2 November 2009

Bloated Economic System Produces More Hot Air

If you have, like me, been wondering how climate change can so suddenly shift from being a consequence of a bloated and over-industrialised hypercapitalist economy to being the result of our decadent eating habits, you may find it useful to have a quick trawl through the report that has caused the recent furore. And before you go any further you should keep in mind that the authors of the report have both spent their careers at the World Bank. So they are unlikely to conclude that climate change might result from a design flaw in the existing economic system.

Goodland and Anhang have not carried out any new research. Had they followed research methods established by others to attempt to measure the CO2 impacts of farming methods it would have been impossible for them to find a jump from 18 to 51 per cent in the proportion of climate-forcing gases that are the responsibility of domestic ruminants. Their shocking statistics result from reinterpretation of previous research and changed assumptions.

Of the things that make me nervous about this new 'science' the first, which is a political rather than a scientific insight, is that the person who first put the issue of farting cows into the climate change debate was former President Bush. It may be the alacrity with which the 'findings' were beamed around the world that makes me wonder who has the most to gain from a shift in responsibility for the global catastrophe from a fossil-fuelled economy to individual consumption decisions and agrarian practices.

Reading the report in more depth than the journalists appear to have bothered to do immediately makes clear that the real problem is the industrialised nature of the global farming system - itself so intensive in the use of oil - together with the clearing of carbon-storing forests to make way for mass grazing to feed the US hamburger market:

'Livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Moreover, while over time an equilibrium of CO2 may exist between the amount respired by animals and the amount photosynthesized by plants, that equilibrium has never been static. Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in preindustrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared. (Meanwhile, of course, we add more carbon to the air by burning fossil fuels, further overwhelming the carbon absorption system.)'

The equating of living sentient beings with machines in this quotation is distasteful, and representative of the reductive thinking that fails to distinguish between technical measurements of gases and social and cultural systems.

Methane is known to be a gas that is more powerful at forcing climate change than CO2, but it also disperses more rapidly (8 years compared to 100 years, according to the best current scientific modelling). The reason for the sudden massive increase in the harmfulness of methane as calculated by the report's authors is a decision to take a shorter-term perspective on climate change and hence to increase the multiplier applied to methane as compared with CO2. Presumably this is governed more by the need to reach immediate GHG targets than by a concern for our grandchildren.

'The new widely accepted figure for the GWP of methane is 25 using a 100-year timeframe — but it is 72 using a 20-year timeframe, which is more appropriate because of both the large effect that methane reductions can have within 20 years and the serious climate disruption expected within 20 years if no significant reduction of GHGs is achieved.'

This ability to use maths to shift problems through time is the speciality of the economist, and allows massive leeway for interpretations favourable to the dominant economics paradigm. (Another example highly relevant to the climate change negotiations is the questionable technique of discounting.)

The most serious omission from the article appears to be any attempt to measure the carbon impact of the production of alternative foods that should replace the meat and dairy industry that provides basic nutrition to the mass of the world's population today. It includes consideration of the processing of by-products of the meat industry - such as turning hides into leather - but does not consider the carbon produced in the manufacture of alternatives to these products.

The report makes a direct appeal to corporations to take up the route of 'non-meat meat':

'among the least risky strategies might be for a company subsidiary to build a chain of fast-food outlets featuring soy burgers, soy chicken products, sandwiches made with various meat analog products, and/or soy ice cream. If the chain’s growth were rapid, then other food companies would be tempted to copy from the first mover.'

Nothing could make clearer the difficulty those within the existing scientific and economic paradigm have in grasping that the real problem is structural. More than cows and their problematic digestion, it is the unquestioning commitment to chains, fast foods, and growth that is really driving the upward curve of GHG emissions.

The hyping and rapid dissemination of such research into pseudo-scientific news stories trivialises a vital debate and allows the disinterested and those in denial to claim that, since the scientists cannot agree with each other, there is no point in their engaging with this issue at all. There are so many scientific uncertainties in just this one small corner of the climate change discussion that it is no wonder that most people - even those who can find the time and mental energy to struggle their way through a report like this - are left feeling utterly disempowered.

At this point I always revert to what I can do in my own community. We debated this issue in the Stroud coffee house more than a year ago. Between biodynamic meat-eaters and committed vegans we agreed that we should all avoid the globalised industrial meat system, as much because of its inhumanity as its climate impact. We should also eat fewer meat meals, and the vegetables we eat as a substitute should be locally grown, without oil-based fertilisers and pesticides, on our local allotments and community farm. (Graham Harvey reaches much the same conclusion in his book The Carbon Fields)

As Copenhagen approaches we can expect to see more examples of attempts to skew the debate away from the bloated and inherently unjust global economy and towards individual life-style choices. We should not be convinced by the World Bank that it is our consumption choices, rather than the economy whose design they defend, that are the root cause of climate change.


  1. Well written! I agree that it appears they want to force the argument to a point that's just under the nose of the public. Then in common with wind turbines and municipal waste incinerators it will create enough stink for a protest movement to get going and squash it out of existence! Job done, nothing changes and the authors can claim to have tried to do their best and sleep soundly at night (or is it at their work!). Meanwhile the global temperature keeps rising........

