THE BIGGEST SCOOP
How is it that, what should be the greatest news story in the history of mankind, only made it into SOME of the headlines and has already been rapidly forgotten about?
I feel like one of those mad women you used to see in city centres walking around with a sandwich board, ringing a bell, looking skyward while shouting “the end is nigh”. But if we don’t start making changes, we are quite literally speeding towards Armageddon.
In case you hadn’t heard (most people that I speak to haven’t), there was a report released on 8th October that spells out disastrous consequences for the humanity if average global temperatures surpass 1.5°c above pre-industrial levels.
The Paris Agreement was formed by 195 nations in 2015, whose goal was to keep the temperature rise to below 2°c. We’ve already reached 1°c. This new apocalyptic report, released at the beginning of the month, suggests a new target of 1.5°c; just half a degree higher and the repercussions would be catastrophic. But even keeping below 2°c was ambitious. Moreover, if we continue on our current path, we’re more likely to hit 3°c instead. They suggest that to remain in the (relatively) safe zone of 1.5°c, the changes that are needed are radical and they’ve given us just 12 years to achieve this objective.
WHO ARE THEY?
The report has been compiled over the last 2 and a half years by the most brilliant minds in climate science from across the world who were formed into the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) by the United Nations. The report is written by several lead authors and contributing guest authors. It goes to an independent review panel, to government advisors and has to be approved line by line by all involved nations. So in a nutshell, it’s a pretty robust piece of literature involving thousands of climate experts.
The last major report by the IPCC that came out in 2013 was the AR5. It’s the most comprehensive report ever written on the subject where 830 experts from over 100 different countries reviewed more than 30,000 studies on the topic. It was found, with 97% confidence that climate change is real and that it is most definitely caused by human activity. Despite the scientific opinion of thousands of experts, US president, Donald Trump denied these claims and America pulled out of the Paris Accord last year. Rather than joining forces to combat this global threat, he’s caused divisions and there is now concern that other leaders may follow suit.
The Brazilian presidential election 2nd round is here and the result could have significant consequences for the rest of the world. Favourite to win is Jair Bolsonaro. If he is elected, it spells disaster for the Amazon rainforest, lungs of our planet. He has promised to open up more of the Amazon to agribusiness for ever increasing world demands for beef and soy (around 70% of the world’s soy is fed to livestock).
He is dedicated to scrapping the Environment Ministry and will instead replace it with the Agricultural Ministry, in favour of converting forests to farmland. He has also made it clear that he will not set aside any reserves for natives of the Amazon who have lived there for thousands of years; quote: “there won’t be a square centimetre demarcated as an indigenous reserve”.
The Amazon acts as a Carbon sink. Whereas we inhale Oxygen and breathe out CO2 (Carbon dioxide), trees do the opposite during photosynthesis. When a tree is cut down, not only does it cease to sequester carbon, but it emits all that it contains. Destroying the Amazon would accelerate climate change and we may reach 1.5°c way before the 12 year deadline. This hasn’t even been taken into consideration by the IPCC report.
And before you say we don’t get beef from Brazil, yes we do. A quarter of beef sold in the UK is imported and that figure is about to rapidly increase. Under EU law, hormone-induced beef is not allowed to be sold. However, once Britain leaves the EU and is no longer governed by that law, it means that trade agreements with non-EU countries such as the US will be opened up. And once hormone-boosted meat enters the UK food supply chain, UK farmers will fight their case to adopt US farming practices too, in order to compete. The beef will be full of hormones, steroids and antibiotics. This in turn will cause greater stress on the already oversubscribed health services due to higher rates of diseases that are associated with a meat-heavy diet. You might be able to avoid such meat in the supermarkets, where you can read the labels, but it won’t be so easy at public eateries, where half of the UK’s food bill is spent.
IS IT REALLY AS BAD AS THEY’RE MAKING OUT?
Experts from across the world have claimed that the damning report is actually too conservative. It seems that they’ve down-played it for the governmental policymakers, who have down-played it even further to make it more palatable for the general public.
