More than 80 percent of biodiesel is made from vegetable oil (the rest is mostly animal fats). The soybean and canola oil that make up the majority of biodiesel is basically the same as the cooking oil you buy at the grocery store, while the corn and used cooking oils are inedible varieties generally used for animal feed and other purposes.
Using more oils and fats for fuel instead of food and animal feed has consequences for competing users of these products and for the global agricultural system. Of particular importance from a climate perspective is the relationship between rising biodiesel use in the United States and palm oil expansion in Southeast Asia, which is a major driver of deforestation and global warming pollution.
Figure 1 shows that palm oil itself is not a significant direct source of US biodiesel production. But there are important indirect links between how much biodiesel we use in the US and how quickly palm oil plantations expand in Indonesia or Malaysia. These connections can be understood by comparing the rise of biodiesel with ethanol, and by examining the sources of biodiesel one at a time.
Vegetable oils and animal fats are converted into biodiesel via a chemical process called transesterification, after which they’re blended with diesel and used in trucks. Transesterification sounds complicated, but it is a pretty simple chemical reaction (you can actually make biodiesel in your garage); compared with ethanol, the biodiesel production process takes less energy and has lower direct emissions.
The main source of emissions for biodiesel comes from the vegetable oils and fats it is made out of, and not the process of converting them to fuel.
Although ethanol production is much larger, biodiesel has grown more quickly since 2010, more than tripling between 2010 and 2015:
Biodiesel is most often sold as a blend of up to 5 percent biodiesel mixed with petroleum diesel. This is labeled as ordinary diesel fuel consistent with the official specifications. Some trucks can use up to a 20 percent biodiesel blend, but distribution challenges associated with marketing different blends for different vehicles have limited the adoption of these higher blends.
Today, biodiesel accounts for about 3 percent of the diesel fuel sold. For comparison, 10 percent ethanol is blended into most of the gasoline sold today.
While biodiesel is a relatively small share of diesel fuel, it has a large footprint in agricultural markets. The fact that ethanol consumes about 40 percent of U.S. corn is much publicized by ethanol critics, but less attention has been paid to the growing share of soybean oil being made into biodiesel, now about 25 percent.
One reason for the different level of publicity is that expanded demand for corn to make ethanol increases input costs for meat producers, who have been among the loudest and most persistent ethanol critics. But counterintuitively, increased demand for soybean oil actually makes input costs cheaper for the meat industry. To understand this mystery, read on!
Soybeans are an interesting crop, connected to their sister crop corn in complex ways in the agriculture, food and fuel system. While you may occasionally encounter soybeans in their immature form as edamame, the majority of soybeans are crushed to make soybean oil and a high protein meal that is mixed with corn in animal feed.
Soybean oil accounts for only 40 percent of the value of the soybeans, so the economics of soybean production depend jointly on the oil and the meal. As you would expect, increased demand for soybean biodiesel will raise demand and prices for soybean oil, but meal goes the other direction. As more soybeans are crushed to supply oil, the price of soybean meal will fall as increased production meets unchanged demand.
Since soybean prices depend on the sum of oil and meal prices, the net result is that soybean prices are only weakly linked to soybean oil prices. In a specific example worked out and explained in detail here, a 10 percent increase in soybean oil prices led to a 4 percent decrease in soybean meal prices and less than a 2 percent increase in soybean prices. So the impact of soy biodiesel on food prices is mixed, increasing the cost of vegetable oil, but decreasing the cost of animal feed.
But while soybean production is not very responsive to soybean oil prices, other vegetable oils are more responsive, particularly canola and palm oil, which have a higher share of their value derived from vegetable oil. For this reason, increased use of soybean oil to make biodiesel does not lead to much increased production of soybeans, but primarily leads to substitutions among vegetable oils and ultimately more vegetable oil imports.
The substitution of imports for soybean oil used as biodiesel is clearly illustrated in recent agricultural statistics. Starting in about 2003, there was a relatively sudden increase in the use of soybean oil for biodiesel. This increase did not result in an associated jump in soybean oil production, which pretty much stayed on its previous trend, driven by steady growth in demand for protein meal.
Instead, as US soybean biodiesel production grew, domestic consumption of soybean oil for food and other uses fell. Soybean oil use for food and other uses was replaced by imports of other oils, primarily canola and palm oil. This shows up quite clearly in the chart below, which compares the rising use of soybean oil for biodiesel to increased imports of palm, canola and other oils.
It is clear from the data that expanded use of soybean oil to make biodiesel was matched by growing volumes of imported vegetable oil, but the question of causality is a little trickier. That is because in the same timeframe that soy biodiesel consumption was growing, concern about the health impact of trans fats, mostly hydrogenated soybean oil, led to decreased consumption of trans fats, which were replaced in Oreos and many other prepared foods with other oils.
Some of the hydrogenated soybean oil was replaced with palm oil because of its similar properties. In this telling of the biodiesel story, biodiesel expansion is not the cause of increased imports. Rather, rising imports of palm and other oils were caused by changes in US food preferences attributable to health concerns; expanded production of soybean biodiesel was an outlet for the unwanted soybean oil, providing a substitute market while also displacing fossil fuel use and lowering the cost of soy meal for meat producers.
This optimistic interpretation is not implausible, but it is certainly incomplete. Vegetable oils are traded in a global marketplace, where demand for vegetable oil has been growing steadily. If the soybean oil no longer consumed as hydrogenated oil had been exported (either as vegetable oil or as whole soybeans) it would have found a market among the major vegetable oil importers. Vegetable oils are highly substitutable in many markets, and greater availability of soybean oil would have displaced some of the growing demand for palm oil.
Precisely quantifying these relationships is tricky, but given the link between palm oil expansion and deforestation, this alternative explanation paints a less optimistic picture of the climate impact of soybean biodiesel expansion in the last few years.
Regardless of whether you assign causality to falling demand for trans fats or rising demand for biodiesel, that chapter has come to a close. The shift away from hydrogenated soybean oil is now essentially complete; we should not expect a continued surplus of soybean oil.
In fact, the soybean industry is hard at work developing new technologies to regain lost market share in food markets. To the extent they succeed, it will further increase demand for soybean oil and lead to further substitution by palm and other oils.
The point is that increased use of soybean oil-based biodiesel in the US has a limited impact on soybean production, which is primarily determined by demand for protein meal. Instead, the main effect is to tilt the balance of demand in favor of vegetable oils versus protein meal, which favors sources like palm and canola. Canadian canola oil may supply some of this additional demand, but palm oil is the least expensive, fastest growing source of vegetable oil on the global market, and most likely to fill the void left by US soybean oil being used for fuel.
While the majority of biodiesel is made from the same vegetable oil used for cooking, about 40 percent is made from inedible and recycled oils and fats that are not used directly as human food. This share has stayed fairly constant even as biodiesel production has increased.
Every schoolchild knows that recycling is good for the environment, and so increased use of used cooking oil and other recycled sources to make biodiesel is a feel-good story and gets a lot of attention. But like many stories we tell children, the reality is a little more complex.
