When it comes to telling the public about their emissions, the aviation industry keeps telling us how much their efficiency has improved. That is they can fly further on a certain amount of fuel. But what they don’t tell us is that their capacity keeps increasing so much that overall their emissions increase. The planes are bigger, they have more routes and there are more planes flying.
The meat and dairy industries have been doing this too. When the scientists at FAO calculated the emissions from the livestock industry in 2006 and found them to be 18% of total global emissions, the industries didn’t take it lying down. Here is a piece from the GRAIN website (GRAIN is an international organisation of small farmers)
“The FAO was blasted by the meat industry after it released a report in 2006 putting livestock’s share of global GHG emissions at 18 per cent. “You wouldn’t believe how much we were attacked”, said Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division of the FAO. The FAO soon buckled under the pressure and agreed to establish a partnership with the meat industry’s main lobby groups to jointly reassess emissions from livestock. Both the partnership’s Steering Committee and its Technical Advisory Groups are dominated by representatives of meat companies, their lobby groups and scientists funded by meat and dairy companies.
As a result of the FAO’s partnership with industry, it has shifted its focus towards a narrow assessment of “emissions intensity”, in which GHG emissions are examined per unit of output (per kg of meat, litre of milk or unit of protein). Measured this way, animals that are intensively raised for maximum output of meat and milk—by a few million farmers mostly in the US, Europe, Brazil, New Zealand and a few other rich countries—have a lower “emissions intensity” than the animals of poor farmers, which are raised for many more uses and without access to the high protein feed, antibiotics, growth promoters and hormones used by intensive livestock industries. Poor farmers are thus said to suffer from an “emissions intensity gap” and should be pushed into what is termed “sustainable intensification” or, more broadly, “climate smart agriculture”.
So like the aviation industry, for “emissions intensity” read “efficiency”. More efficient but more capacity for doing it!
Unfortunately the difference is that the meat and dairy industries have persuaded the FAO to do this too so we all get figures that are skewed and only a small proportion of the population is even aware that meat and dairy contribute to emissions, particularly big meat and big dairy.
On this topic there is nothing better than referring to Beef and Lamb New Zealand website itself from which I quote:-
How much red meat are Kiwis currently eating? Based on working estimates, New Zealanders currently eat (carcass weight equivalent) about: 17.2kg beef, 5kg lamb and 0.7kg mutton per capita. In addition, 23.9kg pork and 47.8kg chicken per capita (2017-18 BLNZ Ltd Economic Service) resulting in a total red meat intake 46.8kg (beef + lamb/mutton + pork)
In the last 10 years to 2017-18, per capita figures have changed:
Beef down 38%
Lamb down 45%
Mutton down 72%
Overall reduction of beef/lamb/mutton = 42%
Pork up 15%
Poultry up 40%
Overall reduction all meats = 0%
I find this interesting that even though we reduce our red meat, we are so obsessed with getting our protein from animals that we increase pork and poultry (note they don’t mention fish).
I also find interesting the fact that they have classified pork as red meat, which I don’t think is the public perception. I may be wrong.
So we each eat 46.8kg from red meat and 47.8 kg from chicken or 94.6kg meat.
I am not sure this tallies with the world figures quoted for our country. And all this without dairy consumption to add to our animal protein.
In New Zealand we all know that agricultural emissions are the second biggest sector at 48%. We have a big beef and dairy sector, the latter having expanded into dry regions once irrigation became available. These areas are entirely unsuitable for dairy conversions.
Since the New Zealand government announced in October 2019 that it would not include farm emissions in the Emissions Trading Scheme just yet, I have been wondering how farmers will adapt during this initial trial period. The scheme aims to cut emissions by charging companies a price for each unit of greenhouse gas produced and farmers will be exempt till 2025 while they adapt. Under the scheme, farmers would be responsible for collecting data, reporting it, and paying directly for emissions. If the government doesn’t think they are moving fast enough they will legislate earlier.
People seem to think it is just their farm practices that will have to change. So is it just their farm practices or is it something else as well?
In a significant study by a 37 experts-strong EAT-Lancet commission called Food in the Anthropocene, published in The Lancet in January 2019, there is this astounding statement: “We estimated that changes in food production practices could reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050 by about 10%, whereas increased consumption of plant-based diets could reduce emissions by up to 80%.” Well, it looks like experts from our agricultural colleges might quibble with that factor, but nonetheless the potential is huge. Even the 11,000 scientists who recently declared a climate emergency wanted us to eat less meat and dairy.
So while we may be the first country in the world to include agriculture in our emissions pricing scheme, the future is in the hands of farmers. The government wants methane emissions down 10% by 2025.
And of course it’s not just methane emissions that have to come down. According to Professor James Renwick (email 2 Nov 2019) “The key thing to do is limit CO2 concentrations as they decide the long-term change in climate. How important methane reductions are depends on what’s happening with CO2 concentrations.
Reducing methane emissions will buy us decreases in methane concentrations over just a few years, but it’s pretty much wasted effort if we continue to let CO2 continue to build up.”
The main agricultural greenhouse gases (GHG) are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is produced in the rumen of the cows by certain microbes and are naturally present in all ruminant animals. … Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is emitted from soil when urine, faeces and fertilisers are broken down by microbes in the soil.
The EAT-Lancet study, which had 357 references at the end, and was done by an international team of experts from health, agriculture, climate change and politics, puts methane as 56 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas as carbon dioxide over a 20 year period and nitrous oxide as 280 times as powerful. (It also recommended that protein be just 10% of the daily calories)
It’s fairly horrifying to find that over a period of 55 years (1961-2016) there has been a worldwide 89% increase in agricultural emissions (not CO2). That is methane and nitrous oxide mostly. But on that same climatewatchdata site, we have agricultural emissions being only 11.5% of total emissions. That, of all estimates, is the lowest, the highest being from the consultants that Worldwatch commissioned in 2009, at 51%. The FAO in 2006 estimated 18% and revised that down later to 14%. Goodland, one of the Worldwatch Institute’s consultants noted that by then FAO had ‘partnered with international meat, dairy and egg organisations so was no longer objective.’
Wise Response, an environmental organisation comprised mainly of academics, said in their submission on agricultural emissions, “While CO2 is the dominant greenhouse gas, keeping global warming less than 2°C or 1.5°C clearly requires control of all greenhouse gases and in particular of methane (CH4) that is the second most significant. As noted in a recent and very detailed comparison of different pathways consistent with the 1.5°C target, “early mitigation of CH4 emissions would significantly increase the feasibility of stabilising global warming below 1.5 °C, alongside having co-benefits for human and ecosystem health”.
They also state that because of New Zealand’s knowledge from agricultural universities to date, “In terms of dairy emissions reduction, anything up to 24% can be done without any drop in farm profitability (i.e. zero marginal cost of abatement). ”
The good thing about this is this. The Interim Climate Change Committee said, “Innovation in the agricultural sector has reduced its emissions intensity (emissions per unit product) by about 20% over the last 25 years. But overall agricultural emissions have increased 13.5% since 1990. The improvements farmers have made have helped keep agricultural emissions relatively stable since 2012”
While Wise Response referred briefly to the benefits of eating less meat and dairy, the sad thing is that as the Western world reduces its meat intake, the developing world is increasing. And that means China and India. Our exports are going increasingly to China and in fact China is New Zealand’s top market for red meat now. It’s just no good for global emissions for a few developed countries to reduce meat and dairy products because they have heard the health message and the environment message. China and all the other developing countries must stop their demand for animal products.
And that is something we can’t control. If we grew less beef and dairy, what would we replace our exports with? A tiny movement is detectable I believe which is reported on by Country Calendar on TVOne and by Country Life from RNZ of farmers experimenting with growing pumpkin seeds and hazelnuts as well.
Of late the Opposition has been pointing out that business confidence is declining. NZIER had released a survey saying business confidence is at a seven year low. The Government has been quick to dismiss it as a political bias by business – as something they always opine when a Labour Government comes in. And the Asian stockmarkets are currently looking wobbly. RNZ’s long term economic commentator Patrick O’Meara talked of softer demands, slower growth, lower investment intentions. He talked of the looming US-China trade war has attributed that to the fact that on Saturday Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods begin. It may also affect markets in Europe, Canada and Mexico.
The trend started well before Trump appeared.
But because of declining net energy, worrying trends happened decades before Trump’s tariffs kicked in. Let me explain declining net energy. Whereas in the mid 20th century if you spent one unit of energy to extract oil, you would get 100 units of energy back, nowadays because it takes more energy to extract fossil fuels from deep sea wells and from fracking, the energy left for the economy is progressively declining. Since net energy available is closely correlated with economic growth we would expect economic growth to decline. Moreover productivity will decline. Productivity is an economic measure of output per unit of input and input includes energy.
British investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed has written a great article explaining the gradual decline of both economic growth and productivity in the UK economy. He concludes, “In other words, trying to keep the growth machine growing when the machine itself is running out of steam is precisely the problem — the challenge is to move into a new economic model entirely.”
He quotes from a piece of research for the government by Professor Tim Jackson giving graphs of declining economic growth and productivity. Jackson says, “In 1996, the trend rate of growth in the global GDP was 5.5%. By 2016 it was little more than 2.5%”. From 1971-2016 productivity growth dropped from over 3% to just 1%. We must have similar graphs in New Zealand.
Economist Michael Reddell says on his website “Over the last five years there has been only about 1.5 per cent productivity growth in total.”
Ahmed himself is well ahead of others in the way he puts together and explains the connection between many serious global issues –fossil fuel depletion, climate change, finance, geopolitics, terrorism, food security, political instability.
Trump is just a symptom
Ahmed wrote on Inauguration Day 2017 that “Trump is not the problem. Trump is merely one symptom of a deeper systemic crisis. His emergence signals a fundamental and accelerating shift within a global geopolitical and domestic American political order which is breaking down.” He talked of the elephant in the room being the global net energy decline that drives all this.
Less than a month later he penned a chilling analysis of Trump’s regime. Half of them are now gone, having resigned or been fired by Trump. He grouped them under five headings – money monsters, fossil fuel freaks, black ops brigade, Ku Klux Klan and the guru gang – saying that was the perfect combination required to keep the old model working. Business as Usual must proceed. Drill baby drill. Increase funding for the military. If things look bad financially try riskier and riskier financial instruments.
Never before has there been such an environmental crisis where our emissions are making our habitat more and more inhospitable with floods, fires, droughts and the accompanying food insecurity. Never before have we seen governments like ours desperate to solve child poverty throwing money at them. We have even got a superannuitants winter energy payment. Yet homelessness and poverty continue.
The tragedy is that while the current government has its heart in the right place – to end poverty and preserve our environment – it is hamstrung. It is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Political instability is becoming inevitable. Will New Zealanders after the hope of Jacinda Ardern be doomed to see in a Trump like government within five years? Nigel Farage is coming to our country soon. If we don’t find a new economic model that is not dependent on growth, we will come nowhere near a just, sustainable economy. That is the tragedy.
I was surprised when I played it today how animated I sounded. Now I need to finish promoting this book and get on with writing the next one, probably entitled Emergency with a subtitle about the need to have a climate currency and how it could be applied.
Climate change groups were noticeably absent from the recent public discussion about the rising price of petrol. Nobody was saying publicly that if we are to turn emissions around, we have to make it more expensive to drive. Not the Greens, not Generation Zero or 350.0rg. Nobody. It had been a unanimous outcry of pain against high petrol prices. Why? Surely lower petrol prices would clog up our roads, get people off public transport and adversely impact our emissions?
Here was a discussion about how the margins had increased in Wellington and the South Island yet nobody had said we should drive less so use petrol and reduce our carbon footprint. Nobody came out with a comment that the oil companies have a growing debt burden because it is getting more and more uneconomic to get oil out of the ground, so it is not surprising. They have been binging on debt and are struggling to pay dividends and find new barrels. The big four doubled their net debt between 2014-2016.
The public debate was started by Judith Collins the Minister of Energy and Resources after a report came out, and Labour’s Stuart Nash praised her for ordering the report. Labour’s Stuart Nash praised her for ordering the report.
So how important is petrol to us? The average Kiwi family spends $42.30 a week on petrol – only $8 less than their average weekly spend on meat, fruit and veggies. That is mighty close. It won’t take much for petrol to be a bigger part of the budget than food. And to complicate it, when petrol costs rise food costs mostly get passed on to us.
But then I thought of the implications. The gross profit margin on fuel at the pump had doubled to about 30 cents a litre in Wellington and the South Island over the past four years and gone up by 5c a litre elsewhere. It has something to do with Gull only selling petrol north of Levin, but it is more than that.
The petrol retailers Z Energy, BP, Mobil, Caltex and Gull all defended their positions. Maybe the companies are suffering from their growing debt burden so increasing their margins are the only way to stay solvent.
Ten years ago when many environmentalists were involved with peak oil we would argue that the price of oil will one day be over $100 a barrel. It hasn’t turned out that way because we didn’t factor in debt or falling interest rates. As actuary Gail Tverberg says, the economy was far more complex than the original model assumes. “When interest rates fall, this tends to allow oil prices to rise, and thus allows increased production. This postpones the Peak Oil crisis, but makes the ultimate crisis worse.”
We all remember that the economy slowed right down when the price of oil spiked in 2008. That showed us how critical the price of oil is. High prices on energy products ripple through the economy is many different ways. Just thinking about the price of petrol gives a misleading impression. Tverberg says, “Because interest rates, debt, wages, and oil prices (and, in fact, commodity prices of all kinds) are linked, the system is much more complex than what most early modellers assumed was the case.”
Not all of us can get a handle on the huge complexity of it all and I am no exception. But I know Tverberg believes the price of oil will not rise beyond about $50 a barrel because consumers can’t afford it.
Environmental commentators are faced with several problems. First they are unlikely to have an understanding of the complexity of the peak oil problem and secondly because they know that saying petrol prices should rise (through increased taxes) will be unpopular. The petrol price components vary.
What should happen of course for climate change purposes is for the Government to increase taxes on petrol, diesel etc. The fact that the oil companies have been the villain has excused the government for inaction. Now we can cry together that the oil companies are a greedy, conniving cartel. I am not sure that does much to reverse climate change trends.
Back in 2015 the IMF issued a warning that permanently low fossil fuels are choking off investment in renewable sources of energy and hindering the fight against climate change. A year later after a big study, the World Bank chimed in.