Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Consume more, conserve more: sorry, but we just can’t do both

Economic growth is tearing the planet apart, and new research suggests that it can’t be reconciled with sustainability

George Monbiot in The Guardian

We can have it all: that is the promise of our age. We can own every gadget we are capable of imagining – and quite a few that we are not. We can live like monarchs without compromising the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. The promise that makes all this possible is that as economies develop, they become more efficient in their use of resources. In other words, they decouple.

There are two kinds of decoupling: relative and absolute. Relative decoupling means using less stuff with every unit of economic growth; absolute decoupling means a total reduction in the use of resources, even though the economy continues to grow. Almost all economists believe that decoupling – relative or absolute – is an inexorable feature of economic growth.

On this notion rests the concept of sustainable development. It sits at the heart of the climate talks in Paris next month and of every other summit on environmental issues. But it appears to be unfounded.

A paper published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proposes that even the relative decoupling we claim to have achieved is an artefact of false accounting. It points out that governments and economists have measured our impacts in a way that seems irrational.

Here’s how the false accounting works. It takes the raw materials we extract in our own countries, adds them to our imports of stuff from other countries, then subtracts our exports, to end up with something called “domestic material consumption”. But by measuring only the products shifted from one nation to another, rather than the raw materials needed to create those products, it greatly underestimates the total use of resources by the rich nations.

For instance, if ores are mined and processed at home, these raw materials, as well as the machinery and infrastructure used to make finished metal, are included in the domestic material consumption accounts. But if we buy a metal product from abroad, only the weight of the metal is counted. So as mining and manufacturing shift from countries such as the UK and the US to countries like China and India, the rich nations appear to be using fewer resources. A more rational measure, called the material footprint, includes all the raw materials an economy uses, wherever they happen to be extracted. When these are taken into account, the apparent improvements in efficiency disappear.

Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant, in Belchatow, Poland. ‘New analysis suggests that in the EU, the US, Japan and the other rich nations, there have been ‘no improvements in resource productivity at all’.’ Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

In the UK, for instance, the absolute decoupling that the domestic material consumption accounts appear to show is replaced with an entirely different chart. Not only is there no absolute decoupling; there is no relative decoupling either. In fact, until the financial crisis in 2007, the graph was heading in the opposite direction: even relative to the rise in our gross domestic product, our economy was becoming less efficient in its use of materials. Against all predictions, a recoupling was taking place.

While the OECD has claimed that the richest countries have halved the intensity with which they use resources, the new analysis suggests that in the EU, the US, Japan and the other rich nations, there have been “no improvements in resource productivity at all”. This is astonishing news. It appears to makes a nonsense of everything we have been told about the trajectory of our environmental impacts.

I sent the paper to one of Britain’s leading thinkers on this issue, Chris Goodall, who has argued that the UK appears to have reached “peak stuff”: in other words, there has been a total reduction in our use of resources, otherwise known as absolute decoupling. What did he think?

To his great credit, he responded that “broadly, of course, they are right”, even though the new analysis appears to undermine the case he has made. He did have some reservations, however, particularly about the way in which the impacts of construction are calculated. I also consulted the country’s leading academic expert on the subject, Professor John Barrett. He told me that he and his colleagues had conducted a similar analysis, in this case of the UK’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, “and we find a similar pattern”. One of his papers reveals that while the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions officially fell by 194m tonnes between 1990 and 2012, this apparent reduction is more than cancelled out by the CO2 we commission through buying stuff from abroad. This rose by 280m tonnes in the same period.

Dozens of other papers come to similar conclusions. For instance, a report published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that with every doubling of income, a country needs a third more land and ocean to support its economy because of the rise in its consumption of animal products. A recent paper in the journal Resources found that the global consumption of materials has risen by 94% over 30 years, and has accelerated since 2000. “For the past 10 years, not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.”

We can persuade ourselves that we are living on thin air, floating through a weightless economy, as gullible futurologists predicted in the 1990s. But it’s an illusion, created by the irrational accounting of our environmental impacts. This illusion permits an apparent reconciliation of incompatible policies.

