Shrinking dairy’s carbon hoofprint

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Whenever I come across cows here in the southwest of the UK, usually placidly munching on a mouthful of grass, they always seem too lovable to be villains. But as we face growing twin challenges of feeding the world and fighting climate change, they’re increasingly getting a bad reputation.

Some scientists highlight reducing how much beef we eat, in particular, as an important step towards future sustainability. They say only about three or four parts in 100 of the energy in livestock feed becomes our food, while the rest is lost as manure, heat, digestive gases and slaughter by-products. Switching to more intensively farmed chicken or pork and plant-based food would be more efficient, the argument goes. It also gives a greater chance to trap carbon from waste material, which might otherwise become planet-warming greenhouse gases, as biochar that can help improve soil fertility.

A couple of years back I put this to Peter and Henri Greig who run my favourite local butchers, Pipers Farm. As they showed us round their farm Peter explained how their Red Ruby cattle can graze Devon moorland that can’t be used for crops, before moving on to pasture. While I still don’t eat a lot of beef for both environmental and health reasons, that seems a good reason for not demonising cows entirely. In fact, a paper in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science highlights previous research that found more grazing land exists, unusable for human food, than cropping land.

We can’t ignore what that promises for feeding the world in the future, but we can’t ignore cows’ greenhouse gas emissions either. However, rather than beef cattle, the new paper’s authors focussed on reducing levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane coming out of the digestive systems of dairy cattle. Joanne Knapp, a consultant who has researched nutrition in ruminant animals like cattle, told me her team’s interest comes in part thanks to its backers: Innovation Center for US Dairy.

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IPCC: Millions of words on climate change are not enough

The latest IPCC report has highlighted that it's dead certain that the world has warmed, and that it's extremely likely that humans are the main cause. Credit: IPCC

The latest IPCC report has highlighted that it’s dead certain that the world has warmed, and that it’s extremely likely that humans are the main cause. Credit: IPCC

The most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report saw perhaps the most severe conflict between scientists and politicians in the organisation’s existence. As its name suggests, governments take an active part in the IPCC process, whose latest main findings appeared between September 2013 and May 2014. Debate over what information makes the high-profile ‘Summaries for Policymakers’ is usually intense, but this time three graphs were dropped on politicians’ insistence. I show these graphs later in this blog entry.

At the Transformational Climate Science conference in my home town, Exeter, UK, earlier this month, senior IPCC author Ottmar Edenhofer discussed the ‘battle’ with governments on his part of the report. Another scientist who worked on the report highlighted confidentially to me how unusual the omission was.

To me, it’s more surprising that this hasn’t happened more often, especially when you look more closely at the latest report’s findings. There’s concrete certainty that warming is happening, and it’s extremely likely that humans are the dominant cause, it says. Governments have even – in some cases, begrudgingly – already signed up to temperature and CO2 emission targets reflecting this fact.

The inadequacy of those words is becoming ever more starkly obvious. Ottmar stressed that the emissions levels agreed at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, in November 2010, would likely need later emissions cuts the likes of which we’ve never seen before to avoid dangerous climate change. The latest IPCC report shines a floodlight on that inertia, which understandably cranks up the tension between researchers and politicians.

Ottmar was one of two co-chairs who led the ‘working group three’ (WGIII) section of the IPCC report that looks at how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He stressed that the need to make these cuts comes from a fundamental difference between the risks that come from climate change and the risks of mitigation. We can heal economic damage arising from cutting emissions – reversing sea level rise isn’t so easy.

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The climate challenges that my morning toast poses

Britain's wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms - but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Britain’s wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms – but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

It may seem that nothing could be simpler than toast, but next time I see a slice pop up I’ll also see an emblem of the world’s future. That’s thanks to a UK study exploring the problems surrounding growing enough wheat for flour and other foods as the world warms and has ever more people in it. The issue is especially tangled, Mirjam Röder and her University of Manchester teammates show, as adapting farming for the future will likely increase greenhouse gas emissions, driving further warming. “Climate change and food security are two issues which can’t be decoupled,” Mirjam told me. “The same applies for mitigation and adaptation.”

Mirjam is part of the “Climate change mitigation and adaptation in the UK food system” project, led by Alice Bows-Larkin and backed by Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute. One concern the project reflects is that without adaptation farming will probably be the industry worst hit by climate change, with worldwide productivity falling as temperatures rise. Meanwhile, farming also releases about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases we humans emit overall. “These are largely emissions other than CO2, such as nitrous oxide and methane, mainly occurring from natural processes,” Mirjam said. “They are much harder to reduce and control. Then of course global society is challenged by increasing global food demand. So we face a triad of challenges in the food system: we need to reduce emissions, while food demand is increasing and the sector is impacted by climate change.”

