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.
When citizens of the United States buy toys produced in China, they can be counted as part of China’s emissions or as part of the U.S.’s emissions. The same situation exists in many Western countries with hollowed-out industrial bases, or that import a great deal of what they consume. What probably makes most sense is to count the emissions where they are consumed. (What makes the most sense is a carbon tax, but that is not on anyone’s current political agenda.)
In agriculture, “indirect land-use changes” (ILUC) come into play. Counting ILUC means, for example, that when land that used to be forest in Indonesia is planted with a crop that results in carbon fluxes into the atmosphere, and when that crop is harvested and exported to a Western country, those emissions should be part of that country’s emissions tally.
Most estimates of food production’s contribution to the UK’s total climate emissions have put it at around 20 percent. Some claim it would be possible to reduce that 20 percent number by up to 70 percent with the right combination of remedial measures: shortening supply chains, using less energy-intensive production practices, using less herbicides and less pesticides, and cutting down on the country’s beef production, a notorious source of CO2 emissions, since beef consume so much petroleum-production-based corn and various other grains with enormous carbon footprints.
But these estimates have not properly accounted for ILUC, new studies show.
The UK only produces around 60 percent of the food that it annually consumes. Indeed, the situation is only worsening. As New Economics Foundation researchers comment,
“Our current self-sufficiency … would still appear to be below what it was 40 years ago.”
So that means there’s all the more reason to assess what the effect of UK consumption patterns are on other countries’ ecologies — if they convert virgin forest to sugarcane plantations, if massive corn or rice fields, grown as monocultures on input-intensive plantations, leach carbon from soils that had previously had negative carbon fluxes, pulling CO2 from the atmosphere, and are now major carbon emitters.
A recent World Wildlife Foundation and Network for Food and Climate Research study argues that when one includes such tallies in the total, one moves from a 20 percent figure for the food chain’s contribution to the UK’s total CO2 emissions to something more like 30 percent. As the study’s authors note,
"The inclusion of CO2 emissions resulting from UK food-consumption induced land use change increases food’s footprint by 50 percent."
The study breaks down total CO2 emissions with the goal of reducing food-chain-based CO2 emissions 70 percent below their current levels.
“Supply-chain emissions,” which exclude emissions related to indirect land-use changes, come mostly from animals and thus from the consumption of animal products: 58 percent. Two-thirds of the total emissions occur inside the United Kingdom, and 84 percent occur within Europe.
The authors apply two methods of reducing emissions in their models. One focuses on supply, and within that framework, they find that a reduction of at least 70 percent “may be possible” without significant changes in British consumption patterns. But that 70 percent figure doesn’t account for ILUC.
When ILUC is taken into account, the 70 percent figure, easily reached in the hypothetical, becomes impossible, because when indirect land use changes are taken into account, over 50 percent of UK CO2 emissions occur outside of the UK. You can’t control CO2 emissions through supply-chain-based command-and-control measures when you’ve lost control over your own supply chain.
In order to have an effect on the carbon emissions, direct demand-side intervention is necessary.
The report suggests that targeted top-down “central government policy” can have an effect on deforestation rates and indirect-land-use-changes, citing Brazilian governmental policies as a major example.
But such measures have only slowed deforestation, not stopped it, and until interference in markets forces policy changes — or command measures simply bar deforestation with the force of the state behind them — it’s hard to expect positive change.
Refreshingly, the report also discusses carbon sequestration in soil as an important path to proceed upon and pursue.
The authors, for example, advocate a system of no-till farming, which the Rodale Institute has practiced a variant of with excellent results (although the study’s authors cite countervailing evidence). They also recommend, in line with numerous studies, a reduction in ruminant consumption, which would give a 15 percent reduction in supply-chain-based emissions. However, this path, while at least theoretically the most straightforward, also presents massive problems. As the authors note,
"The main dietary changes examined would involve substantial social change. This is quite likely to be the largest barrier. Meat, milk and eggs have been part of our diet for centuries. While a substantial minority actively embrace a meat free or vegan diet, most consumers will continue to consume livestock products.’
The implied question is, are people ready to eat differently? And the corollary is, if they’re not, how can one encourage them to, without coercion and without provoking social unrest?
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(Photo: Greenpeace/Rodrigo Baleia; Chart: Mongabay.com)