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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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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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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Did climate change make it harder to get your Christmas presents?

A US SH-60F Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 14, flies around the Bangkok area with members of the humanitarian assessment survey team and the Royal Thai Armed Forces to assess the damage caused by flooding. Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Villalovos/DVIDS

A US SH-60F Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 14, flies around the Bangkok area with members of the humanitarian assessment survey team and the Royal Thai Armed Forces to assess the damage caused by flooding. Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Villalovos/DVIDS

The devastation brought by floods sweeping through Thailand this year is hard for me to visualise, as a man sat in a room in Britain. It’s mind-bogglingly massive, according to the Associated Press:

More than a fifth of the country’s 64 million people have been affected by the flooding, which began in late July, and more than 600 have died. Fifteen provinces remain flooded. The World Bank estimates the damage at $45 billion and recovery and reconstruction needs at $25 billion.

But thanks to the interconnected world we live in, some comparatively trivial but more directly obvious effects of the Thai flood are showing themselves to the rest of us. Thailand produces around 40 per cent of all hard drives made. Those companies have had to stop production, meaning that less PCs will be sold in the last three months of 2012, with that shortage lasting into early 2012, and possibly 2013. Devices that record television straight onto hard drives are also affected, with price rises likely in 2012.

Other popular electronic devices, like smartphones and tablet computers like the iPad, don’t use hard drives, using solid-state flash memory instead. You might think that they wouldn’t be affected, therefore, but Thailand doesn’t only make hard drives. It also produces many other types of electronic component, and high-tech facilities that assemble and test these components have been halted by the flooding. Though the problems are not as severe as they are for PCs, there have been reports of short supplies of technological Christmas gifts like Sony’s e-book reader and Canon cameras. The internet is another area to watch, as a key producer of lasers and other pieces of the equipment that fibre-optic telecoms rely on was also flooded. Read the rest of this entry »

Controls needed to avoid waste in $100B climate fund

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane opening a consultation meeting preparing for next week's climate summit in Durban. Credit: Jacoline Prinsloo/COP17

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane opening a consultation meeting preparing for next week's climate summit in Durban. Credit: Jacoline Prinsloo/COP17

It’s a massive, ambitious, program with a pledged $100 billion budget per year – seven times that of the Apollo program that sent man to the moon – but you’ve probably never heard of it. The program was one result of last November’s worldwide climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, established so developed nations can help developing countries respond to climate change. With so much money potentially at stake Simon Donner, a geographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) wants to make sure it’s used effectively.

“Naturally, governments want the money to be spent wisely,” Donner told Simple Climate. “The problem is that the standard mechanisms by which the spending decisions are made and evaluated sometimes do a poor job of addressing waste and misappropriation.” And even though the fund won’t start running until 2020, action to put the right mechanisms in place should begin with next week’s international climate talks in Durban, South Africa. “The next few years are critical,” he asserted.

Donner has worked on climate change adaptation in the Pacific Islands, and sought to bring that together with other lessons about international aid that can be applied to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) at the centre of the $100 billion program. He’s also a fellow at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues where two of his colleagues, Hisham Zerriffi and Milind Kandlikar, had similarly helped developing world responses to a changing climate. Together they called upon this experience, as well as previous reviews of the successes and failures of these kinds of programs, to gather advice relevant to theGCF. After two rounds of reviewing by fellow scientists, three main pieces of specific advice were published in top research journal Science last week.

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Fossil fuel exporting countries should adopt green taxes

The danger that someone else might impose taxes that reduce fossil fuel consumption before fuel-exporting countries should motivate them to get there first. That’s according to Steven Davis from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, and his colleagues, who have looked at the links between international trade and CO2 emissions. Their “Supply Chain of CO2 Emissions” shows where goods, services and the fossil fuels the world burned, generating power and emitting CO2, came from and went to in 2004. They found that 10.2 billion tons of CO2, over one-third of global emissions, came from fossil fuels traded internationally. 6.4 billion tons of CO2 were used to make traded goods. “The sheer magnitude of emissions that are traded internationally show an inherent flaw of trying to design an effective national program to manage carbon,” Davis told Simple Climate.

Last year, Davis and his Carnegie institution colleague Ken Caldeira showed that in 2004 on average each US citizen consumed goods imported from other countries whose production emitted 2.5 tons of CO2. For Europeans, the figure sometimes exceeded four tons per person. This CO2 benefits people in the country the goods are consumed in, but is not counted as being emitted there. Instead only CO2 directly produced in a country is considered in international negotiations seeking to fight climate change by limiting emissions.

But as CO2 emissions are also closely tied to economic growth, developing countries – and China in particular – are fighting hard to retain the right to emit and develop themselves further. Developing/developed world conflict is a regularly feature of climate negotiations, including in the Copenhagen summit in 2009 that failed to produce a binding treaty to control CO2 emissions. Yet, many countries did make their own pledges to cut CO2 emissions. One potential tool they can use to reduce CO2 emissions is through tax, for example China’s resource tax, and Australia’s upcoming tax on its biggest emitters. Read the rest of this entry »

Rich countries speed up emissions exports

An increasing share of global emissions comes from the production of internationally traded goods and services. Credit: Crestock/CICERO

An increasing share of global emissions comes from the production of internationally traded goods and services. Credit: Crestock/CICERO

Any success that developed countries may seem to be having in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions is being undermined by goods that they import from developing countries. That’s according to a team of scientists who’ve conducted the first study into the link between international trade and emissions over an extended time period. Glen Peters from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, in Oslo, Norway, explained that some countries appear to have stabilised their emissions. However, that’s only if you look exclusively at greenhouse gases produced within their borders. “We find that the emissions have generally increased over time if we consider the emissions from the products consumed in a country,” he said. “It is important for countries to acknowledge the issue and regularly estimate these emissions so that we can track progress.”