There are several things that the report hasn’t taken into consideration. One of which is the dangerous tipping points that may occur, after which, no amount of human intervention can bring climate change back under control.
In a scenario that has been dubbed ‘Hothouse Earth’, temperatures will reach a threshold beyond which, Earth will be put on to an irreversible pathway. This is when the carbon sinks become carbon sources. It is predicted to happen once we reach 2C. There will come a point where Earth becomes too hot to sustain life. Plants, trees and other flora will die. If nothing is photosynthesising, there’s nothing to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and instead, it is released. CO2 traps heat, making temperatures soar even more.
The permafrost in Arctic regions will thaw out and bacteria begin to decompose the shrubbery releasing an immeasurable amount of methane. Methane is 30 times more dangerous than CO2 with regards to its heat-trapping capacity. This “methane time-bomb” would not only spell the end of civilisation, but could cause extinction of humanity as well as most animals within a decade of the methane release. They’re not certain at what temperature Earth could be set on this pathway, but estimate that it could occur anywhere between a rise of 1.5°c and 10°c.
If the methane time-bomb is not detonated, the only positive is that the worst of the effects of climate change won’t be felt until about a hundred years away, when experts predict that temperatures will stabilise at around 4-5°c above pre-industrial levels, after the ice caps have completely melted. By that point, however, much of Earth will be uninhabitable and if we have survived, civilisation will be unrecognisable from today. There are some climate scientists that believe Earth is more sensitive than the IPCC report supposes and that we could hand over control to her at just 1°c rise.
The other thing that the report fails to touch on is the potential for nuclear war. With widespread drought, fires and crop failures, it will be a case of move or starve. And rising sea levels and the disappearance of many coastal towns will mean that millions of people will be left without homes (half the world’s current population lives in coastal areas). Whitmee et al (2015) predicts that between 50 and 350 million refugees will be displaced due to climatic factors.
Even if you don’t care about these 350 million people, you’ll care about their next move, looking for somewhere to live, somewhere that has food, somewhere temperate, somewhere like the UK maybe?
And the mass migration will inevitably lead to war as tensions rise, with conflicts over fresh water sources, food sources and land. Climate change is a risk already recognised by most governments as a threat to national security. If nuclear war breaks out, the black carbon released in smoke clouds from explosions could also cause mass crop failure and global famine.
And if you need proof of this, just look at the situation in Syria. Regional drought beginning in 2007 caused rural families to migrate to towns. Tensions began to rise between different social groups which led to the eventual outbreak of civil war.
WHAT WILL WE SEE DURING OUR LIFETIME?
If you’ve been following me on social media, you’ll have seen that I got myself into a couple of debates around the topic recently. I learnt a few things from this. Firstly that people don’t understand the impact of global warming fully and secondly, that they don’t understand what needs to be done to prevent it. Underneath my comprehensive explanation of how animal agriculture was in the very least, equally to blame as transport for global warming, there was the following comment:
“Well if global warming means tropical weather in the UK, then get me down to Burger King”.
Although, meant as a joke (I hope), it did get me thinking. What if this is what people genuinely believe? Is that why people aren’t concerned with increasing global temperatures, because they’re looking forward to some long, hot summers?
Let’s use Australia as an example, the effects of climate change there have already begun to reveal themselves. Widespread droughts in New South Wales have meant that crops that are usually grown to feed cattle have withered and died and there’s no feed, so the cattle are starving and farmers are having to either send trucks far across land for feed (increasing the carbon footprint of animal agriculture further) or send cattle to slaughter early with not as much meat on their bones. Farmers in this area are being heavily subsidised by the government resulting in animosity amongst city dwellers.
This is just a sign of things to come. This won’t be something limited to Australia if global temperatures continue to rise. There will be crop failures all over the world due to different weather disasters in different areas; droughts and flooding in some and fires in others, contributing to rising food prices, starvation, riots and civil wars. This is what we can realistically expect to see during our life time. This is something that I’m particularly concerned about, living in what is officially the poorest town in England, where people are already struggling to afford to eat.
IS THERE ANY GOOD NEWS?
