Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On beef and babies

A couple of climate-related articles in the news recently have caught my attention.

The first is an article in the Grauniad:
New research indicates that gas-guzzling cars are a much less important factor in climate change than the huge amounts of food devoured by carnivorous 'burger man'. Jonathon Porritt on the geopolitics of food
This is tenuous to say the least. The research in question looked into the GHG emissions associated with meat production in the USA - beef in particular being the worst offender. Of course, most beef in the USA is grain-fed, which means industrial energy-intensive agriculture to grow the grain, which then gets turned rather inefficiently into meat. So eating meat (in particular, eating beef in USA-style quantities) implies large GHG emissions. Therefore, the argument goes, giving up meat-eating would save those emissions, and swapping your conventional car for a hybrid would in fact save less (according to their calculation).

So what is wrong with this article? Well, for starters, the analysis is based on grain-fed beef, which is common in the USA (I saw an estimate of 80% on the web) but rare in the UK. Our beef is predominantly grass-fed, although they may eat some grain in the winter along with silage. Permanent pasture is actually a very effective carbon sink, largely because it is rarely ploughed so carbon builds up in the soil over a number of years (here's a blast from my past about GHG emissions from agriculture!). Furthermore, even though the beef pasture is often potentially valuable as arable land, a significant proportion of the meat we eat is lamb (much more so than in the USA), which is farmed on much poorer pasture that has little other value. In energy and opportunity cost terms, this food is close to free. Moreover, the upland farming is responsible for the maintenance of one of the most beautiful maintained landscapes in the world - and I say that as someone who is no great advocate of farming, but who simply recognises that they are not all evil. Lastly, the comparison with merely downsizing from one car to a slightly more efficient one is hardly fair in contrast with the switch from a diet heavy in USA beef to complete vegetarianism. Swapping an SUV for a bicycle might be closer to the mark, and in that case, the cyclist certainly wins by a landslide. I'm disappointed that Jonathan Porrit has swallowed (and regurgitated) this stuff as if it was relevant in the UK (where the Guardian is published) rather than applying his critical faculties first.

Of course, its irrelevance didn't stop some hippy lentil-munchers from gloating over it environmentally-aware commentators from drawing attention to it - I refer of course to none other than the esteemed William Connolley. So it is with some amusement that I will now point out his boss's comments on population growth. According to Chris Rapley (Director of the British Antarctic Survey), the Earth's population needs to be substantially cut - perhaps to 2-3 billion from the current 6.5 and growing. News coverage is here and his full article here

Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental "footprint", the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.

Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.

So if we believe that the size of the human "footprint" is a serious problem (and there is much evidence for this) then a rational view would be that along with a raft of measures to reduce the footprint per person, the issue of population management must be addressed.
This isn't just a matter of GHG emissions and climate change, but pressure on all sorts of natural resources - water, fish, farmland. I'll enjoy my guilt-free burger while William force-feeds lentils to his children :-)

Of course, Japan is already making a start on population decline - that story seems to be cropping up all over the place now, such as this article about coming-of-age day, which saw the 2nd-lowest number of celebrants ever (1.43m), and equal lowest in percentage-of-population terms (1.12%). The most surprising thing for me was the apparent fact that so many people believe in superstitions that even following the strong downward trend of the birth rate in recent years, this percentage only just matched the all-time low set back in 1987 which was caused by 1966 being considered an "unlucky" year in which to give birth!


William M. Connolley said...

Oh no... what our esteemed director neglects to mention is that impact = numbers * consumption-per-person. Reducing our numbers to 3b whilst increasing everyones consumption up to US standards would make things worse not better. Don't you just love it when people go out of their fields?

Anonymous said...

John Fleck says -

But *not* reducing our numbers whilst increasing everyone's consumption to U.S. standards (the path we're on now)....

Well, you get the idea.