In 2006, a landmark report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that livestock production contributes 18 percent to global carbon dioxide emissions — more than automobiles. Since then, meat production has been insistently and ringingly hammered, and the message has been loud and clear: eat less meat to cut your carbon footprint, slow deforestation and keep healthier.
Indeed, in the wake of the report, Japanese studies emerged comparing eating hamburgers to driving around for three hours while leaving on all the lights. Still other reports levied a pretty hefty ecological and economic tab on the consumption of beef — from Amazonian deforestation to food riots in the global South and starvation in the slums of Haiti.
But more recent work suggests that the question of consumption is inseparable from the question of production.
At Copenhagen and Cochabamba, world leaders argued about who gets to emit what. The differences of opinion mostly revolved around the question of whether it is most equitable to consider per-capita emissions, or a country's total emissions, and also the present burden of historical emissions.
If CO2 is measured absolutely, by nation-state, then China ranks first and is outpacing the rest of the world fast, with the United States second, and then Indonesia and Brazil, with a few others coming behind. If rankings are based on per-capita emissions, then Western European statelets and America lead the pack, and far, far, far behind them, the large developing states of the global South.
This argument among nations will continue in Cancun in December, at the next global climate meeting. The negotiation over CO2 pollution rights, though, is not merely about carbon dioxide. It is a discussion about national development and economic growth—which country, how fast, by what means.
And that's why a study published this month which offers new measuring tools and some unexpected global rankings provides a significant contribution to the global policy discussion.
Soils contain two thirds of the world’s terrestrial carbon reserves – far more than the forests which sit atop the soils – and their accelerating degradation is releasing CO2 into the atmosphere in a process that could spiral out of control.
Scientists call this process desertification, and the soils in Bolivia provide a stark case of this advancing problem: almost half the soil in the nation is being affected.
The final declaration adopted by the recently concluded World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba called for a reversal of the process of desertification.
When Paul Krugman weighs in on anything, people listen. Princeton professor, New York Times columnist, and more recently, Nobel Prize in Economics laureate, Krugman's C.V. shines unusually brightly even in the firmament he inhabits.
When he says, let's do something about climate change, people—pundits, politicians, powerful people—listen. This is good, because we’re running out of time. And when he says, in the pages of the NYT Sunday Magazine, that we can limit climate change through "drastic cuts" in CO2 emissions “without destroying our economy,” people listen too.
The latest attack on the IPCC’s credibility, following a widely publicized error about the rate of Himalayan glacier melt in its 2007 report, zeroes in on African agriculture and the report’s conclusion that climate change could reduce rain-fed North African production by up to 50 percent.
Britain’s Sunday Times trumpeted: “Africagate: top British scientist says UN panel is losing credibility,” and cited professor Chris Fields, an IPCC author, as saying “that he could find nothing in the report to support the claim.” Hundreds of news outlets pounced on the story. The Telegraph said the “report is disintegrating under closer examination.”
Stopping tropical deforestation is something that almost everyone can agree upon as a reasonable and intelligent way to reduce CO2 emissions. Trees absorb atmospheric CO2 and emit oxygen, acting as planetary lungs. Tropical rainforests are some of the largest stands of trees in existence.
So we know what we want to keep. The question is how to do so.
Discussions of climate change keep running head-long into a barrier: China, India, Brazil and the other countries of the global South need to develop.
No leader of an underdeveloped country will ever agree to a climate change proposal that will take away that country’s right to develop. This isn’t so odd. Try explaining to the Chinese government that because the United States and Western Europe flooded the atmosphere with CO2 by burning readily accessible cheap fossil fuel for 150 years, their citizens will have to live without a decent standard of living, while we imperiously assert that we won’t divert more than a smidgen of our government budget to clean energy development and will keep occupying the country’s freeways and streets with gas-guzzlers.
We often think — wrongly — of ecological systems as linear. Adding a certain amount of CO2 to the atmosphere means a certain amount of warming. Twice that amount, twice the warming. Losing 10 percent of a forest means 10 percent less forest. Twice that amount of deforestation means twenty percent less forest. Stuff like that.
But that’s not how ecological systems operate. They’re integrated. Their components rely on one another to function properly.
In 2004, Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan professor, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her Greenbelt Campaign. The forestry project has planted more than 30 million trees in its 32 years, stemming deforestation across swaths of Africa and helping 900,000 African women to have decent livelihoods tending to tree nurseries and planting trees.
Trees are undeniably good things. They draw CO2 from the atmosphere and store it physically as carbon in their structure. They improve water and air quality, and protect soil from erosion and, in turn, desertification. Particularly in tropical zones, continuous vegetative cover is the only way to prevent the destruction of the soil, since, as environmental historian Colin Duncan explains,
"In many tropical places, the meager soils also have some unfortunate geological characteristics. High laterite content renders some tropical soils into concrete-like surfaces in the event that the vegetation cover is removed and they are exposed to drier conditions. Such eventualities are practically irreversible."
Still, we should be absolutely clear that greenery is not a panacea for excess atmospheric CO2.
Sometimes tree-planting can ultimately have negative effects on net CO2 emissions. One example occurs when natural or old-growth forests are destroyed and commercial monoculture tree plantations replace them.
Agriculture is increasingly recognized as central to the issue of stopping and reversing anthropogenic global warming. Report after report confirms that food production and bio-fuel production, deforestation, land-use change and the conversion of savannah to pasture land contribute significantly to the world’s CO2 emissions.
But with all due respect to the Bjorn Lomborgs of the world, the “world’s” CO2 emissions aren’t the major impasse at global climate summits. Individual countries’ emissions are, meaning, which country gets to emit how much carbon.
Apportioning emissions rights means coming up with a fair, reasonable measurement system for assessing how much carbon each country emits. This isn’t so straightforward.