Governments urge us both to consume more and to conserve more. We mustextract more fossil fuel from the ground, but burn less of it. We should reduce, reuse and recycle the stuff that enters our homes, and at the same time increase, discard and replace it. How else can the consumer economy grow? We should eat less meat to protect the living planet, and eat more meat to boost the farming industry. These policies are irreconcilable. The new analyses suggest that economic growth is the problem, regardless of whether the word sustainable is bolted to the front of it.

It’s not just that we don’t address this contradiction; scarcely anyone dares even name it. It’s as if the issue is too big, too frightening to contemplate. We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

There’s a population crisis all right. But probably not the one you think

While all eyes are on human numbers, it’s the rise in farm animals that is laying the planet waste

‘By 2050 the world’s living systems will have to support about 120m tonnes of extra humans, and 400m tonnes of extra farm animals.’ Illustration by Nate Kitch

 in The Guardian

This column is about the population crisis. About the breeding that’s laying waste the world’s living systems. But it’s probably not the population crisis you’re thinking of. This is about another one, that we seem to find almost impossible to discuss.

You’ll hear a lot about population in the next three weeks, as the Paris climate summit approaches. Across the airwaves and on the comment threads it will invariably be described as “the elephant in the room”. When people are not using their own words, it means that they are not thinking their own thoughts. Ten thousand voices each ask why no one is talking about it. The growth in human numbers, they say, is our foremost environmental threat.

At their best, population campaigners seek to extend women’s reproductive choices. Some 225 million women have an unmet need for contraception. If this need were answered, the impact on population growth would be significant, though not decisive: the annual growth rate of 83 million would be reduced to 62 million. But contraception is rarely limited only by the physical availability of contraceptives. In most cases it’s about power: women are denied control of their wombs. The social transformations that they need are wider and deeper than donations from the other side of the world are likely to achieve.

At their worst, population campaigners seek to shift the blame from their own environmental impacts. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many post-reproductive white men are obsessed with human population growth, as it’s about the only environmental problem of which they can wash their hands. Nor, I believe, is it a coincidence that of all such topics this is the least tractable. When there is almost nothing to be done, there is no requirement to act.

Such is the momentum behind population growth, an analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered, that were every government to adopt the one-child policy China has just abandoned, there would still be as many people on Earth at the end of this century as there are today. If 2 billion people were wiped out by a catastrophe mid-century, the planet would still hold a billion more by 2100 than it does now.

If we want to reduce our impacts this century, the paper concludes, it is consumption we must address. Population growth is outpaced by the growth in our consumption of almost all resources. There is enough to meet everyone’s need, even in a world of 10 billion people. There is not enough to meet everyone’s greed, even in a world of 2 billion people.

So let’s turn to a population crisis over which we do have some influence. I’m talking about the growth in livestock numbers. Human numbers are rising at roughly 1.2% a year, while livestock numbers are rising at around 2.4% a year. By 2050 the world’s living systems will have to support about 120m tonnes of extra humans, and 400m tonnes of extra farm animals.

Raising these animals already uses three-quarters of the world’s agricultural land.A third of our cereal crops are used to feed livestock: this may rise to roughly half by 2050. More people will starve as a result, because the poor rely mainly on grain for their subsistence, and diverting it to livestock raises the price. And now the grain that farm animals consume is being supplemented by oil crops, particularly soya, for which the forests and savannahs of South America are being cleared at shocking rates.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but were we to eat soya rather than meat, the clearance of natural vegetation required to supply us with the same amount of protein would decline by 94%. Producing protein from chickens requires three times as much land as protein from soybeans. Pork needs nine times, beef 32 times.

A recent paper in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggests that our consumption of meat is likely to be “the leading cause of modern species extinctions”. Not only is livestock farming the major reason for habitat destruction and the killing of predators, but its waste products are overwhelming the world’s capacity to absorb them. Factory farms in the US generate 13 times as much sewage as the human population does. The dairy farms in Tulare County, California, produce five times as much as New York City.

Freshwater life is being wiped out across the world by farm manure. In England the system designed to protect us from the tide of slurry has comprehensively broken down. Dead zones now extend from many coasts, as farm sewage erases ocean life across thousands of square kilometres.

Livestock farming creates around 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions: slightly more than the output of the world’s cars, lorries, buses, trains, ships and planes. If you eat soya, your emissions per unit of protein are 20 times lower than eating pork or chicken, and 150 times lower than eating beef.