Alice and Mirjam’s team looked at wheat because it makes up almost a third of all cereals grown in the world. “Global wheat demand is projected to increase by about 30% by 2050,” Mirjam. “If we don’t find methods to reduce them, total emissions from producing more wheat will rise.” As well as gases released directly by bacteria and other soil microorganisms, emissions from wheat farming arise from the energy needed to produce nitrogen fertiliser. Whether growing more wheat or dealing with rising temperatures, farmers will need more fertiliser, driving more emissions and therefore further warming. Read the rest of this entry »

Does lower home energy use mean England and Wales are keen to be green?

Change in average England and Wales household energy consumption in local areas 2005-11. Darker areas are where household energy consumption has fallen most.

Change in average England and Wales household energy consumption in local areas 2005-11. Darker areas are where household energy consumption has fallen most.

Thanks to William Blake, an important part of England’s national identity revolves around the idea of the country being ‘a green and pleasant land’. And now, data released by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) last month hints green outlooks could be helping people in Wales and England cut greenhouse gas emissions. The ONS found that average household energy consumption in the two countries fell by a quarter between 2005 and 2011. And while the possible reasons it suggests for this include people acting to cut their energy bills, it also stresses they could be doing it out of environmental awareness. In full, the ONS puts forward the following five factors as explanations:

• Household improvements such as better loft and cavity wall insulation have improved energy efficiency

• Introduction of energy rating scales for properties and household appliances, allowing consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases

• Improved efficiency of gas boilers and condensing boilers to supply properties with both hot water and central heating

• Generally increasing public awareness of energy consumption and environmental issues

• The price of gas and electricity in the UK overall increased in all years apart from 2010, between 2005 and 2011

As I live in England, the world ‘household’ brought to mind other changes the news often tells me are going on that might also play a role. They are: The number of households in the UK is increasing, and the number of people in each household is decreasing. It could be that the lower energy consumption per household is just because there are fewer people per household to consume the energy. But households are shrinking much more slowly than energy consumption, with average size reducing by just 4% from 2.4 to 2.3 between 2001 and 2011. Or there could be many more households consuming, which would result in an overall increase in emissions. But in 2011 there were 26.3 million households in the UK, a 7% increase since 2001.

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Speeding poor countries’ progress could halve farming emission growth

Improving agricultural productivity - particularly without increasing fertiliser use - could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

Improving agricultural productivity – particularly without increasing fertiliser use – could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

If the world’s poorer countries progress faster towards farming like richer ones the improved food availability could help fight climate change. That’s according to Austrian and Australian scientists who say that they have looked at climate change’s links to both animal and crop farming in the most depth yet.

Hugo Valin from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, and his colleagues studied cutting the gaps between farming output in rich and poor countries. They say halving this ‘yield gap’ for crops, and reducing it by a quarter for animals, could halve the increase in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions from farming between 2000 and 2050. But they have also found that improved farming methods could raise how much food people eat, meaning that emission reductions aren’t as much as they would be otherwise.

“The widespread idea is that intensifying crop farming is beneficial to the environment because it spares land,” Hugo told me. “We show that it is more complex than this. Intensification also stimulates consumption because it allows farmers to supply more food at affordable prices.”

Farming produces about a third of all ‘man-made’ greenhouse gas emissions, though a lot of them are actually from farm animals’ belches and farts and manure. The rest come from chemical reactions of fertiliser used on crops in soil, and also gases released from soil, plants and trees when forests are converted into farmland. Four-fifths of these emissions happen in developing countries. The world’s population is set to grow from around 7 billion people today to between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050. We need more food for those extra people, which will add to the greenhouse gases farming puts into the air each year. Read the rest of this entry »

Rich versus poor obstructs climate progress

One of the more bizarre scenes at Rio+20 was reigning 2011 Miss Universe Leila Lopes and Executive Board Member of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Dr. Dennis Garrity meeting to call for a goal to halt land degradation and to scale up successful community projects to combat desertification. Credit: UNCCD

One of the more bizarre scenes at Rio+20 was reigning 2011 Miss Universe Leila Lopes and Executive Board Member of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Dr. Dennis Garrity meeting to call for a goal to halt land degradation and to scale up successful community projects to combat desertification. Credit: UNCCD

