Monday, December 14, 2009

Global Warming: Why 'Go Veg' and cattle miss the point!

Yesterday, Cameron Reilly (@cameronreilly) posted a 'Go Veg' link on twitter. John Johnston (@jjprojects) and I commented on it. This is a topic where 140 character just isn't enough. Here are the relevant parts of the Twitter stream and me considered ramblings about the topic.

The stream

@cameronreilly: "Eat less meat and dairy: official recipe to help health of consumers – and the planet" ( )

Me: @cameronreilly "Eat less meat" still misses the point. Use no fossil fuel, end of cheap fuel will fix any meat problems

@jjprojects: @cameronreilly In Tim Flannery's latest essay, Now or Never, he calls for farming practices to change dramatically, rather than going veg...

@jjprojects: @cameronreilly There seems to be a bit of a debate about what is sustainable in terms of eating meat or veg and how it's grown.

@jjprojects: @cameronreilly Great essay btw, if you haven't read. He got my attention, that's for sure.

@jjprojects: @cameronreilly That would be good. There's also a great chapter about his vision for Oz cleantech, including a new, sustainable city.

@jjprojects: @cameronreilly ...for Oz to lead cleantech on R&D and innovation and export the results. Bold vision. Well worth reading.

Me: @cameronreilly re cattle. The real issues is the source of the flow. 'Cattle carbon' is part of C cycle, in one end out the other.

Me: @cameronreilly natural flows of carbon dwarf the added fossil fuel flows, in size. But the 'new' carbon throws the whole system out of wack

Me: @cameronreilly Cattle don't eat fossil fuel and are natural. But cheap fossil fuel has lead to greatly increase number.

Me: @cameronreilly So cutting cattle numbers is treating a symptom of cheap fossil fuels, not the cause.

@cameronreilly: @gnoll110 so you're saying if we make transport more expensive, people will eat less meat?

Me: @cameronreilly There are lots of fossil fuel input in beef. Transport is one, think about input to grain used in lot feeding...

Me: @cameronreilly ... and in supermarkets, in the home. Increased energy cost ripple across the whole economy...

Me: @cameronreilly ...everyone changes their ways, that how carbon taxes work too. Expect dearer beef that grass fed and produced closer to home

My ramblings

There are so many angle to this. Think I'll try a top down one.

People are talking about 'what the atmosphere sees' in regard to greenhouse gases. I think this is way to simplistic, where a holistic system view is what is really required.

Why is this too simplistic?

Firstly, the interchange between the atmosphere and the other major components (the oceans, soil and biomass) of the bioshere is both dynamic and large, to just measure and pay attention to the atmosphere alone. Of the extra carbon added to the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning each year, about half has moved to other components within a year.

Secondly, all the carbon is being treated the same regardless of whether it's part of a natural or artificial flows.

How can we view it more holistically?

I'm going for borrow an analogue from peak-oiler Richard Heinberg: a bottle of wine. How do you make wine. You put yeast in sugary water (grape juice) and let them do what come naturally. Reproduce, consuming their wonderful abundant source of easy energy. In the process, they produce a toxic pollutant, alcohol. What you end up with is water with most of the sugar gone, lots of alcohol and the detritus of the yeast population collapse at the bottom.

Lets do some substitution.
yeast = humans
sugary water = fossil fuels (both coal & oil)
alcohol = greenhouse gases

Now lets generalise in terms of the universal ecological dilemma.
Humans are population pressure
Fossil fuels use is resource depletion
Greenhouse gases are habitat destruction

We, as a species, have used the last 250 years of fossil fuel to grow our population, both in shear size and in consumption per capita. It looks like habitat destruction is going to be an issue before resource depletion, just.

How do we undo this habitat destruction,

Remove the input of 'new' fossil fuel carbon! That by itself is likely to be enough. Just hope we haven't triggered for run away feedback in the mean time.

Why is cutting cattle number just fiddling? There is an annual photosynthesis cycle. In the spring & summer plants remove net CO2 from the atmosphere and in the autumn & winter it's released back to the atmosphere in net term. Because most land is in the northern hemisphere, this annual cycle clearly shows up in atmospheric CO2 graphs. In the graph, note how the annual peak to trough movement is considerably larger that the annual peak to peak change of the underlying trend. This shows that the natural seasonal carbon flows are larger that the 'new' artificial flow that is the result of fossil fuel burning, as I noted in my twitter update above. Cattle carbon is part of this flow of carbon from biomass back to the atmosphere.

Cut cattle number and what happens? The vegetation will be eaten by other domestic animals (and back to the atmosphere), lamb anyone? In places where there is no domestic animal, a combination of two things can happen. It will be eaten be native and feral animal or it won't be. If it's eaten, back to the atmosphere. What happens to uneaten vegetation? In temperate climate it rots in a year or two, releasing the carbon back to the atmosphere. In dry climate, in a health ecology, its gets eaten (and back to the atmosphere). If the ecology is unhealthy (near death) and thus lacks the grazers, is just sits there. Occasionally fire might burn it (again releasing carbon back to the atmosphere), but without the stomach of the grazers to fore fill the role played be temperate rains, the ecology remains near death. Imagine the great savannahs of Africa without their great herds.

So in any healthy ecology, the grazers do their thing. Remove cattle and the carbon just flows back to the atmosphere via other species (or maybe fire).

Cattle are problematic for two reasons. Their emit a higher ratio of their carbon as methane, a shorter livid, but a 'hotter' gas. Modern cattle production has become fossil fuel intense, by maximising cheap inputs (fossil fuel) & minimising expensive inputs, especially labour. I haven't read Tim Flannery's latest essay, Now or Never. I suspect his call for farming practices to change dramatically will match mine.

I'm sure big oil & coal are delighted be this simplistic push to 'go veg'. Like simplistic carbon accounting, it's a distraction from the underlying fossil fuel cause.

I've already said the real solution is cutting fossil fuel use, preferably to only non energy uses like plastics. That means the end of cheap energy, that's a fundamental change to the whole economy. Doing it would create an inflationary period like that of the 1970's. That inflationary period was partly caused by the first oil shock. This inflation would not be constant across the economy, high energy application would be worst hit. This inflation would change how business is done and what people consume.

How to cause this inflation? An emission trading system (ETS) is just shifting deck chairs. A carbon tax would have an effect, but doesn't target fossil fuel specifically. I would incrementally raise petroleum fuel (liquid & gas) excises and coal royalties based on carbon content. That is what helps bank rolls the required restructuring both domestic & internationally.

Cattle production would move back to traditional grass feed systems and shirk as people cut their consumption to meet their reduced buying power. Transport & refrigeration costs would change the way beef is consumed. More local, less big box, more eat-the-day-you-buy for most of our food stuffs. Not just 'make transport more expensive, people will eat less meat?'. A fundamental change to business as usual.