So why is hardly anyone talking about the cow, pig, sheep and chicken in the room? Why are there no government campaigns to reduce the consumption of animal products, just as they sometimes discourage our excessive use of electricity?

A factory farm in Missouri, USA. ‘Why is hardly anyone talking about the cow, pig, sheep and chicken in the room?’ Photograph: Daniel Pepper/Getty Images

A survey by the Royal Institute of International Affairs found that people are not unwilling to change diets once they become aware of the problem, but that many have no idea that livestock farming damages the living world.

It’s not as if eating less meat and dairy will harm us. If we did as our doctors advise, our environmental impacts would decline in step with heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer. British people eat, on average, slightly more than their bodyweight in meat every year, while Americans consume another 50%: wildly more, in both cases, than is good for us or the rest of life on Earth.

But while plenty in the rich world are happy to discuss the dangers of brown people reproducing, the other population crisis scarcely crosses the threshold of perception. Livestock numbers present a direct moral challenge, as in this case we have agency. Hence the pregnant silence.

Road to Islamic State was paved by America’s Faustian bargain with Saudi Wahhabism

Sameer Arshad in Times of India

In the aftermath of the Paris carnage, US president Barack Obama led the usual counterproductive finger-pointing telling Muslims to ask themselves how extremist ideologies took root. Obama’s point is perhaps valid, but that is only a part of the problem. The West needs to answer far more serious questions. Besides waging destabilising, unjust wars and propping up despotic regimes in the Muslim world, it bears responsibility for planting cancer, which Daesh or the so-called Islamic State (IS) is a symptom of, in the process.
It is unfair to collectively blame Muslims for IS since they are and have been the worst victims of the mindless violence of the creed it represents for three centuries. Daesh has its roots in 18th century preacher Abd-al-Wahhab’s doctrine, which rejected Islamic pluralism enshrined in the Quran and declared war on Muslims other than Salafis.
The Ottoman Empire, which represented contemporary mainstream Muslims, resisted this challenge tooth and nail. It in fact coined the term Wahhabism to describe Wahhab’s creed and to underline it fell outside Islam’s pale. Thanks to the West’s myopic foreign policy goals and lust for oil, the creed has come a long way since the 18th century when even Wahhab’s brother and father rejected his doctrine. The creed has been defined mainly by hostility towards Islamic mysticism and seeking death for ‘deviant’ Muslims.
Beyond his family, Wahhab’s teaching found few takers. The vandalism inspired by him infuriated neighbouring tribes, who forced Wahhab to take refuge in Dariyya after threatening to kill him. Wahhab’s flight proved the turning point in his career as Dariyya chieftain Muhammad ibn Saud got into an irrevocable alliance with the preacher in 1747, under which he pledged his family would promote Wahhabism. It laid the foundation for Saudi Arabia on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1932.
By the time Wahhab died in 1792 his followers had become lethal. They declared a war on mainstream Islamic sects by branding them polytheists. Taking ‘deviant’ Muslim lives was justified along with seizure of their properties and enslaving their women and children. This prompted the Mecca qadi to denounce Wahhabis as non-Muslims and bar them from entering Islam’s holiest city. The Ottomans condemned Wahhabis as Kharjites (defectors) and banned them from performing Hajj.
But the Saudis have honoured their pact with Wahhab by using petrodollars to export his creed through a cultural offensive which has undermined Islamic pluralism, triggered fratricidal sectarian conflict and birthed terrorist groups like al-Qaida and IS. The US has been complicit as the principal backer of Saudi Arabia.
This has helped America satiate its thirst for oil and use Wahhabi doctrine for short term goals like defeating USSR in Afghanistan. In the 1970s, the US used the Saudi alliance to counter Egyptian pan-Arab socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser and post-revolution Iran. In the process it often patronised the nihilistic forces that have now turned their guns on the West.

Eating less meat key to curbing climate change

People are more likely to back policies to curb meat eating for health and climate reasons, Chatham House survey suggests


Meat production produces 15% of all greenhouse gases. Photograph: Alamy

Damian Carrington in The Guardian

Taxing meat to simultaneously tackle climate change and improve global health would be far less unpalatable than governments think, according to new research.

