Climate change

November 6, 2009

Red Necked Aussie Greenies

Filed under: Climate Change, Emissions Reduction, Livestock's long shadow — Barry Brook @ 10:56 pm

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy.



UK Economist Lord Nicholas Stern is the latest in a growing list, including IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri and NASA climate scientist James Hansen calling for a global shift in dietary habits towards less meat. The CSIRO has issued a new Home Energy Saving Handbook which tells people diplomatically, but unambiguously, that if they do use the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, with its huge meat component, then use it for as brief a period as possible and switch to a high carbohydrate diet which has a much lower greenhouse footprint. The book also has a great section on the implications of suburban food growing, including a mention that this also tends to reduce meat consumption. This new CSIRO handbook is a long way short of the major public corporate apology that I called for in my recent book CSIRO Perfidy, but it’s an excellent start. All in all this CSIRO book is a great practical book about how people can significantly reduce their various footprints on the planet. It doesn’t fall into any of the all too common traps like considering the fuel consumption of a car, but ignoring the emissions generated during the building of the vehicle.

Stern’s call reduced animal product intake follows close on the release of a report on livestock and climate change from the Food Ethics Council in the UK(commisioned by World Wildlife Fund (WWF)). The press release announcing the report contains a statment which will probably raise the blood pressure of any meat producer. It says that the report:

Identifies a wide array of measures by which government might change consumption behaviour, …

The livestock industry can live with feel good statments about breeding for lower emitting cattle and the like, but changes to consumption, changes that would actually make a difference, that is anathema.

At the risk of boring people who know this stuff, let me quantify using an analogy that I hope will clarify. Consider a computer screen. I’m using a 19 inch 37 watt LCD. My TV is a little bigger and uses 58 watts. Most people know that huge plasma TVs can be more than a little bigger and use 10 times more power. Systems labelled home theatre can run to over 1500 watts … about half for the sound and half for the picture. Now, pause and think what would happen if somebody started making 7400 watt screens that were much the same size as normal screens. Imagine further that these screens caused serious and frequently life shortening health problems.

Would anybody defend such screens? Would anybody bother with a defence that better manufacturing could reduce their power usage by 25%?

The 7400:37 ratio is about the same as the ratio of greenhouse emissions between lean beef and pasta. The ratio is even higher if the short term (20 year) warming impact of methane is considered. A study hot off the press in Science into the indirect effects of methane calculates that adding these flow-on impacts lifts the warming due to methane by as much as 50%. This makes lean beef akin to a 10,000 watt screen.

Tim Flannery, in the longest chapter of his recent Now or Never essay (Quarterly Essay 31) has put forward a plan to massively increase global beef production … the direct equivalent of a plea to stock the planet with an abundance of 7400 watt computer screens. This has been criticised by both myself (see Quarterly Essay 32) and Peter Singer. Responding to Singer in the US edition of Now or Never, Flannery writes:

And in the beef sector, it’s been found that smaller breeds of cattle produce 25 percent less methane than standard breeds, and that the overall management of the herd has an enormous impact on the overall greenhouse gas balance of the business.

If he were consistent, Flannery should similarly allow that a 25% reduction in the power required for a 7400 watt screen should earn it a green energy saver badge.

In Perfidy, which is about far more than just the CSIRO’s dodgy diet, I examine the implications of Flannery’s call for more cattle in some detail. Firstly, it’s an impossible vision. But going with Flannery’s flight of fancy and assuming there is enough land to graze enough cattle so that most of the planet (leaving out a billion or so steadfastly vegetarian Indians) ate the same amount of beef as Australians (bearing in mind that more chicken is eaten than beef in Australia these days), we would add about another 98 mega tonnes to the annual global emissions of methane. If you are unfamiliar with the global methane budget, the current anthropogenic emissions are about 350 mega tonnes, so a 98 mega tonne injection of methane would be huge.

