Opinion: Climate change – what can you and I do and the Government won’t?

Now that the UK’s 1400 top scientists have spoken (“Climate Change, A summary of the science” from the Royal Society), there’s no longer any doubt that human activity is a significant cause of the steady warming of the planet over the last hundred years. So, unless we change our habits, we face an increasingly unstable climate, with rising sea levels and worsening floods and droughts leading to major disruption to food production. With the predicted rise in world population from six to ten billion by 2050, it is clear that humanity is in serious trouble.

So with NASA data suggesting that 2010 was the warmest year on record, is the Coalition doing all it can? We can certainly applaud their bold strategy to meet our energy needs from renewables, nuclear power and carbon free fossil fuel, and so reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

But aviation, currently responsible for about 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, remains a major omission from the plan, especially as planes are entirely dependent on fossil fuels. Biofuels can’t be used on any scale because they compete with agriculture for scarce land, so exacerbating the food supply crisis.

If the Government is serious about climate change, it must now come out unequivocally against flying – recent changes to passenger tax and the start of the probably toothless EU Carbon Trading scheme in 2012 are unlikely to make much difference. We need a clear commitment to reducing flights from the UK – starting with an end to flights between UK cities and weekend shopping trips to the Continent. And Vince Cable must stop undermining Climate Secretary Chris Huhne by promoting tourism from China, unless the visitors are going to swim here.

After flying, the next target is beef, because cattle emit methane at both ends, and methane is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Worse, keeping cattle isn’t sustainable, with beef requiring six times as much water as rice per calorie of energy produced. We can feed ten billion vegetarians (just), but not ten billion meat eaters, so a major push from Government towards vegetarianism is now long overdue.

It’s clear that we are heading for serious food shortages (they’ve already started in some areas), brought on by the twin scourges of climate change and overpopulation. We as individuals can help by insulating our homes, minimising the use of fuel for transport, limiting family size, giving up flying and cutting down on meat. But the Coalition must now move on from its current relatively popular plans to prevent climate change, to tackling the equally vital but much trickier issues of aviation and meat, whatever the risks at the polls. And as voters, we must be right behind them when they do.

Donald Reid was Director of the Association for Public Health, 1993-1999 and leads on Climate Change for the UK Public Health Association.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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11 Comments

  • This is a really unimpressive, overly simplistic piece about a complex problem.

  • Simon McGrath 14th Feb '11 - 10:07pm
  • Nicholas Lane 15th Feb '11 - 12:47am

    This is perhaps the most ridiculous article I have read on LDV! Solutions to climate change offered here boil down to everyone becoming vegetarian, stopping flying and scrapping the overseas tourism market. Brilliant ideas – make everybody miserable, unable to travel very far and wreck an important part of our economy whilst doing it! You have to wonder what planet some policy wonks live on.

    The overriding issue relating to lowering carbon emissions is the consideration of methods of energy production in industrialised developing countries, or more relevant to the West, how these methods can be regulated and changed with the assent and consent of China, India, Brazil and others.

  • As a vegetarian who hasn’t flown in the last two years … this article is barking up the wrong tree.

    Flying and eating habits are exactly where it is more appropriate to make personal choices rather than have the government intervene: though I would support transparent standards on meat production and possibly bans or tariffs on beef originating from deforested areas.

    The two areas that we emphatically can and should make changes to are space heating and car use: we should introduce more stringent insulation requirements on new builds and also introduce a gradually rising standard of energy efficiency on professional premises (including rented accommodation) for which landlords and business owners are charged for non-compliance. Also encouraging the growth of infrastructure for electric vehicles and giving cashback to businesses and individuals who exchange petrol-powered cars would be a useful step.

    Your comments about biofuels are also inaccurate: algal-based biofuels do not compete with food production, nor do those that process agricultural or domestic waste products into fuel.

    Finally, 10 points if you can explain what a “carbon-free fossil fuel” is …

  • Paul McKeown 15th Feb '11 - 10:43pm

    The subject of climate change is too serious for this sort of article. The practical difficulties in changing our nation’s energy production to zero carbon sources are so great, that the politics are quite controversial. It is possible to convince people of the science and persuade them that a zero carbon economy is not only necessary, but a likely source of long term economic growth to boot. The dystopia portrayed in this article can succeed only in scaring the horses and weakening the political resolve to change our economy.

  • Donald Reid 16th Feb '11 - 5:03pm

    Response to comments on “Climate change – what can you and I do and the Government won’t?”

    Many thanks to all who sent in comments, especially as they make some good points, including one factual correction.

    Effects on voters and public opinion generally

    I agree with Simon McGrath that action to restrict flying and meat consumption will not be popular with voters, but I’m just a simple science graduate, not a politician nor a policy wonk as Nicholas Lane implies. Like most scientists who are concerned about this issue, I feel a duty to tell it like it is (though the truth is pretty awful).

    Paul Mckeown raises the serious issue that “dystopic” (I had to look that up) articles on topics as worrying as this could have the unintended effect of putting people off the whole subject. However, my experience from thirty years of anti-smoking campaigning was that while a few people did react like that, there was good evidence that the more you publicised the dangers, the fewer people smoked, though it took a long time for this to happen on a large scale. It was also obvious that politicians who agreed with you privately would do nothing until public opinion was favourable – which gradually happened under the relentless drip of anti smoking publicity.