It turns out that recycled oils and fats used to make biodiesel are not a free lunch for the environment after all. That’s because for the most part, these oils and other fats are not being diverted from landfills like egg cartons used for art projects. There are existing uses for these resources, including livestock feed, pet food, and to make soaps and detergents. If used cooking oil that was feeding livestock is diverted to fuel, the livestock will have to eat something else instead.
There are certainly some efficiency gains to using a lower value feedstock instead of food grade vegetable oil to make fuel, so while these recycled fuels are not a free lunch, they are certainly a discounted lunch. Determining exactly how much of a discount is tricky, and requires lifecycle analysis to figure out the indirect impact by estimating the replacements in animal feed and other existing markets. But ignoring the need to replace these products leads to unrealistically optimistic environmental assessments.
Another fast growing source of biodiesel is inedible corn oil produced as a byproduct of corn ethanol. Corn oil has historically been more expensive than soybean oil, and thus not an attractive source of biodiesel. But over the last few years, a new source of corn oil emerged that was competitively priced.
The corn ethanol boom of 2005 to 2010 saw a huge increase in production of distillers’ grains, an animal feed co-product of ethanol production that is left behind once the corn starch is made into ethanol. Ethanol producers learned that they could extract corn oil from the distillers’ grains, reducing the fat content of the animal feed in the process.
This distillers’ corn oil smells like a brewery and is not sold for human consumption, but it works for biodiesel and animal feed and sells at a significant discount to edible corn oil. Removing a portion of the oil from distillers’ grains of animal feed reduces its caloric content, but it does not reduce its value significantly. So this approach is quite profitable, and most ethanol producers adopted it.
Biodiesel produced from distillers’ corn oil grew by about ten times from 2010 to 2013, but leveled off thereafter. Corn oil associated with distillers grains is limited by corn ethanol production, and while some further shifting of oil from feed to fuel markets is possible, the increase associated with the ethanol boom is unlikely to be repeated, and is not the basis for a sustainable trend into the future.
One well known source of environmentally-friendly biodiesel is used cooking oil, which allegedly makes your old diesel car exhaust smell like French fries. Together with distillers’ corn oil, used cooking oil (also called yellow grease) has accounted for most of the growth of biodiesel from recycled oils and fats.
But while higher prices for used cooking oil has increased collection somewhat, most of the large sources of used cooking oil were already being collected. Increased demand for waste oil does not increase supply of used cooking oil, since this is a waste product whose quantity is set by demand for corn chips or French fries.
For the last few years, overall production of used cooking oil has been basically steady while biodiesel use grew from a small share to consuming 60% of domestic used cooking oil in 2015. The increase came mostly from reducing exports rather than increasing diversion from waste streams.
Even if 100% of our remaining exports are made into biodiesel, it would increase biodiesel production by just about 5%, and the current importers would have to look elsewhere to replace the lost oil. So there is not much more growth coming.
I’ve walked you through the major domestic sources of biodiesel, qualitatively highlighting the limitations to domestic sources of biodiesel. Last year we commissioned Professor Wade Brorsen at Oklahoma State University to do a quantitative projection, and he determined that 29 million gallons per year of growth would be reasonable from domestic sources.
Twenty-nine million gallons sounds like a lot, and indeed it is enough to fill an additional 44 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. But it amounts to less than 2% growth a year in biodiesel production, which is itself a small share of diesel production.
If biodiesel production grows faster than this rate it is likely to be either imported, produced with imported sources of oil, or produced by bidding away existing sources of oil from other users, who will in turn be forced to switch to imports.
The potential for significant and sustainable growth in domestic biofuel production depends upon moving beyond food-based fuels made from vegetable oil or corn starch and turning instead to biomass resources. These resources have the potential for significant—but by no means limitless—expansion as the technology to convert them to cellulosic fuels scales up.
The potential and implications of making ethanol from biomass is discussed at length in Chapter 3 of our recent report, Fueling a Clean Transportation Future. And as cellulosic ethanol technology matures, different biological or chemical processes can make the same resources into cellulosic diesel, jet fuel or other fuels or products as well.
Talking about government regulations is a good way to put people to sleep (at least my wife), so I saved this little lullaby for the finale. Each year, the EPA must put forth specific regulations to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which Congress passed in 2005 and was amended in 2007. In recent years, this has gotten tricky, as tradeoffs and constraints in the fuel system make realizing Congress’ goals complicated.
Last year the EPA made a major overhaul of its approach to the RFS, which basically put the policy back on track. This year they are sticking quite close to that approach (see this summary for details), which will help build stability and predictability for a policy that has been short of both.
For biodiesel, the EPA has proposed an increase of 100 million gallons, from 2 billion gallons a year to 2.1 billion gallons, the same increase they proposed last year.
Not surprisingly, the biodiesel industry has a more bullish view, and argues that EPA should expand mandates for bio-based diesel by 5 times as much, to 2.5 billion gallons.
This is 17 times more than Professor Brorsen found could be supported by domestic sources of oils and fats. Growth rates this far in excess of domestic resources will inevitably lead to much greater reliance on imports of either biodiesel or oils and fats to replace domestic sources bid away from existing users. The 500-million-gallon a year increase the industry seeks is unsustainable, and would set the industry up for a crash. It would also create a huge hole in the global vegetable oil market which would largely be filled by palm oil expansion.
To provide stable support for the biodiesel industry and to avoid unintended problems across the globe, it is important that policy support for biodiesel growth is consistent with the growth in the underlying sources of oils and fats. The EPA should scale back its proposal in light of these constraints.]]>
According to Cowspiracy, the major source of global warming pollution isn’t fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, as the world’s scientists are telling us. No, it’s animal agriculture—not just eating cows, but all other kinds of meat, and eggs and milk and fish too. So the principal solution to global warming isn’t renewable energy. It’s for everyone to become a vegan.
Central to Cowspiracy’s conspiracy theory is the supposed “fact” that a 2009 study found that 51% of all greenhouse gases are produced by animal agriculture.
A good deal of the movie is taken up with interviews with people from environmental organizations, such as the Rainforest Action Network, Oceana, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, who don’t seem to accept this “fact,” and therefore must be part of the conspiracy to cover it up. Greenpeace politely declined, twice, to be interviewed, proving that they’re part of the cowspiracy too.
Since the 51% figure is key to the film’s conspiracy theory, let’s look at the study that it comes from. Ironically, in light of Cowspiracy’s thesis that environmental NGOs are hiding the science, this study proposing this figure on which they rely so heavily was not published in a scientific journal, but in a report by an environmental organization, the Worldwatch Institute. The report’s authors, Jeff Anhang and the late Robert Goodland, were not named in the movie but were described simply as “two advisers from the World Bank.”
How did Goodland and Anhang come up with 51%, rather than the scientific consensus that livestock are currently responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gases (which includes direct emissions from the animals as well as emissions from feed production, land use change, and manure)?
The biggest single difference is that Goodland and Anhang also count the carbon dioxide that domesticated animals breathe out—i.e., respiration. You probably remember the basics of this from biology class. The biosphere is basically powered by the photosynthesis done by plants, which take up CO2 molecules from the atmosphere and use the sun’s energy to link those molecules together, making sugars, starches, fats, and (adding in other elements) proteins, DNA, and all the other parts of the living world. In doing so, they release oxygen, which now makes up about 21% of the atmosphere.