So, on the one side we have a growing international call to scale down the livestock sector, particularly cattle, but in Australia we either don’t report such calls (and you won’t find the Food Ethics Council paper on the Australian WWF website), or they get a brief mention on page 23 and we have high profile environmentalists like Flannery pushing in the opposite direction. One of the reasons I’ve always been on the fringe of environment groups and more comfortable in animal rights groups is that many greens (and Greens), like Flannery, seem to place the sanctity of the BBQ above the health of the planet. I have absolutely no idea what drives such people, they steadfastly refuse to follow where the evidence leads. Anybody who reads Peter Singer’s work will realise that for him and others in the animal rights camp, using information and logic to formulate ways to minimise suffering isn’t mere entertainment, but the final arbiter of action.

Which leads me to Kelly’s Bush.

Kelly’s bush is about 7 acres of bush land on Sydney’s wealthy North Shore. In the early 1970s it was threatened with development. Some regard the fight to save Kelly’s Bush as the birth of the modern Australian green activist movement. The fight was spear headed by the famous Green Bans imposed by the Builder’s Labourers Union, led by Jack Mundey. The bans began in the early 1970s, but the story I want to tell goes back a decade earlier to 1962. What happened in 1962? Yes, I know, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, but that’s just a book, what actually happened? What actually happened was that Bob Kleberg of King Ranch in Texas bought 50,000 acres of primary rainforest along the Tulley River in north Queensland (ironically not far from where Jack Mundey grew up) and worked out how to use 50 tonne bulldozers to fell giant rainforest trees for just $20 a cleared acre. A huge rolling steel ball with spikes is dragged between the dozers on a chain and when it hits a tree it climbs. As it mounts the tree, the dozers gain leverage and can knock down anything. By 1965, the 50,000 acres (about 20,000 hectares) was gone. By the early 1970s, I’ll wager some of that Tully beef ended up in BBQs and sandwiches at Green Ban picket lines in Sydney. Meanwhile the bulldozers where shipped to Venezuela and the now perfected methods were used there and later in Brazil in an attack on the planet’s rainforests that is on-going.

Such is the story of high profile environmentalism in Australia. The real fight to preserve biodiversity should have been fought in our supermarkets, but the big green organisations, the ones with a profile high enough to have a chance at effecting major consumer change, are too busy having BBQ fundraisers and fighting for can deposits and against plastic bags. But the deliberate focus on the trivial by many in the green movement is more generally symptomatic of what passes for ethical debate in Australia. This is particularly obvious when we consider the ethics of climate change.

Back in May, The Lancet published the results of a joint study with the University College London on the health impacts of climate change.

The study contains the following map (from a 2007 study) showing the causal responsibility of climate change compared with the likely adverse health impacts. The former were measured in giga-tonnes of carbon emitted between 1950 and 2000 while the latter were measured in mortality per million of population. The geographical area of each country in the map has been transformed so that relative areas correspond to relative causes or health impacts. The malnutrition component comes from an earlier World Health Organisation modelling study and is due to a projected increase in regional droughts.

Note that this is a per-capita measure of suffering, not an absolute measure. A map showing relative absolute suffering would make the ethical responsibility even more obvious but would possibly see some of countries which are major causes of climate change totally disappear in the map of adverse impacts.


The malnutrition impacts are considered to have already started. It is of course difficult to disentangle malnutrition due to climate change from malnutrition due to other causes but a June FAO press release shows we have climbed to over a billion undernourished people, having been hovering at about 800 million between 1990 and 2003 when the wheels started to fall off the global food machine. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is now reporting in its 2009 State of Food Insecurity report (SOFI) that the absolute number of malnourished people has been rising since the mid 1990s.

The Lancet isn’t on my list of regularly read journals, but I thought it a little wierd that I’d never heard of this report. So I did some googling to see who covered it at the time. Who did I find? The only sizable news sources which reported on the report were: Radio AustraliaThe ABC (online) and The Mercury. Unsurprisingly, I found no mentions in any of the major newspapers.

Taken at face value, the maps make the asymmetry of causes and impacts abundantly clear. We in the developed world are responsible for most of the pain and suffering that will be felt predominantly (but not exclusively) in the developing world.