Together with scientists based in Germany and the US, Peters tracked the greenhouse gas emissions arising when one country makes a product that is consumed in another. “For example, an emission occurs in China to produce a car which is purchased and used in Europe,” Peters said. They wanted to know whether this might be affecting countries that had cut greenhouse gas production under the Kyoto Protocol. That treaty separated more developed nations from less developed with 37 developed countries committed to overall emissions cuts, and the remainder left unregulated. “If countries have reduced emissions while at the same time increasing emission transfers from countries without emissions commitments, there may be a sense that we are meeting our climate objectives, when in fact we are not,” Peters said. Read the rest of this entry »

Driving up temperatures

While flying has a greater warming impact in the short term, it's actually less warming than driving in the long term - although the warming impact at all timescales must be considered. Credit: iStock

While flying has a greater warming impact in the short term, it's actually less warming than driving in the long term - although the warming impact at all timescales must be considered. Credit: iStock

Driving alone in a car increases global temperatures in the long run more than making the same long-distance journey by air, Austrian and Norwegian researchers said this week. “Car travel emits more CO2 than air travel per passenger mile,” explained Jens Borken-Kleefeld of Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. As CO2 is a very stable chemical, remaining in the atmosphere longer than other gases, cars have a greater long-term impact on climate change. However, aeroplanes’ impact is greater in the short term. “As planes fly at high altitudes, their impact on ozone and clouds is disproportionately high, though short lived,” Borken-Kleefeld said. Writing in the August issue of Environmental Science and Technology, his team point out that all forms of transport are being used all the time. It’s important, therefore, to tackle air pollutants leading to both short-term and long-term warming.

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Lots of shoes make for big carbon feet

China is by far the largest "exporter" of carbon dioxide emissions, as seen in this map of the net flow of emissions embodied in trade among the major exporting and importing countries. Arrows indicate direction and magnitude of flow; numbers are megatons (millions of tons). Credit: Steven Davis/Carnegie Institution for Science

China is by far the largest “exporter” of carbon dioxide emissions, as seen in this map of the net flow of emissions embodied in trade among the major exporting and importing countries. Arrows indicate direction and magnitude of flow; numbers are megatons (millions of tons). Credit: Steven Davis/Carnegie Institution for Science

Goods bought in the richest parts of the world effectively export CO2 emissions to poorer countries, a factor overlooked by governments’ climate change strategies. That’s the message coming from research in the news this month performed by two separate groups of researchers, one in the US and one in Norway. The Norway-based team of Edgar Hertwich and colleague Glen Peters in particular note that the carbon footprint continues to grow steadily in parallel with how much consumers spend. “There is no flattening out, no indication that the carbon footprint stabilizes at some point,” they write. Consequently, as nations continue to strive to raise their wealth, we might expect their carbon footprint to grow along with it. “This is, I’m afraid, bad news,” Peters and Hertwich say. “We cannot expect that emissions are reduced as a part of normal development.”

Hertwich and Peters last week won an award for the “Best Policy Paper” for 2009 from the journal Environmental Science and Technology that published their work. They looked at all countries’ carbon footprint in 2001, going further than just looking at CO2 produced within their borders to also assess the impact of international trade for the first time. Their results have been made into a website, called “Carbon Footprint of Nations”, which shows how emissions vary with consumption. Greenhouse gas emissions rise about 70% with each doubling of consumer spending, with more emissions coming from transport and consumer goods and less from food.

 The "Carbon Footprint of Nations" website created by Edgar Hertwich and Glen Peters shows international emissions in 2001.

The “Carbon Footprint of Nations” website created by Edgar Hertwich and Glen Peters shows international emissions in 2001.

On March 8 Ken Caldeira and Steven Davis at the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California, also published a similar analysis of carbon footprints in 2004 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study finds that, in 2004, 23% of global CO2 emissions, or 6.2 billion tons, were used to produce goods traded internationally. Per person, about 2.5 tons of CO2 are consumed in the U.S. but produced somewhere else. For Europeans, the figure can exceed four tons per person. Most of these emissions are outsourced to developing countries, especially China, where 22.5% of  the CO2 produced was for goods to be exported. “There is little evidence that carbon-intensive industries are being sited in developing countries in direct response to climate policy,” Caldeira and Davis write. “However, industrial expansion occurring in those countries may unintentionally undermine ongoing efforts to regulate emissions.”

“Where CO2 emissions occur doesn’t matter to the climate system,” Davis says. “Effective policy must have global scope. To the extent that constraints on developing countries’ emissions are the major impediment to effective international climate policy, allocating responsibility for some portion of these emissions to final consumers elsewhere may represent an opportunity for compromise.”

Hertwich and Peters suggest that improving production efficiency and using more renewable energy when manufacturing goods would also be useful. Nevertheless, they still seem uncertain that this will achieve enough. “If we really want to reduce climate change, it seems like the consumption of goods needs to be limited,” they write. This would not mean a complete halt, however, as the scientists note that consumption by rich households in both developing and industrialised nations is needed.