By now, we're all aware of the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions on climate change. They - along with temperatures and sea levels - are rising, and, with the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that Earth is heading towards catastrophe, we're scrambling for solutions, from solar-powered homes to seaweed-stuffed cows.
But while hypothesising is indeed integral to problem solving, our tendency to tinker around the edges of our emissions problem - setting far-off targets and coming up with wild ways to mitigate the risks of our stubborn tendency to cling to the "old ways", instead of moving to abolish the most detrimental industries - is seeing us speed towards crisis.
Not all emissions are created equal. Sure, the introduction of any greenhouse gas into the atmosphere contributes to climate change, but different gases remain in the atmosphere for different lengths of time, and have different "total forcing effects" (the total amount of change in the incoming/outgoing radiation to Earth, and therefore temperature). These differences are important to note when brainstorming how to mitigate the effects of climate change in the most effective way.
For example, one tonne of emitted methane has the radiative forcing effect of 25 tonnes of CO2. The short-lived nature of methane in the atmosphere also means that to achieve rapid reductions in global warming rates within the next few decades, it's critical to include methane in our focus, not just CO2. Think about it this way: if we cut methane emissions by 50 per cent, we'll see most of that benefit in the next 10 years. But if we cut CO2 emissions by 50 per cent, half of it will still be in our atmosphere in 100 years.
As a scientist, I view the tactics proposed by the animal agriculture industry to reduce the emissions caused by Australia's farmed animals (like vaccinating cows, feeding them seaweed or, more strangely, potty training them) as similar to "clean coal" - they may provide a short-term benefit by reducing the industry's emissions, but they fail to address other problems.
Just as "clean coal" ignores air pollution, reducing methane output while breeding still more methane-producing animals ignores animal suffering, deforestation, and the increased risk of diseases (including zoonotic viruses) - all associated with animal agriculture. In addition, these bandaids serve only to prolong an industry which is fundamentally unsustainable.
Aside from the fact that 57 per cent of food-produced global greenhouse-gas emissions come from the production of animal-based foods (compared to 29 per cent from plant-based foods), animal agriculture requires energy, transport, and significant land-clearing. Some 56 per cent of Australian land is used for grazing, while just 3.5 per cent of land is used to grow plants for humans. Over a five-year period, 94 per cent of land clearing in Great Barrier Reef catchments was attributable to the beef industry.
As swathes of our bush are razed for meat, Australia should heed the warning of the Amazon rainforest: thanks to deforestation there (70 per cent of which is for cattle ranching) the "lungs of the Earth" now emit more CO2 than they absorb.
If you're wondering why meat's impact on the planet isn't as often discussed as coal's, it's largely because, as recently revealed by investigations outlet DeSmog, the global meat industry borrows tactics from tobacco companies to confuse consumers about its link to environmental damage - and leaders allow it.
When animal rights group PETA sent a crossword puzzle to leaders, urging them to "get a clue" about methane and meat production, the media had a chuckle, but I saw it as more than a stunt. Their point was that, just as we're transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, we must also transition from animal agriculture to plant-based agriculture, and it can no longer be ignored.
This Earth Day, of course we can (and must) each do more to help the Earth - starting by upgrading to a vegan diet. But leaders must also act, or risk setting our only home on fire.
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