The planet’s “heterotrophs”—animals, fungi, and most bacteria and other microbes—can’t photosynthesize, so they need to get their energy from eating or decomposing the molecules produced by photosynthesis. Generally heterotrophs do this by reversing the process of photosynthesis—taking in oxygen, using it to break apart the energy-rich molecules created by the plants, and releasing CO2 back to the atmosphere. This is the process of respiration.
But Anhang and Goodland’s addition of the CO2 produced by livestock to the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, ignores a simple but critical point: plants respire too. They do both of the fundamental processes, not only photosynthesizing but respiring as well.
This respiration is how they get the energy they need to maintain themselves, take up water and nutrients, and carry out all the other chemical reactions needed to live. In the process, they release most of the CO2 that they’ve taken in. And what they don’t is almost all released after they die, by respiration done by decomposers such as fungi and bacteria.
As a result, the CO2 that plants take out of the atmosphere, goes back into the atmosphere, whether or not they are eaten by animals. Thus, livestock (and other animals, including both wild and human ones) don’t add to the amount of CO2 that gets emitted into the atmosphere. This is why scientists reject Goodland and Anhang’s counting of livestock respiration as an additional anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases. It’s not additional—it would happen anyway, so you’re not justified in adding it in.
There is one important difference when it comes to a relatively small number of animal species. These are the ruminants, which include domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, and goats as well as wild ones such as deer and antelope.
Their digestive system includes a “rumen,” which contains microbes that can break down cellulose, which most animals cannot. Unfortunately, in the process these methanogenic microbes convert some of the carbon into methane (CH4), which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2. It causes about 25 times as much global warming per molecule as CO2, according to recent scientific consensus.
The release of methane to the atmosphere by ruminants, both directly from both ends of the animal (what is called “enteric fermentation”) and in their manure, is additional. It wouldn’t happen if the ruminants didn’t eat those plants, allowing the methanogenic microbes in their rumens to break it down and use it to produce methane. So scientists most definitely do count ruminant methane in their estimates of global warming pollution, and in fact it’s the largest single contribution to the nearly one-fourth of total emissions that come, directly and indirectly, from global agriculture.
However, Goodland and Anhang didn’t count it in the same way that most scientists do. Rather than weight the contribution of methane as 25 times as large, per molecule, as that of CO2, they use a weighting factor of 72 times, increasing its estimated impact nearly three-fold.
Why do they do this? Instead of using the standard method that estimates the global warming impact of gas molecules over a century, they only count its impact, as well as CO2’s, over a 20-year period. Since methane only lasts in the atmosphere for a decade or two before breaking down, while CO2 stays there for many centuries, counting the effects of both over only the first 20 years increases methane’s relative impact considerably. So, even though there hasn’t been any change in either the amount of CO2 or the amount of methane actually being emitted, the estimate of global warming pollution goes up substantially—with most of the blame going to cattle.
There has been a lot of scientific discussion about the best way to add together the global warming impact of different molecules, and it’s likely to continue.
It depends just how long you think global warming is likely to be an urgent problem. If it’s something that is going to be critical to human society for the rest of the 21st century, that argues for using the standard 100-year period for calculating the effect of greenhouse gases. If you’re pessimistic and think that we won’t be able to stabilize global temperatures for even longer than that, then you can argue for even more than 100 years.
On the other hand, choosing to take the average over only 20 years, as the Worldwatch study did, is tantamount to saying that we only care about ourselves, not our children, our grandchildren, and future generations. If global warming continues beyond the next two decades, that’s somebody else’s problem. I don’t find this an acceptable approach, either scientifically or morally.
These two departures from the scientific consensus—counting the non-additional CO2 respired by livestock, and weighting the methane that ruminant animals emit nearly three times as heavily as most scientists do—account for the biggest differences between the scientific consensus of about 15% of emissions and the 51% figure that Cowspiracy uses.
There are other differences that add smaller amounts—e.g. the estimate of emissions from animal-agriculture-driven deforestation, their use of a much higher count of how many livestock animals there are globally than the U.N. does, their dividing their “animal agriculture” total by a relatively small denominator, which makes the percentage higher, etc. They all have similar scientific weaknesses, and they all have the same kind of impact on the percentage, making it come out much larger (and thus making the importance of fossil fuels and energy smaller) than the scientific consensus says.
How has the scientific community responded to the 2009 Goodland and Anhang study and their 51% figure? We’ve rejected it, nearly unanimously, for the reasons I’ve explained.
Neither the reply to their study in a scientific journal, nor the more recent research papers on the subject, nor the latest reviews of the state of the science, nor the most recent report of the IPCC, written by thousands of scientists from all over the world and accepted as the scientific consensus on climate science—none of these have adopted the 51% figure.
Despite the efforts of both advocates like the makers of Cowspiracy and by the fossil fuel industry (see UCS’ recent report The Climate Deception Dossiers for details), there is strong agreement among scientists as well as among the global public that global warming is happening and humans, principally through the fossil fuels we burn, are the main cause of it.
Cowspiracy ignores this broad consensus, and indeed scientists are practically absent among the many talking heads in the film. It’s telling that although there are lots of statements of supposedly scientific numbers, the people making those statements aren’t identified as scientists, but rather by tags such as “Environmental and Ethics Author,” “Environmental and Food Author,” “Environmental Researcher and Author,” “Greenpeace Alaska Founder,” “Former Whole Foods Market Executive,” “Former Cattle Rancher,” and “Veganic Farmer.”
I must admit that there’s another, more personal, reason I find it hard to believe that there’s a massive conspiracy among NGOs and scientists to conceal the impact of animal agriculture on the climate.
That’s because my UCS colleagues and I—scientists at an NGO that focuses on climate change—have been writing and speaking extensively about the climate impact of livestock for several years now. And particularly about the impact of cows, especially beef cattle, which have a much heavier global warming hoofprint than other sources of food (including other animal foods).
We’ve been disseminating this scientific information not just in this blog (both recently and years ago) but also in major reports such as Root of the Problem (2011), Grade A Choice? (2012), Climate-Friendly Land Use (2013), as well as in scientific papers and the 2012 book Cooler, Smarter.
I guess you just have to conclude that the makers of Cowspiracy¸ despite its narrator’s claims of extensive research, just didn’t manage to find any of this work. Or maybe it’s just that our rejection of the 51% figure shows that, along with the rest of the scientific community, we’re part of the Cowspiracy too.
Recent research by social scientists has found that climate science denial tends to be associated with other kinds of conspiracy theory as well. As the title of a paper by Stephen Lewandosky and colleagues put it, “NASA faked the moon landing—therefore climate science is a hoax.”
While the subjects are different, what conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace, the 9/11 attacks, contrails from jet planes, vaccination, and climate change have in common is that they tell us that an incredibly large number of people—in government, in the media, and in Cowspiracy’s case, in science and the environmental community as well, have agreed to hide a key piece of information from the public.
