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I recently outlined some questions I had submitted to the organisers of a climate change forum held in Melbourne, Australia, relating to the “Striking Targets” paper prepared by climate change author, Philip Sutton. [1] [2] The purpose of Philip’s paper, which focuses on the fossil fuel sector, is to outline an approach for matching climate goals with climate reality. The forum was arranged by “Breakthrough: National Centre for Climate Restoration“. My questions and comments related to the impact of animal agriculture, and the fact that Philip had appeared to ignore the issue in his paper and elsewhere.

The forum itself provided little opportunity to discuss the issues I had raised. However, there was a brief discussion on my question, asking if Philip and the panel members were aware of the extent of livestock-related land clearing in Australia. The moderator asked the question on my behalf, and I did not have the opportunity to outline the extent of such clearing, which I had referred to in the online question.

In my view, the panelists’ responses did not directly address the question. However, one correctly pointed out that, when a 20-year “global warming potential” (GWP) is utilised (as opposed to the more common 100-year approach), the Australian livestock sector is responsible for more emissions than our stationary energy sector. That’s in a country with one of the highest per capita emissions globally, largely due to our heavy reliance on coal-fired power.

The 20-year approach is perfectly valid. The IPCC has said, “There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices. The choice of time horizon is a value judgement because it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.” [3]

Quite apart from land clearing in Australia and elsewhere for cattle and sheep grazing, soy bean production for feed crops in the Amazon basin has the potential to trigger a key climate change tipping point. [Footnote 1] [4] The 60 billion chickens and 1.4 billion pigs raised and slaughtered per year are major recipients. [5] Around 90 per cent of the soy consumed in Australia is imported, mainly for intensive livestock feed. [6] As part of the global soy bean trade, it is a factor in the amount of soy produced in the Amazon. Soy bean production and other destructive agricultural activities could cease in that region if the world transitioned away from animals as a food source.

In my brief opportunity to comment at the forum, I mentioned some “emissions intensity” figures. Here they are, along with some others that I did not mention on the night [Footnote 2] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]:

  • Cement: 1 kg
  • Aluminium: 15.6 kg
  • Beef (grass-fed, global average): 209 kg (with 20-year GWP) or 102 kg (with 100-year GWP)
  • Beef (grass-fed and grain-fed combined global average): 138 (with 20-year GWP) or 68 (with 100-year GWP)
  • Beef (grass-fed and grain-fed combined average for Oceania): 74 kg (with 20-year GWP) or 36 kg (with 100-year GWP)
  • Soy beans: 2 kg
  • Legumes: 3.5 kg

Figure 1: Emissions intensity (kg CO2-e per kg of product – GWP20)

Emissions-intensity-Strikingtargets-2

Some points to note:

  • Cement’s figure has been rounded up from a weighted global average of 0.83 kg.
  • Beef’s emissions intensity is generally on a different paradigm to that of plant-based options.
  • At peak production, aluminium was consuming 16 per cent of Australia’s electricity, while representing less than 1 per cent of our gross domestic product. [12]
  • Its emissions intensity is dwarfed by that of beef, and we produce more beef by weight than aluminium.
  • Oceania’s beef production is dominated by Australia.
  • Soy beans contain 47 per cent more protein than beef per kilogram. [13]

The livestock sector’s impact in the context of “Striking Targets”

Meaningful action on animal agriculture would seem to be consistent with many aspects of Philip’s “Striking Targets” paper. Here are some that seem particularly relevant in that context:

  1. It is our interests and ethics that motivate us. Climate policy should be driven by self-interest and our moral concern for others, especially the most vulnerable majority of the world’s people and species.
  2. Our goals need to ensure a climate regulated by natural processes rather than regular human intervention.
  3. We need to transform lifestyles in order to achieve zero emissions.
  4. We must be willing to pragmatically adopt measures that can deliver results no matter how unconventional. (Please note that the number of people avoiding animal products is growing rapidly, so such an approach may soon seem more conventional than at present.)
  5. Draw down excess CO2.
  6. Protect and maintain ecological systems. (If it’s valid to seek to protect those systems from climate change, then it’s valid to protect them from direct impacts such as livestock-related land clearing and industrial and non-industrial fishing techniques.)
  7. Implement policy at emergency speed. (An emergency is an emergency, and half-measures arising from social, cultural and commercial conditioning over food consumption will not take us where we need to be.)
  8. Ensure a safe transition to protect people, food production, other species and ecosystem services.
  9. One of Philip’s “crucial action demands” is to “ban all new climate destructive investments” and to “switch to positive/neutral investments”.
  10. Another is to legislate to create a legally binding schedule of closure/conversion for all current additive sources of greenhouse gas emissions and other climate destructive actions“. (I am not necessarily suggesting this approach in relation to food production systems, as there may be other ways to achieve the necessary dietary transformation. I feel this demand and the one prior reflect Philip’s focus on fossil fuels.)
  11. We need to “fully correct” humanity’s climate change mistake, “rather than just curtailing its magnitude”.