Every morning the news is full of fighting – between individuals and groups, within and between countries. When people seem to disagree over nearly everything, it’s strange to expect our leaders to come together for the good of us all, and the whole planet. But that’s exactly what they tried to do last month in Brazil at the Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development that I recently covered hopefully here on Simple Climate. Will this meeting be remembered as fondly in 20 years’ time as the original “Earth Summit” meeting in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago that its name refers to? If most reactions to the new agreement reached by political leaders are anything to go by, then no. While rich and poor countries’ competing priorities are largely responsible for the apparently weak wording, some hope of removing key stumbling blocks did emerge from the 45,000-person meeting.

On 22 June, world leaders signed a 49-page document called The Future We Want. As well as renewing the original Earth Summit deal, it charts a road to bringing through sustainable development goals when the UN Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015. It encourages a greener world economy, reducing consumption and improving energy systems. It calls for an international system to conserve high seas biodiversity, action to stop land being degraded and becoming desert, and support for small island developing countries. But the deal’s language lacks power, typically using “should” rather than “must”. And overall there was little about protecting the environment, and much about supporting fair economic growth – a fact that has been strongly attacked by some.

If these goals weren’t already seen as weak in the developed world, that outlook was clinched by how they were formed. The document had been agreed by civil servants even before world leaders began arriving in Rio, meaning that they instead spent their time announcing national initiatives. But the funding for these seems tiny, when the amount needed to meet the goals is estimated to be thousands of billions of dollars. The Sustainable Energy For All initiative – one of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s highlights of the meeting – saw Brazil commit $4.3 billion to promote universal energy access for its citizens. The US promised $2 billion in grants and loans to support public-private energy partnerships, while businesses and investors committed more than $50 billion to the same scheme. Japan pledged $3 billion in international aid for the green economy – even though the final treaty is vague on what the green economy actually is.

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Economy-CO2 link reveals GDP weakness

The key US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) site where CO2 concentrations in the air are monitored, at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Unlike CO2 emissions, these CO2 concentrations can be readily measured directly, so Edward Ionides, José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero used them to study their link with global GDP. Credit NOAA

The key US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) site where CO2 concentrations in the air are monitored, at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Unlike CO2 emissions, these CO2 concentrations can be readily measured directly, so Edward Ionides, José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero used them to study their link with global GDP. Credit NOAA

Researchers have confirmed a relationship that is making climate change tough to fight: economic growth and atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been tightly linked for the past 50 years. That’s what the University of Michigan‘s Edward Ionides and co-workers found by looking at levels of the greenhouse gas and gross domestic product (GDP), an important measure of countries’ financial performance, at a worldwide level. “GDP growth is like a proxy for CO2 concentration growth,” Edward told Simple Climate. “Under business-as-usual conditions, these two quantities are measuring essentially the same thing. This highlights a problem with using GDP as a measure of progress.”

Until now, much research on the link between CO2 and economic growth has looked at figures for each country. Some think using each country’s CO2 emissions separately “should be more informative”, Edward said. But there are problems with recording emissions accurately, plus goods or services used in one country often result in CO2 emissions in another. So, with Michigan colleague José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero from the University of Valladolid, Spain, Ionides went to the worldwide level for “a new and simpler perspective”.

As well as the total of all countries’ GDP, they used precisely measured atmospheric CO2 levels, rather than the more uncertain emission figures. “In addition, concentration of CO2, rather than the level of emissions, is the variable directly determining the global climate,” Óscar said. “Change in the atmospheric concentration is the result of emissions – mainly from burning fossil fuels, since natural emissions from volcanoes are estimated as a tiny fraction of man-made emissions – minus removals by natural sinks.”

Atmospheric CO2 (monthly average) as measured in air samples collected at Mauna Loa, Hawaii from Feburary 1958 to Februrary 2012. Units are parts per million by volume. Estimated preindustrial concentrations, at levels between 200 and 300 ppm, would be far out of the graph. The graph is often known as the Keeling curve. Credit: University of Michigan

Atmospheric CO2 (monthly average) as measured in air samples collected at Mauna Loa, Hawaii from Feburary 1958 to Februrary 2012. Units are parts per million by volume. Estimated preindustrial concentrations, at levels between 200 and 300 ppm, would be far out of the graph. The graph is often known as the Keeling curve. Credit: University of Michigan

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