There is! The good news is that it is preventable, but it’s going to take something completely radical to achieve it. Science is one thing, eliciting behavioural change is another.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
The trouble with imposing a 12 year deadline is that with climate change, there are no hard and fast timescales. We’ve heard it all before, “we’ve got 10 years to tackle climate change”, “we’ve got 6 years before the climate change budget runs out”. It’s like the boy who cried wolf and maybe that’s why people aren’t taking it seriously this time. The truth is, we’ve always had this problem, we’ve always known that climate change is something that we need to bring under control. It’s just that the longer we leave it, the worse it gets and the more drastic the measures have to be to bring it back within our grasp. It is best explained using this credit card analogy: “It’s like putting off paying your credit card bill. The interest just keeps mounting and the total bill gets ever worse. There is no cutoff point, except bankruptcy – which is best avoided. Climate change is our bill coming due, and we would do better to pay up now before the interest starts spiking.”
We were warned years ago to “act now” because if we waited, it would get worse. Well we waited and now it’s worse. So we still need to act, but now we have to do it faster.
Plans were unveiled this week in the UK to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars by the year 2032 which is exactly the type of bold move that our governments should be making. This comes after similar plans have been put in place by several other countries with Norway and South Korea leading the way by banning sales of fossil-fuel powered vehicles by 2020.
We know some of the things that we need to take personal responsibility for in order to help save the environment; drive smarter and slow down; use the train instead of flying domestically; Skype for business rather than visiting; don’t leave things on standby; use energy bulbs; reduce waste, including food; use less water; leave the car at home; recycle; wash at 30; carpool; compost, and so on and so forth.
These are things that we should all have been doing for years already, but now is more important than ever. The trouble with all of the above is that it still releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, just at a slower rate, meanwhile temperatures are still rising.
HOW DOES EATING MEAT CONTRIBUTE TO CLIMATE CHANGE?
One thing that most people aren’t aware of is that eating meat has its own carbon footprint… and it’s a giant one. According to the IPCC (2014), agriculture is responsible for 24% of all emissions, that’s more than the entire transport sector put together which emits comparably fewer emissions at 14%. Not only does agriculture cause more emissions than the transport sector, but almost half of those emissions are methane which as I discussed earlier, is a much more potent greenhouse gas.
The reasons that eating meat is so costly to the planet are numerous. First is the water use. Animal agriculture uses a third of all of the world’s fresh water. The reason animal agriculture is such a thirsty business, is largely due to irrigating the crops that are used as feed for the livestock, as well as the water that is consumed by the cattle themselves. A typical dairy cow consumes between 60 and 100 litres per day, which can double in periods of heat stress. It has been estimated that eschewing one beef burger would save the same amount of water as not showering for 2 months.
Then there’s land use. Currently, 45% of all of Earth’s land is occupied by livestock systems. The deforestation rate for animal agriculture is a football field per second, which equates to a loss of area the size of New York every day. It has been calculated that 91% of deforestation that occurs in the Amazon is for livestock.
Globally, we produce enough food to feed the world’s population. So why are there people dying of starvation? The answer is because the world’s cattle consumes a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people. So while the West are dying from diseases of affluence such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, many in the East are dying from poverty and starvation.
By reducing our meat consumption, demand for meat decreases, which means fewer cows/pigs/sheep/chickens will be bred into existence, less land is needed for agriculture, and the land can thus be replanted. The crops grown for livestock feed could instead be directed to famine-stricken areas and this would put an end to world hunger too.
The land that was grazed for cattle wouldn’t be replaced with land for growing crops because it takes a third the amount of land to produce equivalent calories required on a plant-based diet compared to an omnivorous one.
The more trees that are planted, the more CO2 can be taken out of the atmosphere and the greater the cooling effect.
Afforestation is currently the only way that we know how to REVERSE global warming on a grand enough scale.
There are other detrimental effects on the environment that come with animal agriculture that I haven’t even touched upon, like run off from farms entering waterways and causing ocean dead zones, destroying marine life. And if the oceans die, we die. (If you want to read more on this topic. (Learn more.)
BUT SURELY “THEY” WILL COME UP WITH SOMETHING?