    Becoming more Vegetarian

    Nicholas Lane and Simon McGrath are, quite rightly, opposed to compulsory conversion to a 100% vegetarian diet, but it’s not necessary for everyone to give up meat altogether, which is why I used the phrase “towards vegetarianism”. But it would be very helpful if the Government encouraged us all to move in the direction of “meat as a treat”, so that we came to eat meat and fish once a week each, say, but stuck to fruit and veg otherwise. Descended as we are from hunter gatherers, this is the diet we are actually designed for biologically, so there are also benefits to health.

    I agree with Ed’s helpful comments that vegetarianism and changing our habits involve individual choices, but I can’t see why governments can’t give us a helpful push e.g. by ministers leading the way with their own families.

    Jedibeeftrix asks for the evidence for the quote: “We can feed ten billion vegetarians (just), but not ten billion meat eaters”. I can’t find the source, though I have heard it many times. However if you look up the FAO website, you will find the basic assumptions behind it laid out very clearly e.g.

    • World population is expected to increase by one third by 2050 to about ten billion, so we must find one third more productive land for growing food
    • But climate change will greatly reduce productivity by then, so we will need a large increase in productivity to compensate
    • The main reasons for eating food is to obtain energy – and it takes far more land to produce one calorie of energy from meat compared to plants, as grazing animals are very inefficient converters of energy
    • So to feed ten billion people, we must concentrate on producing staples such as wheat, rice, potatoes etc, rather than meat.

    Reducing flying

    It isn’t necessary either for flying to be stopped altogether but it must certainly be greatly reduced in the UK and other Western nations. The reason for this lies in the changing habits of the emerging nations, e.g. India, Brazil and China (thanks for the reference to flying in China, Simon). As their people grow richer, they will want to fly (and eat meat) as much we do. They will not take kindly to being told by us to do as we say, but not as we do. So the only way we can prevent the resulting huge increase in greenhouse gases is to reduce our own flying to their present level and then persuade them to join us in cutting down further. This is the “contract and converge” principle which forms the basis of international negotiations on climate change.

    Could planes fly sustainably on biofuels?

    Ed says that I was wrong to claim that biofuels compete with food for land – and he is right about algae based Biofuels, so thanks Ed, for pointing this out. But having checked this, I came across this excellent summary: http://bio-fuel-watch.blogspot.com/2010/01/aviation-algae-guardian-and-euractiv. This
    article points out that biofuels do not impact on the non carbon effects of flying
    and as the author says, sadly:

    “This is perhaps the main industrial sector where it is hard to imagine real breakthrough technologies coming through in the time frame required for making drastic carbon cuts”

    Finally
    A big thanks to Jason for his informative and supportive comments, and also to everyone else who wrote in. .

  • Donald Reid 17th Feb '11 - 5:43pm

    Jedibeeftrix, thanks for your constructive comments. My responses are below yours:
    • World population is expected to increase by one third by 2050 to about ten billion, so we must find one third more productive land for growing food
    That is a very Malthusian argument, and one that has been disproved time and time again, not least because of the inefficiency of farming techniques in many parts of the world, not least of which is Europe resulting from subsidies and anti-GM hysteria.
    Food shortage due to overpopulate and, I should add, rising living standards, have already begun. In 2008, Wal-Mart rationed rice to customers in California because countries which had previously exported rice, banning overseas sales due to rising demand. While this shortage was temporary, we can expect this to recur more frequently in future.
    And increases in world food prices have been regularly cited as a factor behind the current Middle Eastern riots.
    • But climate change will greatly reduce productivity by then, so we will need a large increase in productivity to compensate
    In some areas, whereas in other it will actually increase productivity, not the clear cut arguement it appears.
    Climate change might improve productivity in some cases but Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, said in 2008 that cereal production especially staples like rice and maize will decline by as much as 10% due to the warming. The problem is that higher temperatures affect flowering and setting of the seed.
    The other problem with climate change is its unpredictability so that events like the loss of 40% of the British pea crop due to floods in 2009 (or was it 2008, can’t remember) will be come more common.
    Our own Government Chief Scientist Prof John Beddington, forecasts a “perfect storm” by 2030 , when climate change and overpopulation together will result in serious food shortages.
    • The main reasons for eating food is to obtain energy – and it takes far more land to produce one calorie of energy from meat compared to plants, as grazing animals are very inefficient converters of energy
    True, but in the absence of evidence that the free-market cannot create enough food to feed 9 billion I will not sanction restrictions on meat farming or consumption.

    The market will be quite incapable of feeding 10 billion meat eaters but will instead concentrate , unless restricted, on the needs of the rich, so crowding out production of cheaper staples. The resulting social unrest will make the current riots seem like a Vicar’s tea party.
    • So to feed ten billion people, we must concentrate on producing staples such as wheat, rice, potatoes etc, rather than meat.
    I agree, we could certainly eat less, but lets show a little faith in human ingenuity before we go all proscriptive, it’s such an attractive human trait.
    You will still have to prise the steak from my cold dead hands!

    Your approach seems to be in effects, let’s carry on as usual because something’s bound to turn up. That seems very unlikely to most scientists engaged in studying this problem.

    And you clearly have a serious addiction to steak – do you need counseling to help you quit? (!)

    All the best,
    Donald Reid

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