Meat production produces 15% of all greenhouse gases – more than all cars, trains, planes and ships combined – and halting global warming appears near impossible unless the world’s fast growing appetite for meat is addressed.

The new analysis says this could be done through taxes, increasing vegetarian food in schools, hospitals and the armed forces and cutting subsidies to livestock farmers, all supported by public information campaigns.

The research, from the international affairs thinktank Chatham House and Glasgow University, involved surveys and focus groups in 12 countries and found that even measures restricting peoples’ behaviour could be accepted if seen as in the public interest, as was seen with smoking bans.

“Governments are ignoring what should be a hugely appealing, win-win policy,” said lead author Laura Wellesley, at Chatham House.

“The idea that interventions like this are too politically sensitive and too difficult to implement is unjustified. Our focus groups show people expect governments to lead action on issues that are for the global good. Our research indicates any backlash to unpopular policies would likely be short-lived as long as the rationale for action was strong.”

Increasing appetite for meat and population growth in developing countries mean global meat consumption is on track to increase 75% by 2050, which would make it virtually impossible to keep global warming below the internationally-agreed limit of 2C.

Meat consumption is already well above healthy levels in developed nations and growing fast in other countries, and is linked to rising rates of heart disease and cancer. To get to healthy levels, US citizens would need to cut the meat they eat by two-thirds, those in the UK by a half and those in China by a third.

If the world’s population cuts to healthy levels of meat consumption – about 70g per day – it would reduce carbon emissions by an amount equivalent to annual output of the US, the world’s second biggest polluter.

The UN climate change summit begins in Paris on 30 November, where the world’s nations aim to seal a deal to tackle climate change.

Most countries have already submitted pledges to cut their emissions, but they are not enough to keep warming below dangerous levels. Cutting meat eating to healthy levels would make up a quarter of that shortfall and is very low cost way of curbing emissions, according to the report, but action to achieve this is non-existent.

Previous calls to cut meat consumption, from the chief of the UN’s climate science panel and the economist Lord Stern, or to tax it, have been both rare and controversial.

“We are not in any way advocating for global vegetarianism,” said Wellesley. “We can see massive changes [to emissions] from just converging around healthy levels of meat eating.” She said raising awareness of the impact on the climate from meat production was the first step, but was unlikely to shift diets by itself.

“The level of awareness is very low, indeed in China it is almost non-existent,” said Catherine Happer, at Glasgow University. She said people in the 36 focus groups viewed meat taxes as the most effective, if unpopular, but that cutting subsidies for meat production was seen as both effective and popular.

“An awful lot of people were surprised that there were subsidies at all,” she said. “They felt, particularly in the US, that governments had propped up a very unhealthy food market.” Livestock subsidies in the 34 OECD nations alone were $53bn in 2013, including an average of $190 per cow. People also said any government action must avoid disadvantaging poorer citizens.

Prof Greg Philo, also at Glasgow University, said the key was “creating a new public understanding that industrial production of meat is not only dangerous to your own health but to human ecology as a whole.”

Animal rights organisation Peta’s climate message in Munich, Germany, aims to raise awareness of the link between climate change and the consumption of meat. Photograph: Mathias Balk/Alamy Stock Photo

Clare Oxborrow, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Meat consumption can no longer be ignored in the climate debate – shifting diets to less meat and more plant proteins will be crucial. The government must stop using consumer backlash as an excuse for inaction”.

The reductions mapped out by the report would not reduce the size of the global meat industry, the researchers said, because rising population is pushing up demand, but it would significantly slow its growth.

They also said efforts to make meat production greener could cut emissions by up to a third, but that this would be swamped by growing demand if action was not taken. Meat eating has plateaued in recent years in richer nations, but is growing fast in developing countries.

Previous studies have calculated that, on current trends, agricultural emissions will take up the entire world’s carbon budget by 2050, meaning every other sector, including energy, industry and transport, would have to be zero carbon, a scenario described as “impossible”.

Meat production produces greenhouse gases via the methane emitted by livestock, the cutting down of forests for pasture, the production of fertiliser for feed crops and the energy and transport used by farmers. Beef is responsible for far higher emissions than chicken or pork.

None of the report’s authors are vegetarians, but Rob Bailey, from Chatham House, said: “Having worked on this project, I have drastically reduced my meat consumption – I now eat it once a month.”