09/omissions-of-emissions-a-critical-climate-change-issue/

[4] Beyond Zero Emissions and Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute of The University of Melbourne, “Zero Carbon Australia – Land Use: Agriculture and Forestry – Discussion Paper”, October, 2014, http://bze.org.au/landuse

[5] Wedderburn-Bisshop, G., Longmire, A., Rickards, L., “Neglected Transformational Responses: Implications of Excluding Short Lived Emissions and Near Term Projections in Greenhouse Gas Accounting”, International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Volume 7, Issue 3, September 2015, pp.11-27. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: August 17, 2015, http://ijc.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.185/prod.269

[6] Spratt, D and Sutton, P, “Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action”, Scribe, 2008, pp. 141 and 145

[7] 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

[8] 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/)

[9] Cassidy, E.S., et al 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 034015 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015, cited in University of Minnesota News Release, 1 Aug 2013, “Existing Cropland Could Feed 4 Billion More”, http://www1.umn.edu/news/news-releases/2013/UR_CONTENT_451697.html

[10] Wiedemann, S.G, Henry, B.K., McGahan, E.J., Grant, T., Murphy, C.M., Niethe, G., “Resource use and greenhouse gas intensity of Australian beef production: 1981–2010″, Agricultural Systems, Volume 133, February 2015, Pages 109–118, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X14001565 and http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0308521X14001565/1-s2.0-S0308521X14001565-main.pdf?_tid=e4c5d55e-fc16-11e4-97e1-00000aacb362&acdnat=1431813778_b7516f07332614cd8592935ec43d16fd, cited in Mahony, P. “Emissions intensity of Australian beef”, Terrastendo, 30th June, 2015, https://terrastendo.net/2015/06/30/emissions-intensity-of-australian-beef/

[11] Clearing percentage 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/, 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.

[12] World Wildlife Fund, “WWF Living Forests Report”, Chapter 5 and Chapter 5 Executive Summary, http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/lfr_chapter_5_executive_summary_final.pdf; http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/living_forests_report_chapter_5_1.pdf

[13] Brodie, J., Christie, C., Devlin, M., Haynes, D., Morris, S., Ramsay, M., Waterhouse, J. and Yorkston, H., “Catchment management and the Great Barrier Reef”, pp. 203 & 205, Water Science and Technology Vol 43 No 9 pp 203–211 © IWA Publishing 200, http://www-public.jcu.edu.au/public/groups/everyone/documents/journal_article/jcudev_015629.pdf

[14] Kroon, F., Turner, R., Smith, R., Warne, M., Hunter, H., Bartley, R., Wilkinson, S., Lewis, S., Waters, D., Caroll, C., 2013 “Scientific Consensus Statement: Sources of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment”, Ch. 4, p. 12, The State of Queensland, Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat, July, 2013, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/about/scientific-consensus-statement/sources-of-pollutants.aspx

Images

Lightning over Ipswich during the storms which struck Queensland and New South Wales on 17 November 2012 |adrenalinmatt (Flickr)| CC-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Map from http://www.streetdirectory.com.au (used with permission and adapted by author)

Updates

Reference to “summit” changed to “forum”, and comments added in relation to: Bob Brown and Christine Milne; solutions that we currently possess; the number of animals slaughtered; and Boston and Miami.