Movies like Cowspiracy aren’t believable, not only because of how they twist the science, but also because of what they ask us to believe: that the fossil fuel industry—the ExxonMobils of the world—aren’t the main cause of global warming; that the transition to clean energy isn’t what matters most for our future and our grandchildren’s; and that thousands of scientists have covered up the truth about the most important environmental issue of our time.
Coming up next: As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’m going to do a short series of reviews on recent books and movies related to beef and climate change. This review of Cowspiracy is the first of the series, and as you can guess, it’s about a movie that is fiercely anti-beef. The next two posts in the series will be about books: In Defense of Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman, and Cowed by Dennis and Gail Boyer Hayes.]]>
As I’ve written before—in this blog, in UCS reports and in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change—by far the biggest impact of diet on climate comes from eating high on the food chain by consuming lots of meat – but not just any meat. What really makes a difference is the amount of beef. This point is made clearly in a graphic from one of the new studies, published by Janet Raganathan and colleagues in a chapter of the annual IFPRI Global Food Policy Report, and in longer form as a report from the World Resources Institute:
The orange bars are the ones showing the climate impact (amount of greenhouse gas emissions) of different ways of getting the protein we need. As you can see, beef (the far right-hand column) has by far the largest effect, not only compared to plant sources but also relative to other kinds of meat.
Based on this and other data, Raganathan et al. modeled the impact of reducing global beef consumption by a third. The cuts were targeted to global “overconsumers” – roughly speaking, the fourth of humanity that eats more protein than necessary and/or high per-capita quantities of beef. Of course, this includes most Americans.
They not only found that diet changes by these people could achieve a substantial reduction in emissions, but also that the effect was nearly identical whether beef was replaced in the diet by “pulses” (leguminous plants like peas, beans and soy) or by poultry and pork. You can see the underlying reason for this in the graph above – compared to beef, all these foods cause much less global warming pollution.
A caveat here is that these studies obviously take into account the beef production systems that already exist, and those systems could be improved. A report by Richard Teague and colleagues in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation highlights the role of environmental services (such as reduced soil erosion) offered in grassland environments. Improved grassland management in beef production could be paired with an overall reduction in beef consumption.
Another modelling study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Marco Springmann and colleagues, showed that such diet shifts also would save millions of lives. They modelled a different set of dietary patterns (vegan, vegetarian or “healthy”—less red meat and sugar, more fruit and vegetables) but the majority of the positive impacts—on both death rates and global warming—came from the reduction in red meat. Here’s their graphic summarizing the results, with lives saved shown in A and the change in greenhouse gas emissions shown in B. As you can see, it’s the orange sections of the bars – the reductions in red meat consumption – that make by far the biggest differences to both health and climate:
These two studies add to what is now a substantial body of research on the kinds of diet shifts that could have large benefits in terms of global warming. Indeed, there are now enough studies out there that researchers can combine and compare them all in a systematic review, and this has now been done for the literature published up through February 2014 by Elinor Hallstrom, Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and Pal Borgesson. Here are the potential reductions in emissions from different kinds of diet shifts, from their summary table:
The lessons from this summary of the science are clear: the consistently large reduction potentials come not only from vegan or vegetarian diets, but also from diet shifts that replace meat from ruminant animals (mostly beef cattle) with meat from monogastric animals (i.e. non-ruminants, mostly chicken and pigs).
Raganathan et al. discuss the kinds of social and economic changes that could lead to reductions in beef consumption among overconsumers, and point out that:
This diet shift … would be relatively easy to implement, since it only affects one type of food. Additionally, some high-consuming countries have already reduced per person beef consumption from historical highs, suggesting that further change is possible.
Commenting on the WRI study which he co-authored, Tim Searchinger of Princeton University put things straightforwardly: “The single most important thing is to eat less beef.” He’s absolutely right, but there are other ways we can make a difference too. The WRI report has a good discussion of how government and business policies affect diets, on the one hand indirectly subsidizing some foods or on the other hand insuring that we see the full cost of what we eat.
And when it comes to the deforestation caused by beef—an important part of its global warming footprint—you can tell companies that they need to go deforestation-free. Not just as consumers, but also by acting as citizens, we can all be part of the effort to end the damage to our global climate.
Over the next two months, I’ll be writing about more of the science concerning beef and its environmental impact. I’ll be doing a series of posts reviewing three different books and movies on this subject:
A quick preview: I think the first two, which are strongly anti- and pro-beef respectively, are scientifically weak. I have some criticisms of Cowed, but do give it credit for taking the science seriously. So, stay tuned!
So, what is driving tropical deforestation today—not five or fifteen or fifty years ago? Where is the forest being cleared, who is doing it, and why? How important are palm oil plantations or soybean farmers compared to loggers or cattle ranchers? What economic forces have the greatest responsibility for the land use change that causes 10% of global warming pollution?
I’d encourage you to look at all the new web pages, which go into lots of detail about many different drivers, and to share the link with friends and colleagues. But here, for a taste of what you’ll find there, are my impressions of the most important new findings in the last few years. In brief, what they show is that while many forces, regions and agricultural commodities have a role in tropical deforestation, some of them are much more important than all the others. Latin America, the Brazilian Amazon, the beef cattle industry and enormous farms and ranches—these are what dominate deforestation today.
Let’s start with a global view, and then narrow our focus step by step to smaller and smaller areas. Sort of like “flying in” virtually to an area using Google Earth, beginning with the image of the entire planet and then successively looking at a continent, a country and a state.
At the global level, an important new study by Sabine Henders, Martin Persson and Thomas Kastner, published last December, made it clear which commodity is by far the world’s leading driver of deforestation: beef. Comparing the four most important drivers of tropical deforestation—beef, soy, palm oil and wood products—here are the amounts of deforestation for which each was responsible between 2001 and 2009:
|Commodity||Gross deforestation (million hectares, 2001-2009)||Percent|
|SOURCE: Henders et al. 2015, Environmental Research Letters. http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/125012|
In fact, these percentages probably underestimate the importance of beef, because Henders and colleagues focused just on the most important countries for each driver. This included all the important countries for deforestation by soybeans (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia) and by palm oil (Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea), but left out many places in Latin America, where beef is known to be an important driver—probably the most important—of deforestation. Thus, when we get complete global data, the 65% figure for beef may well go even higher.
These numbers suggest that we should focus on Latin America, the source of the large majority of the two leading drivers, beef and soy. And indeed, a recent study by Alexandra Tyukavina and colleagues that estimated the rates of loss of natural forests on a global scale, found that fully 54% of it—44 out of 77 ½ million hectares—was in Latin America. So, let’s look at a detailed examination of the drivers of deforestation in the South America (which is not all of Latin America, but most of it). This research, by Veronica DeSy and colleagues. was based on painstakingly detailed examination of satellite images taken from 1990 to 2005, systematically distributed across the continent. It found that fully 71% of the forest clearing was to create cattle pasture, versus just 12% to plant commercial crops (which include soybeans). Smallholder crops were responsible for just 2% of the deforestation.