  2. Well worth thinking about - and I'll try to post a more complete response soon, but for now just a short one. I generally agree with you - certainly that the problem is more industrialised food production and more than that, capitalism itself (of which the World Bank is a hideous, well-versed in PR, part). However, we should be drastically reducing our consumption of animal products - yes for environmental reasons, but I would argue for reasons of ethics and social justice as well (but that's a whole other issue).

    Just quickly - on the reducing emissions issue. Actually, rather than making excuses for targets over our grandchildren's future, the suggestion by the reports authors to reduce animal product consumption as a priority is sensible.

    There's a great graph in George Monbiot's 'Heat' where he explains the difference between starting cuts now, and delaying them. I'll send Molly a bodged graph to post up to illustrate my point, but can't upload it myself.

    Try to imagine it though. If we say we want 80% cuts by - say - 2050, there are two extremes of ways to get there. Either we cut quickly and thus by 50% by 2020, or slowly and thus by 50% only by 2040. You could draw a curve that looked like a flat topped hill that curves downward, or a curve that drops suddenly and then flattens out (like the cheese rolling hill).

    If that makes sense, imagine what the area between the two curves represents. Can you? Basically, it's emissions. Government ministers like to talk about cuts in terms of % cuts on 1990 levels or similar. But what we should be talking about is the total amount of carbon equivalent (methane included), we emit. Or better yet, that ends up in the atmosphere. This is the logic behind the 350(ppm) campaign - we need to get levels of co2 to 350 parts per million to be in with a chance of climatic stability, 300 would be even better. All the talk of percentage cuts is basically a distraction from this.

    As Methane cycles out of the atmosphere quicker than carbon (because we've damaged the carbon sinks so badly, for one), then the most effective/efficient way to make cuts is to focus on the methane first. Sensible people like us would say do both. Perhaps the World Bank is suggesting that if we all stopped eating meat we could carry on driving cars and purchasing coal fired electricity.

    Personally, I don't think they are doing this. There are powerful vested interests in the meat, dairy and animal feed industries, just as there are in the oil, coal and car industries.

    The World Bank says all this stuff in the same way it bleeds it's heart over poverty even as it imposes structural adjustment policies. Just as it talks of climate change while funding coal power stations and the like, it here talks of reduced animal product consumption even as it funds farms with no environmental considerations at all - least of all Vegan Organic farms.

    The Bank writes this stuff because if it didn't, protests that erupted 10 years ago about its role would have killed it. It's PR, and of course to some of us it sounds reasonable and to others it doesn't. The point is, it still comes from a dodgy source.

  3. Returning to the message rather than the messenger, we do need to reduce consumption of animal products.

    Dave of Darlington wrote an article for Growing Green International entitled 'How Will the World Be Fed in the Future?' (the third in a 'Can vegan-organic farming feed the world?' series)

    In it, he does some basic sums (admitting their blunt-instrument-ness) and establishes that it requires roughly 0.13 ha of arable land to feed a carnivorous person and 0.07 to feed a vegan, each year (2370 kilocalories / day). Multiplying these figures by 10 billion - he gets 1.3 and 0.7 billion ha as total land required to feed a 2050 population.

    Currently about 1.2 billion has is used for food production. Hence, not enough for everyone to have this carnivorous diet. He notes that vegan organic production would require about 25% of the land for green manures, and that there would therefore only be 0.9 billion ha available for food production for vegans. But that should be enough.

    However, in a subsequent article, 'Food Supplies in the Post-Oil Era' - the 4th and final article in the series - things look less rosy.

    Using figures of cuban energy use (cubahas the most sustainable economy in the world, according to the WWF's living planet report 2006) and the highest estimates for energy from rapeseed for biofuel, Dave estimates that even with Cuba's energy use being a fraction of ours, we would need 0.5 ha each for our energy needs to be met from oilseed rape.

    Dave goes on to assume 0.6 ha to feed, clothe and provide with liquid fuel equal to cuban energy use for each person - that's the 0.07 ha for a vegan diet, plus 0.5 for fuel, plus 0.03 for clothing etc)

    Using an easier metric of 1 billion ha of available land (probably more accurate for 2050 given salinization, sea level rise, soil degradation etc), he guesses the Earth can support a population of a mere 1.66 billion using these figures (1/0.6)

    Even by being incredibly optimistic regarding available land and increases in yield, we'd have to concede that our present population of 6 billion is in trouble, let alone the predicted 9 or 10 billion 2050 population. We need drastic population control or "to accept a much lower material living standard, comparable with that in the pre-industrial age". Or some combination.

    Perhaps the World Bank should read his articles, and do some more studies using better statistics. Would they find a way to suggest vegan fast-food outlets as the solution still, or would more radical measures be called for?

    (In the UK Simon Fairlie found that a permaculture omnivorous farming system could just about feed the current population, while a vegan organic system could feed 200 million people (more than 3 times our current population). His figures were also back of the envelope though, and didn't take into account biofuel and other elements as much as they could have done - energy from biomass / horses was only for the farming itself, rather than energy use generally)

    Well, that ended up pretty long (so long I had to divide my comment into 2!) but there's more to say! Soon, soon...