Humans have an extraordinarily well developed sense of fairness and justice. But it isn’t just humans who have this. A sense of fairness extends, at least, to other primates. Capuchin monkeys will refuse to work for rewards where they can see other monkeys getting more rewards for the same work. Sound familiar?

The maps plus the monkey research make it entirely unsurprising that both the Chinese and the Indians are playing hard ball in the run up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Wondering why the report and the maps weren’t more widely reported in Australia, I formulated a quick hypothesis: Australians don’t care much for ethical issues. But then I thought more deeply and considered NSW’s MP John Della Bosca’s recent resignation and the blanket media coverage it received. So I modified my hypothesis. Australians treat ethics as a spectator sport, rather like football. Its great to watch a bit of biffo as long as you’re not on the receiving end of the real thing. This is supported by a few tables in How Australia Compares, a nice book of selected OECD data tables selected by Rodney Tiffen and Ross Gittins. In particular Australia is down at, or near, the bottom of the OECD countries in the income of its disabled people, the rate of children living in poverty in either single mother or two parent households, the level of unemployment benefits, and a host of other measures. This book came out in 2004 and most of the tables reflect data as of the year 2000, but I doubt much has changed. The generous country I thought I grew up in has either vanished … or perhaps it never existed.

But one aspect of the above maps worries me … the attribution of malnutrition to climate change.

Brazil doubled its cereal production between 1990 and 2003 with only a 35% rise in human population, it was awash with food. During the same period the proportion of Brazil’s cereal going to feed livestock went from 44% to 57%. Asia between 1990 and 2003 experienced a surge in livestock feeding between 1990 and 1995 going from 15% of cereals to 19%. The lower rate probably reflects the Asian preference for chicken and pork over beef. In any event, this fraction persisted until at least 2003. Indonesia and China dominate the Asian picture and both had a surge in corn production during the early 1990s, with the only beneficiaries being livestock. Total Asian cereal production, imports and and livestock feed ratios moved little between 1995 and 2003, despite a rising population. But the rising use of food for feed elsewhere in the world meant reductions in food available (and possibly affordable) to meet the short fall. The result was that undernourishment increased in Asia … exactly as the UN SOFI report finds.

Australia’s grain production goes up and down like a yo-yo so its difficult to discuss food/feed ratios on a yearly basis. But the amount of grain used as feed in 1990 was about 4 million tonnes, in 1995 it was 6 million, by 2003 it was 7.6 million and by 2006/7 it had surged to 12 million. So all up, Australians eat about 2 million tonnes, feed an increasing amount to livestock which leaves a steadily shrinking volume available for export.

The spread of western meat based diets globally has been accompanied by a spread of factory farming, obesity and chronic disease together with a change in the world’s livestock distribution. Factory farming now produces the bulk of the world’s 98 million tonnes of pigmeat and factory farms are high capital operations which demand, and can pay for, a consistent feed supply chain. They can outbid the world’s poor and turn food into feed and food producers into feed producers in exactly the same way that coffee drinkers turn food growers into coffee growers. While it is perfectly reasonable for any country to have a mix of food and cash crops, its the balance that matters.

Between 1984 and 2004 the world’s cattle population fell by 25% in the developed world but increased by a similar proportion in the developing world. This means that of the world’s 1.33 billion cattle, over a billion are in the developing world. Brazil has 190 million, Sudan and Colombia have 41 and 26 million cattle respectively and all three get a mention in the SOFI report with Brazil still having 12% undernourishment in 2004-6 despite a veritable glut of food production capacity.

Globally, this conversion of food to feed to drive increasing meat consumption accounts for the increase in undernourishment without requiring much, if any, input from climate change. As the better off eat more meat, they create a livestock industry which can outbid the poor for food.

But in Australia, our red necked BBQ culture reigns supreme. It’s impacts are felt in poor countries who can no longer buy as much of our grain because is has been siphoned off to feed livestock. Our culture is felt also in rich countries who buy our beef and get bowel cancer and heart disease as a result. We will continue to focus our ethical might on the sexual peccadillos of our politicians and our environmental muscle on plastic bags.

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