Brazil, even with its success over the past decade in reducing deforestation, is still the country where the majority of Latin America’s deforestation occurs, so let’s focus in on it. David Lapola et al., in addition to providing data that confirms the overwhelming role of pasture for beef cattle in Brazil’s deforestation, have also shown the great importance of inequality in the ownership of cropland. Large-scale commodity agriculture increased its share of cropland from 53% in 1990 to 70% in 2011, but it produces very little of the rice, beans and cassava that are the staples of the Brazilian diet. That comes overwhelmingly from small farmers, even though they have only 24% of the country’s farmland.
What does this inequality mean for Brazilian deforestation? Recently published research by Peter Richards and Leah VanWey on the state of Mato Grosso—Brazil’s third largest, but the leader in deforestation when the rate was high in the early 2000s—showed clearly how deforestation is concentrated on the largest farms and ranches. Properties under 250 hectares in size had only 14% of the total deforestation, while those larger in size were where 49% of deforestation took place. (Property size could not be identified for 33% of the deforestation.) Note also that the 250 hectare cutoff for “small” farms is actually quite large by global standard. For example, the 160-acre farm that is the traditional size in the United States covers just 65 hectares.
Richards and VanWey show that this was not only the situation for deforestation in the recent past, but is also the case for the threat of deforestation in the future. This is simply because only 3% of the remaining forest is on “small” properties, while more than ten times as much is on the larger farms and ranches (greater than 250 hectares). So, stopping deforestation by the big landholders is of overwhelming importance – not just to Brazil, but to the global climate as well.
Before these recent studies, we tended to talk about the locations and causes of tropical deforestation—Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia; beef, palm oil, soy and timber; small subsistence farmers and large-scale commodity agriculture—as if all of them were more or less equally important parts of the problem. Now we know that they are not. Land ownership and economic power are extremely unequal, and so is the responsibility for deforestation. We need to focus our efforts on the drivers that are most important—not just for reasons of justice, but also because it’s going to be the only effective way to end deforestation.
To give myself every advantage, I’m planning ahead. I looked up tips and tricks for keeping New Year’s resolutions. As I began to write down the findings listed on multiple websites, I realized that everything advised for keeping personal resolutions has a corollary in the corporate world for making and following through on strong palm oil and deforestation-free pledges.
In 2015, businesses all over the world have made sustainability commitments. Of course, this is fantastic news. But as I’ve noted before, forests are helped only once these commitments begin to be implemented. So as a reminder to those of us using 2016 as an excuse to better ourselves—and to those companies bettering the world with environmental pledges—here are some tips for success.
Companies: This is sometimes the very first public step for companies. Often, they have been researching for months or even years to find out what is entailed in making a deforestation-free commitment. But companies should publicly post their commitments, and do it loudly and proudly. Not only will this show customers that they are taking their concerns into account, but it will show other companies that the tide has turned, and it is no longer acceptable to make products at the expense of forests.
Me: This blog post serves as my public commitment to reduce my sugar intake in 2016.
Companies: Unfortunately, many companies have made public commitments, and as far as the public can tell, that is where the effort has stopped. To show that there is intention and follow-through, companies should also release a detailed plan of what are the steps needed to reach the ultimate goal. How will they work with their suppliers? How will they ensure that the ingredients they source are not linked to deforestation? Who is responsible within the company for overseeing these efforts? What will happen if violations are found?
Me: In order to tackle my sugar intake, I will need to modify three key areas of my life: breakfast, desserts, and hidden sugar. Although I am ultimately responsible for my sugar habits, I will inform my sugar suppliers (parents, friends, coworkers) that my sourcing habits will be changing. I would urge them to work with me in meeting my goals.
Companies: After commitments without a lot of details, questions remain. What commodities does the commitment apply to? What standards apply? How does the company define “deforestation”?
Me: I will reduce my sugar intake by one-third in 2015. The scope of my efforts excludes naturally sweetened items such as fruit and includes but is not limited to cane and beet sugar, corn syrup (high fructose or otherwise), honey, agave nectar, and all artificial sweeteners.
Companies: Transforming an entire supply chain is complicated and is likely time-consuming. The entirety of the challenge may seem less overwhelming if it is broken up into manageable pieces. Many companies have dates by which they will have traced all their palm oil or by which they will be using sustainable (but not necessarily deforestation-free) palm oil.
Me: Although I am not even coming close to cutting all sugar out of my diet, it still feels like quite a task. So I will focus on the easiest parts to tackle first. While this might seem like a laughable goal to many, I will endeavor to remove chocolate chips from my breakfast meal by the end of February. Don’t laugh! Chocolate chip and dried cherry oatmeal is delicious—it will be hard to give up.
Companies: At first glance, this one seems a little more difficult to apply to companies. But after careful consideration, the spirit of the advice is very resonant. Companies should no longer be thinking of removing deforestation from their supply chains as “extra.” Instead, this is something that should be part of a company’s regular standards. Instead of contracting new suppliers first and then going back to figure out if their supply chain involves deforestation, ensuring environmental responsibility should be a requirement before any business is done.
Me: For many of you, eating chocolate chips at breakfast is something that is not acceptable. Indeed, my parents did not raise me this way; when I was growing up, I had a choice of approximately 6 cereals for breakfast and all of them involved bran. Yet somewhere along the way chocolate in my oatmeal because habit. I need to find a new, healthier, and less sugary go-to breakfast option and upon waking, reach for that instead of my chocolate chip oatmeal.
Companies: The good news is that there are enough companies making global commitments to deforestation-free commodities that there truly is a community. Companies can and should (and to some degree already are) work together to figure out the most efficient way to enact their policies. No one said this would be easy. Growth has been occurring at the expense of tropical forests for decades. To truly change this pattern, companies must learn from one another’s mistakes, and the resources from companies working together will go much further than individual efforts.
Me: I live alone, so I know there are so many decisions in the course of my life that no one knows about but me. I need a community to turn to when I’m going back for my third serving of ice cream (usually Moosetracks). Fed Up has some experts to follow who talk about the addiction to sugar or I could turn to my brother-in-law, who has successfully cut much of the sugar from his diet.
Companies: The struggle is real. When there is so much at stake, the health of the planet and all its residents, it feels like anything less than achieving the final goal is failure. However, every step forward is a step in the right direction. Meeting those short-term goals is an achievement, especially if it shows that companies are putting the necessary resources into meeting their commitments. Instead of seeing these steps as falling far short of the goal, see them as a reaffirmation of the importance of the overall goal and proof that companies are taking these responsibilities seriously.
Me: Let’s be real, I’m not cutting sugar out of my diet entirely and that is not my goal. I will likely have multiple servings of desserts on some occasions and may eat chocolate for breakfast once in a while. But every day I pay attention to my sugar intake is a day that I am healthier than I would be otherwise. And that is worth celebrating, in 2016 and beyond.]]>
Yes, we have. Under the United Nations, the two most important previous agreements were the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 (the “Convention”), and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (the “KP”). The Convention set out some fundamental goals, principles, and a structure for addressing climate change. It called for developed countries to take the lead, and under the KP they pledged a set of commitments, which took effect in 2005. Many of the countries re-upped for a second round of commitments that extend through 2020.
The Paris Agreement will pick up where the KP leaves off: it creates a looser structure for registering the “contributions” that countries make toward reducing heat-trapping emissions, as well as a “global stocktake” to see whether we’re collectively on track to avoiding dangerous climate change. These features and others opened the door for developing countries to participate. That’s the primary reason why this is a “new era” – because virtually all countries are on board.