Conclusion

Philip and some panel members may regard me and others who promote the livestock issue in the same way that many governments and major corporations may regard them; as a nuisance. Over a period of several years, I have approached the Greens, Australian Youth Climate Coalition and others about this issue, so I am accustomed to that type of response. [14] [15] However, I am sure most of them would agree that, in relation to climate change generally, it is difficult to argue with the science. They simply need to extend that view to the livestock aspect.

Because Philip stresses the need for emergency action and seems averse to half-measures, his arguments should apply as much to the hugely emissions-intensive and destructive livestock sector, as they do to fossil fuels.

Author

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

Footnotes

  1. Even in the absence of clear tipping points, climate feedback mechanisms create accelerating, non-linear changes, which are potentially irreversible.
  2. Emissions intensity is a measure of units (by weight) of greenhouse gas emissions per corresponding unit of end product. The emissions intensity figures for livestock shown here have been sourced directly from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations or (in respect of the 20-year GWP) adjusted from the FAO’s 100-year figure. Apart from the combined global average figure, the 20-year figures are approximations, with the figure for grass-fed beef likely to be under-stated.

References

[1] Mahony, P., “Questions for Breakthrough climate forum”, Terrastendo, 1st November, 2015, https://terrastendo.net/2015/11/01/questions-for-breakthrough-climate-summit/

[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] Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch, J.-F. Lamarque, D. Lee, B. Mendoza, T. Nakajima, A. Robock, G. Stephens, T. Takemura and H. Zhang, 2013: “Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” , pp. 711-712 [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

[4] Mahony, P., “Chickens, pigs and the Amazon tipping point”, Terrastendo, 5th October, 2015, https://terrastendo.net/2015/10/05/chickens-pigs-and-the-amazon-tipping-point/

[5] FAOSTAT, Livestock Primary, Slaughter numbers, http://faostat3.fao.org

[6] Spragg, J., “Feed Grain Supply & Demand Report 2013-14: A report for the Feed Grain Partnership”, July 2014, https://www.aecl.org/assets/www.aecl.org/outputs/140730-FGP-Supply-and-Demand-Report-July-2014.pdf

[7] International Energy Agency, “Tracking Industrial Energy Efficiency and CO2 Emissions“, 2007, p. 25, https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/tracking-industrial-energy-efficiency-and-co2-emissions.html, http://www.iea.org/Textbase/npsum/tracking2007SUM.pdf

[8] Australian Aluminium Council Ltd, “Climate Change: Aluminium Smelting Greenhouse Performance”, http://aluminium.org.au/climate-change/smelting-greenhouse-performance (Accessed 14th April, 2014)

[9] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of  emissions and mitigation opportunities”, Table 5, p. 24, Nov 2013, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htm; http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3437e/i3437e.pdf

[10] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant supply chains: A global life cycle assessment”, Figure 12, p. 30, Nov 2013, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htm; http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3461e/i3461e.pdf

[11] Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A., Briggs, A.D.M., Travis, R.C., Bradbury, K.E., & Key, T.J., “Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK”, Climatic Change, DOI 10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-014-1169-1

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

[13] USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference at http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ via Nutrition Data at http://www.nutritiondata.com

[14] Mahony, P., “Some Critical Omissions from Climate Change Discussions”, Terrastendo, 28th December, 2012, https://terrastendo.net/2012/12/28/some-critical-omissions-from-climate-change-discussions/

[15] Mahony, P., “The real elephant in AYCC’s climate change room”, Terrastendo, 5th September, 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/09/05/the-real-elephant-in-ayccs-climate-change-room/

Image

Storm front and lightning approach the Sunshine Coast near Caloundra, Queensland | Lucas_James (Flickr)| CC-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike