Monday, January 18, 2010

Meat & Methane

Last Monday's meeting of the BCSEA was billed as "Getting to Zero Carbon: What's Meat Got To Do With It?" but there was in the end little discussion of meat. Instead the speaker, Dr. Peter Carter, spent most of the time building the case for removing meat from our diets by updating us on climate change research.

According to the FAO report (Livestock's Long Shadow), meat production accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases. The World Watch Institute (in State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World) upped the figure to 50% (although it was pointed out that there were a great many errors in this report and many have discounted its findings).

A point made repeatedly was the urgency of the situation: even going to zero carbon right now will not stop the climactic damage, but zero carbon is the only way to slow it. Carbon trading (cap & trade) will not work; only a carbon tax will.

Carter's key observations on meat specifically were on a slide that identified three aspects of meat production which produced three different greenhouse gases:
  • Methane - CH4 - from livestock digestive processes;
  • Nitrous Oxide - N2O- from manure (and synthetic fertilizer used to produce feed);
  • Carbon Dioxide - CO2 - from the slaughter industry (with its demands on heat and hot water; CO2 gas may also be used to stun pigs before slaughter) and deforestation (to create cereal cropping to feed livestock)
We had some helpful refreshers on several of the greenhouse gases. Methane is one of the most damaging of greenhouse gases, causing 100% more heating than carbon dioxide, and lasting 12 years in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide has an atmospheric lifetime of approximately 120 years and has a heat-trapping effect which is about 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide's atmospheric lifetime is apparently very difficult to pin down because from the air it moves into the ocean (causing ocean warming and acidification which are at unprecedented levels of increase). He mentioned as well the enduring presence of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) (most commonly from refrigerants, solvents, and foam blowing agents) which are implicated in ozone layer depletion as well as climate change, and which also have lengthy lifespan (tens to hundreds of years depending on which source you consult).

Regarding the skeptics' assertion that global warming is a myth because of a decade's worth of low average temperatures, he pointed out that underlying this is a common mistake: confusing temperature with climate. The climate as a whole is warming despite a 10 year blip in temperatures; the ocean, which tempers climate, has incontrovertably continued to warm. (We'd also heard at an earlier BCSEA talk that although 10 year dips have been seen through the earth's history, dips of longer than 10 years have not. And were reminded that climate change is not a gentle, steady warming, but presents as a drastic climactic change that produces unpredictable and extreme weather, which we are seeing now.)

Another concern Carter raised was the release of greenhouse gases that had been stored within the earth and ocean. In the Arctic, massive methane deposits (four times more than is currently in the atmosphere) have been held in permafrost, which is of course at risk of melting. If/when this happens, global temperature rises would be accelerated at unpredictable rates. There is as well methane on the ocean floor, which is being released by global warming.

In conclusion... Carter's suggestion was to stop eating meat right now and forever. But he didn't have the time or space to say how to do that: what happens to the livestock currently out there on the hoof? An overnight global elimination of meat-eating is unthinkable; and what would we replace it with? Would we carry on clearing rainforest to grow GM soya for human consumption? And how would we alter our growing practices to avoid releasing more greenhouse gases?

The idea of global vegetarianism is an intriguing one but would call for a complete reconstruction of food and agricultural practices worldwide, which doesn't give nature its due either, since a new diet needs to be grown, harvested, processed and distributed.

Missing, too, was any analysis of the difference in emissions between industrial production vs. small-scale farms where animals are integrated into overall crop management as well as providing protein products (including the Duck-Rice project and Joel Salatin's ideas).

So, the talk was great for outlining the problem, but fell short on considered solutions. But certainly, it would not hurt those of us who have the power to act to reduce our meat consumption drastically while that solution is being formulated. And so here we are: a good day to celebrate with a Meatless (and Meat-Free) Monday!


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