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.