Negative emissions technologies (NETs) do exist that essentially “suck” greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and the IPCC have featured these prominently in their report and stated that we will have to rely heavily on them if we’re to meet our target, the only problem is, they don’t yet exist on the scale that they’re needed. They range in their effectiveness, expense and impacts on the environment. So far, upscaling of the most efficient methods, such as direct air capture, has been halted by expense, it would take billions upon billions to fund, and no-one wants to pay up.
One study that evaluated different NETs stated unequivocally that there are none that will meet the 2°c target (which is now an even more ambitious 1.5°c) that could be implemented without significant impact on land, water, energy, nutrient, cost or albedo (the amount of sun’s rays that are reflected back off Earth’s surface). So ‘Plan A’ has to be to reduce emissions.
Another study concluded that NETs are not an insurance policy but rather an extremely high stakes gamble with a very real risk that they’ll be unable to deliver.
Senior Research Engineer, Howard J. Herzog (MIT) points out that if today we are unwilling to use mitigation technologies due to their relatively cheap expense (things like improved efficiency, switching from coal to gas and using renewable energy), then why should we think that future generations will use NETs when they’re considerably more expensive? Why should we be so selfish and let future generations pick up the tab? Barriers to these technologies are very real and we cannot rely on the use of them in the future to compensate for our breaking the carbon budget and failing to do enough today.
The bottom line is that thus far, none of these technologies has been shown to work on the scale that is needed, being both at a reasonable cost and without detrimental impacts on the environment.
So rather than our plan being to continue on the path to self-destruction and just hope that something comes along, why don’t we just sacrifice our tastebuds and save humanity by leaving meat off the menu?
From conversations that I’ve had, I’ve found that people either don’t believe that it will happen, or they think “They” will come up with something before then. And apparently everybody is doing their bit already to save the environment. Which begs the question; if you’re already doing you’re bit, but we’re still on this collision course then what does that mean?
It means we need to try harder. So what then? Get an electric car? Eventually, yes but it’s not something that everyone can start immediately. Cut out flights completely? Not likely. So what else could you be doing? Something really easy?
Reduce your meat, dairy and eggs consumption. Nobody has an excuse not to do this. It’s not more expensive to go meat free. Potatoes, beans, bread, pasta and vegetables are not more expensive than meat. So if it’s healthier, better for the environment and saves you money, why would you argue against it?
If it didn’t upset me so much, I’d find it funny. Plastic is bad, “I agree, I’ll use less plastic”; cars are bad, “I agree, I’ll walk more”; wasting electricity is bad, “I agree, I’ll use energy-saving lightbulbs”, meat is bad… “Whoa, do not attack my dietary choices”. Why do people have such a hard time with that last one?
If people continue to eat meat at the current rate and the population continues to increase exponentially, there literally will not be enough land available to feed everyone. At which point, meat reduction will be forced upon us. So why wait until then when all the damage has been done, when we can make the decision today, ourselves and save the planet in the process? The point is, we should be trying our best to save the environment in ALL areas and whether you like it or not, your diet can have the greatest positive effect.
The whole world going vegan overnight is not the solution, this would bring many problems in itself. But certainly reducing meat and dairy consumption (and hopefully, gradually becoming vegan) is the way to go. Over the course of a year, if all Americans agreed to go meat and dairy free for just one day per week, it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road. You don’t have to commit to vegetarianism, or veganism, but could you replace a meat-centric meal with a jacket potato and beans, and a bean chilli and rice, a couple of nights per week, and in exchange, secure the future of our beautiful Mother Earth for your children and grandchildren?
Enrico Fermi posed a question that’s had experts baffled for years. On discussing the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, he asked “where are they?”. Given that our star and Earth are part of a young system compared with the rest of the universe, and that interstellar travel is extremely likely, probability dictates that we should have been contacted by now; why haven’t we? One theory is that intelligent beings greedily pursuing growth and expansion ultimately cause their own demise. Please don’t let that explanation be the right one.
If you’ve heard enough and want to take the plunge into vegan waters but don’t know where to start, here are some great references to help you transition.