The KP was an important step, but over time it became obvious that it wasn’t sufficient to solve the global problem of climate change. It was partly effective, in that heat-trapping emissions began to fall in the countries that had made commitments, but in the meantime global emissions continued to rise, driven by a surge from developing countries. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out in Paris, about 60% of emissions now come from the developing world, so even if all developed countries stopped emitting tomorrow, the world would still have a climate change problem. We needed a new policy to confront this undeniable scientific reality.
The Paris Agreement needed some new elements to help cope with the burdens that climate impacts were creating for developing countries. Many countries were prepared to invest in adaptation efforts, and they wanted those to be counted as “contributions” to the climate effort—and also to describe their needs so they could seek support from other countries. Some countries also wanted a way to have the “loss and damage” attributable to climate change to be recognized and, potentially, compensated. These issues are now addressed in the Paris Agreement.
Furthermore, the agreement sharpens the climate goal originally established under the Convention, recognizing updated science that says the world may need to stay below a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to prevent dangerous impacts. We’ve already seen about one degree of warming, so there’s no time to waste.
The Paris Agreement allows flexibility to each country to enact its own policies or approaches, in a way that is “nationally determined,” not imposed from somewhere else. Every country will be able to develop its own policies, and at least 185 countries have already submitted a description of their intended contributions. The agreement provides a way to communicate those efforts to the rest of the world in a somewhat standardized way that helps to deliver transparency to every other country.
Everyone—including large emitters and petro-states—recognizes that avoiding dangerous climate change is in their national interest. Under the agreement, they can track who is contributing the most effort, and who might be lagging behind. That information will be assessed periodically and publicly, so that everyone can see who’s doing their part, who’s not doing enough, and who needs help. But there are no penalties levied through the agreement.
Probably the most significant effect will be the signal this sends to key players, particularly governments and the private sector. The agreement makes the future direction clear, and it is obvious that fossil fuels will play a diminishing role in the future global economy.
Also, even though there isn’t a centralized cap on emissions, the nationally determined contributions (or “NDCs”) collectively make up a de facto cap on global emissions, due to the near-universal participation of countries. Some countries have different kinds of caps, and not all emissions are covered everywhere, but we can now say that emissions will be limited globally. The commitments will be backed up by a process of evaluation, and they will be supported by the mutual interest of other nations. Together, these elements will spur innovation, and those racing to the top will find themselves in an advantageous position down the road. Laggards will find themselves increasingly isolated and left behind in the global economy.
The agreement establishes a process that will help to harmonize the efforts of all the different countries. Every five years, they will come together to assess their collective contributions and measure progress towards a single long-term goal. That goal says that they will work to balance the emissions from sources and the removals by sinks in the latter half of the century. “Removals by sinks” is a clear reference to the vital role that farms and forests play in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, these “sinks” are now far outweighed by all “sources,” by a factor of nearly 10:1. So we will need to make steep reductions in emissions from sources, while protecting and enhancing the crucial ability of sinks to continue to take up carbon.
Far from it. The entire Paris process, including the agreement, has really changed the way we think about addressing climate change. One delegate captured it succinctly when she said that we have transformed the climate change issue from an existential threat to the world’s biggest opportunity. What she meant is that we’ve largely closed the door on the threat that countries will use high-emissions approaches to gain economic advantages.
This means that the only way forward is to exploit low-carbon approaches, and this is an area where the U.S. is a global leader. Building out these approaches and marketing them to other countries will be a huge opportunity for economic growth, if we can capitalize on it effectively.
The U.S. has a number of ways it can deliver its contributions. Four big ones come to mind. First, we can continue to innovate in low-carbon technologies and renewable energy. Second, we can eliminate waste from our economy and reduce emissions through higher levels of efficiency. Third, we can take advantage of different opportunities within and across states, through emissions trading, as California and others are now doing. Fourth, we can enhance our stewardship of our natural resources, especially forests, in order to boost their ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Every country has different opportunities and strengths. One important component of the Paris Agreement is that it sets the stage for countries to learn lessons from each other—through both successes and failures.
The U.S. has made headway in a number of respects, but some other parts of the world are ahead of us in terms of experience. The European Union has been operating an emissions trading system across all of its member states for several years, and it has helped them reduce emissions overall. They have also learned some lessons about the flaws they built into the early design, and many of these have now been corrected. New Zealand, South Korea, China, and other countries are also at various stages of implementing emissions trading systems.
Some other countries are also ahead of us in building out their low-carbon energy systems, and they have encountered a few challenges along the way. Germany, for instance, now receives so much of its energy from wind and solar sources that it is rethinking the way it manages its electricity grid. The U.S. is rapidly accelerating its use of clean energy, but many of these challenges still lie ahead of us. We will need to make deliberate, accelerated progress to avoid falling behind.
Yes, the Paris Agreement operationalized a framework in its Article 5 for countries to receive support for reducing their emissions from deforestation. After ten years of work within the UN, many environmentalists believe that this will be a critical turning point for global deforestation. All of the countries with tropical forests endorsed the framework, and many countries that have been supporting them, such as Norway, pledged to continue their support. The hope that deforestation will be virtually eliminated by 2030 now seems within reach.
My personal experience is just the opposite. Most of us work incredibly long hours and almost completely set aside our personal lives for two weeks. The work itself requires intense focus, since a sentence, phrase, or even a single word can mean the difference between an agreement that’s accepted or rejected at home. The Paris process—and indeed, the whole UN climate enterprise—has been aimed at finding a positive “landing zone” that can accommodate all countries.
In terms of coordination and compromise, this is perhaps the most difficult challenge that the world has ever undertaken. As a result, progress can seem tentative and slow from the outside. But in this case, the Paris Agreement accomplished a major breakthrough and has the potential to be an unprecedented success, because of the delicate balance of its structure. It has enough flexibility to allow each country to determine its own contribution to the climate effort, but enough accountability to keep everyone on track, through a process that regularly evaluates the sufficiency of the global effort.
This breakthrough was only possible because of the high-level signals and momentum that heads of state delivered at the start of the negotiations. All of them acknowledged the threat of climate change and the fact that a solution was in their national interest. All of them accepted the science of climate change, as documented by the IPCC. These statements provided the necessary fuel for the negotiations, while sketching out the rough boundaries of the “landing zones.” Then the negotiators got to work, filling in the rough outlines and piecing together the intricate structure of the agreement.
My routine in Paris was to leave my hotel before 8:00am, pick up a pastry and coffee on the way to the train, and then switch to a shuttle bus that took me to the COP venue. Once inside, I went through a security checkpoint—just like at an airport—before I could enter the area where the negotiations took place. Most of the activity occurred in five main buildings (or “halls”) on the COP campus, some of which were temporary and some of which were repurposed hangars from the defunct Le Bourget airport. Each building, in turn, had meeting rooms, cafes, computer work areas, and other facilities to meet the needs of over 40,000 participants.
The UNFCCC schedule set the agenda of official meetings for the day, and in between I had impromptu meetings and hallway conversations. With luck, I would have time to grab a quick lunch at one of the onsite cafes, usually late in the afternoon. In a break with the past, the Presidency of this COP established a rule that no official meetings would be scheduled to start after 9pm. In practice, that’s when the real work begins, in informal drafting groups who meet to try to hammer out legal language about specific issues. These groups often meet late into the night, aiming to produce text that they can present for official consideration the next day. Fortunately, my issues tended to finish by midnight on most nights, and then we would all return to our hotels. (I’m grateful for the kebab shop near my train station, which provided me with a few late-night dinners.) The next day, the whole cycle repeated, building up to the final day.
Successful negotiators have to work incredibly hard to meet the competing demands on them. They must frequently share up-to-the-minute status reports with their delegations and allies, so that each tiny tectonic movement can be analyzed in order to gain a sense of the overall seismic shifts that are occurring.
The most difficult part is that negotiators must be watchful and prepared to make a compelling case for each and every aspect of their positions, at any moment, knowing that they are likely to face a strong, equally compelling case on the other side. This might sound like a mashup of courtroom drama and a high-stakes game of Risk, with a bunch of technocrats determining our global fate, but that’s not the case. Negotiators are responsible for signaling to others the boundaries of their own country’s “landing zone,” and they need to find ways to do this clearly and efficiently. Everyone knew the overall priorities, as set out by the heads of state: their job was to work out the devilish details to meet these priorities.
Environmental groups have a profound impact, in a variety of different ways. Some, like me, are requested to join country delegations as technical advisors, giving us direct access to the negotiations. Others work tirelessly outside, to coordinate and target their messages as the issues unfold. We work through various forms of media to amplify and empower the voices defending environmental integrity and vulnerable peoples.
The COP is also a venue to share new findings, highlight innovative projects, and raise new concerns over emerging challenges. So, even though we are not always inside the negotiations, everyone acknowledges that we play a crucial role in shaping and influencing their outcome.
Despite the intensity and seriousness of the Paris negotiations, there were moments of levity and humor. Many of us began referring to this as the “butter COP,” partly as a tribute to the unprecedented smoothness with which it was conducted, but also in reference to the ubiquity of butter in the French cuisine. Somehow, in spite of the busy pace, many of us were feeling a little plumper when we returned home.
Minister Laurent Fabius, who presided over the negotiations as COP President, also brought a few moments of amusement along the way. During one late-night session, he forgot how to formally address his own home bloc. “Now I call on Europe … er, I mean … the Unified Europe … em, the European Union,” he stammered, then grinned. During the closing session, he got so excited with the growing momentum that he carried on his speech in English, breaking with diplomatic convention. “I seem to have forgotten my French!” he exclaimed, at which the entire hall broke out in laughter.
Throughout the two-week meeting, Fabius was universally praised for his hands-on approach, his level-headedness, and his skill in moving the negotiations forward. At one point, a delegate praised him by saying “I think, sir, that your efforts may succeed in getting us to reach an agreement, and if so, you should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.” On Saturday, Fabius delivered that agreement, and the world moved one important step closer toward peacefully resolving climate change. Now the baton passes to Morocco, the host of next year’s COP, where we will all take the next steps toward making the Paris Agreement operational by 2020.]]>
But beyond the number, there’s another important scientific issues being debated in this section. It’s expressed in three concepts that are part of the draft text, but “bracketed”—not yet agreed to. They’re “[climate neutrality]”, “[decarbonization]” and “[carbon budget]”; there’s also a statement of the goal as “[Achieving zero global GHG emissions by 2060-2080]. What do these words mean, how are they related, and why are they so important?
First, a bit of scientific background. There are several greenhouse gases (global warming pollutants), but the most important by far are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). There are also different sectors of the global economy that emit these gases. The energy sector (including electric power, transportation, industry) plus cement production mostly emits CO2. The land sector—agriculture and forests—emits CO2 as well, mostly from deforestation, but is dominated by emissions of methane (e.g. from cattle and from rice paddies) and of nitrous oxide (from fertilizers and manure).
Besides the predominant gases emitted, there’s another critical difference between the energy the land sectors. That’s the fact that the land sector can not only emit CO2, e.g. as forests are cut down, but can also take CO2 out of the atmosphere as they grow back. In negotiating language we say that the land sector carries out both “emissions” and “removals.” Another way of expressing this is that in net terms, it could be either a “source” (emissions are greater than removals) or a “sink” (emissions are less than removals.)
As Nancy Harris of the World Resources Institute said Sunday in a talk at the Global Landscape Forum today, forests are “the original decarbonization machines—the carbon capture and storage technique invented by nature.” And I’d add, by far the best invented by anyone—nature or us.
How does this relate to the meanings of “decarbonization,” “climate neutral” and “carbon budget” and the proposed goal of reaching zero greenhouse gas emissions by around 2070? Here, I’m following the definitions in a 2015 paper by Joeri Rogelj and colleagues in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, entitled “Zero emission targets as long-term global goals for climate protection.” As they explain:
These are the definitions, but why do the differences matter? Here, it’s important to recognize one of the most important discoveries in climate science in the past decade, and perhaps many decades. This is that the increase in the global temperature is essentially proportional to the total amount that has been emitted. Here’s a graph showing this, from the IPCC’s latest assessment report (AR5):
The more we emit, the more temperatures go up. So, how much can we emit if we want temperatures to stabilize – to stop increasing altogether? The answer, clearly, is zero. Or, as one of the papers announcing this discovery was entitled, “Stabilizing climate requires near-zero emissions.”
You may have noted that the graph above shows CO2 emissions, not all greenhouse gases. This is because eventually, CO2 is the gas that matters most. That’s because once emitted, it lasts in the atmosphere for many centuries, while methane breaks down over decades. So in the very long term, it’s total CO2 emissions that need to go to zero, in net terms — i.e., carbon neutrality. But in the sort-of-long term—e.g. the 21st century—all three gases matter, so we will need climate neutrality in order to keep temperatures from continuing to rise throughout our lifetimes.
A very important point is that it’s net emissions that we’re talking about here—emissions minus removals. That’s what adds up to cumulative emissions, which is what determines how much the global temperature rises. So if we want global temperatures to stop rising—i.e., a stable climate—we have to make net emissions equal to zero.
In fact, if we not only want to stabilize temperatures, but stabilize them at a level that avoids dangerous climate change, we actually have to go past zero. That is, we’ve already emitted so much, that we’ll need net negative emissions to get to 1.5 degrees or even probably to 2 degrees of temperature rise.
How is negative emissions possible? Only with the help of that original decarbonization machine, the forest. We’ll need to reduce energy sector emissions by 90 or 95 percent, maintain the current removals from existing forests, and also increase those removals by restoring forests and other natural ecosystems. The new forests’ capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is quite limited, so they can only do a small part of the job. But it’s a critical part, because it’s what gets us to and past zero net emissions. That is, it’s what makes carbon neutrality and climate neutrality possible. Decarbonization is just not enough.
Now, let’s bring this back to the negotiations and the debate about the collective long-term goal. Sometimes it’s useful to go back to the starting point so as to remember why the world’s nations started this whole process in the first place. In the case of the climate negotiations, that means going back to 1992 and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—the “Convention.” And in fact, the Convention says quite clearly, in its Article 2 what is its “ultimate objective.” It’s:
“stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
So the Convention is clear – greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have to stabilize. To achieve this, net emissions have to drop to zero. In other words, climate neutrality.
A letter from an eminent group of scientists to the U.S. presidential candidates, just released by UCS, recognizes this reality. It urges them “to put our nation on a path to a vibrant economy free from carbon pollution by mid-century.” As they indicate, “moving away from fossil fuels…..coupled with increases in carbon uptake in our nation’s forests and soils, can bring us well within reach of an economy free of carbon pollution by mid-century.”
These scientists have recognized that if the world is to achieve climate neutrality, developed countries will need to take the lead. This same recognition is why the Union of Concerned Scientists has adopted, as one of its five Strategic Goals, the achievement of climate-neutrality by the U.S. by the year 2050.
So far, I have focused mostly on the science underlying the choice of a long-term goal. But let me conclude with two other points—one about policy, and one about morality.
The policy point relates to how we go about structuring our approach to zero. Some have argued that we should separate the land sector from the energy sector, with separate accounting for their emissions and removals and different long-term goals. We could do that—but the atmosphere wouldn’t care. It mixes the net emissions all together, irrespective of the sectors from which they came. So it’s the total net emissions from both sectors—all the CO2 and methane and nitrous oxide that we emit, minus all the CO2 that we remove, that matters for our climate future.
The moral point goes beyond science. It’s about our responsibility as humans living on earth. If, as Pope Francis put it in Laudato Si’, we “care for our common home,” then we need to realize that “dangerous climate change” doesn’t just mean dangerous for us living humans. The danger we have created is to our children and grandchildren and generations to come, and also to all the marvelous species with whom we share our planet. Climate neutrality is necessary for our future—but for their future too. It means that, as stewards of our common home, we will finally stop breaking it apart.
There’s a new statue standing in front of the Gard du Nord train station here in Paris. It’s called “Angel Bear:”
It’s nothing like any species living on earth today – a bear, but bright red, full of holes, and with enormous wings. But perhaps, at least for this week, it can represent the future that we need to create. We need to begin to fly.
The new figures show that it’s not. Last year we saw a decrease of 18%, but this year that was essentially wiped out by an increase of 16%. Thus we’re almost exactly back to where things were two years ago, with an annual deforestation level of 5,831 km2, versus 5,891 km2 in 2012–2013.
This year’s increase doesn’t by any means wipe out all the progress of previous years, as you can see from the graph of the annual figures below. With the new number, Amazon deforestation is still 70% below the average level from 1996 to 2005 that Brazil uses as its baseline.
But the sawtooth pattern of the last four years – down, up, down, and up again, all within a range of about 5,000 to 6,000 km2/year – does show that the nearly-continuous reduction since 2005 has stopped.
Coincidentally, this ending of the downward trend came just a few months after the Brazilian government released its “INDC,” telling the international community the climate actions it plans to take in the 2020s. While quite positive in some ways, on forests the INDC was disappointing, and for some of the same reasons as the new figure. It indicated a plan for a substantial slowdown in Brazil’s progress in reducing Amazon deforestation, with the goal of reaching zero only by 2030 – and even then, only for illegal deforestation, not for deforestation overall.
This lowered ambition matters not only for Brazil, which contains 60% of the Amazon forest. It is the largest tropical forest nation – and until the last decade’s progress, it was the largest tropical deforesting nation as well.
Thus what happens in Brazil matters not only for the Amazon as a whole, but for global deforestation too. If deforestation stops being decreased in the Brazilian Amazon, it could well end the decrease in tropical deforestation worldwide shown by several recent datasets. This would have serious impacts on the climate, since deforestation accounts for nearly 10% of global warming pollution.
Not an auspicious start for the Paris climate negotiations. Let’s hope that tomorrow, as 150 world leaders gather here to open the talks, that we have more positive news.
Overall, the intended contributions are disappointing. It’s clear that the sum of the INDCs doesn’t add up to what the world needs to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Their treatment of the land sector, particularly for some of the largest countries, shows limited ambition and in some cases doesn’t talk about any actions at all.
Some countries that have achieved a great deal in past decades in reducing deforestation or in reforesting, propose to do considerably less in the years to come. The most important sources of agricultural emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide from ruminant livestock such as beef cattle, are seldom even mentioned.
Furthermore, there is a real deficit in transparency. The clear and specific information one needs to understand what a country is proposing to do – numbers for emissions reductions, sequestration amounts, business-as-usual reference levels, time periods, costs, and which actions are conditional on financing – are all too often lacking.
It turns out that some of the world’s smaller countries did considerably better with respect to transparency and ambition than the large ones. In all three of our white papers analyzing the INDCs, we highlighted how nations like Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo actually did better by the land sector in their INDCs, compared to the U.S., the E.U., China, Brazil, Indonesia and India.
So, what now? One of the important results of the Paris COP should be an agreement on how the INDCs will be revised and improved next year. (They’re also likely to be renamed. One of the leading candidates for the new term is “NDMC,” which despite how it sounds is not actually a tribute to the 1980s hip-hop group.)
In those revisions, what might we hope for from the land sector, combining some of the best features of the INDCs from different countries? Here’s a short list of elements that could be borrowed:
We’d need to add in some things that have enormous potential but were not clearly put forward by any nation:
No country has come close to including all of what we need. But by learning from each other’s INDCs, each could make a commitment next year that would add up to what the health of the planet requires.]]>
There have been varying levels of protection for peatlands over the years. Some areas of peat 3 meters or deeper have been legally protected due to a moratorium enacted in 2011 with limits on the conversion of peatlands and primary forests. However, these new instructions from Jokowi’s administration go further than before, requiring that peatlands that have already been allocated for development by the government can no longer be cleared and drained.
In addition, the instructions aim to ensure that lands that have recently been burned are not planted which would allow bad actors to profit and would further degrade these sensitive soils. Instead, these areas are slated for restoration.
Why this year?
As I mentioned previously, this year was particularly important for many reasons, including the strong El Niño. However, while it may be true that this year’s fires were exacerbated by a long dry season, the fact of the matter is that El Niños have been occurring for hundreds of years. And in 2013, a year with relatively normal climatic conditions, there was a large haze event. Scientists now believe that haze events will be more frequent in the future because of the destruction and draining of peatlands.
The fires and haze this year affected millions of people. But large events in the past have done the same. A haze event in 1997/1998 left the region reeling, but no substantive action was taken to prevent future events. In actuality, there is nothing new about the haze this year, except for maybe its scale and a new administration. It unfortunately took a tragedy of this proportion to get the Indonesian government to become serious about protecting their carbon-rich peatlands, but I hope that it never has to occur again.
Not there yet
The steps that Jokowi’s administration has outlined are moving in the right direction. However, while the first steps have been laid out, they are not yet law. The success of this directive is dependent upon having the force of law and subsequently allocating adequate resources to ensure peatlands are protected, rewetted, and are not allowed to endanger the health of citizens of Southeast Asia and the global climate.]]>