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Climate Change

Last updated 1 February 2020

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, the consequences of which could spell the end of civilisation and the natural world as we know it. Despite over 20 years of definitive science warning us of the price we will pay for inaction on climate change, the leaders of the world have ultimately sat on their hands, prioritising economic growth and financial prosperity over the future of our planet and the biodiversity that relies on it to survive. As individuals we must all take on the responsibility of acting now to save our planet.

Recent catastrophic fires that have ravaged Australia have served as a warning to the world: that if we go on ignoring the science and the voices of the experts, who have been appointed their positions to help guide our decision making, there is little to no hope for the future of our planet. Historically, Australia has always experienced fires and for a broad spectrum of reasons, however it is indisputable that the size, severity and frequency of fires have increased dramatically, and we must accept that this is largely due to climate change.    

It is widely accepted that fossil fuels have long contributed to the destruction of the natural world. Some governments are already taking steps to move towards cleaner energy solutions in order to reduce the impact human demand has on the planet. The New Zealand government, for example, recently passed a zero-carbon bill which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to near natural levels by 2050. Despite the progress of our overseas neighbours and overwhelming evidence of the detrimental effects of mining fossil fuels, the Australian government continues to spearhead the expansion of mining in our country.

Most recently the government has given all relevant permission to mining company Adani to build a coal mine in the state of Queensland. Despite ongoing drought in Australia and many suffering from water shortages, Adani has been approved to take 12.5 billion litres annually from the Belyando River.

Whilst many around the world are uniting to demand world leaders start moving towards clean energy solutions for the sake of our planet, many are still largely unaware of the impact they are having on the planet every time they sit down to eat a meal. Animal agriculture accounts for 51% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, uses up to 287 trillion litres of water per annum, and the leading cause of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the pollution of our air and water.

 

Water Use

Water misuse and mismanagement has seen huge water shortages throughout Australia. This is exemplified by the fact that Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. Water usage for the raising of animals for food is huge, taking 50,000-100,000 litres of water to produce just 1 kilogram of beef. Comparatively it takes only 715-750 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of wheat; 2,500 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of rice; and significantly less for other fruits and vegetables [1].

It has been reported that in order to produce just 1 kilogram of animal protein. close to 100 times more water is required than to produce 1 kilogram of grain protein [2].  

Litres of water required per kg of product
Source: Eating Up the World: the environmental consequences of human food choices.

Water use for agriculture is significantly higher than that of household use, with agriculture accounting for over 67% of water use in comparison to 9% household use [3]. A study conducted by Melbourne University in 2004 found that 90% of household water usage was accounted for by food consumption. To maximise the effectiveness of our water usage reduction efforts, it's vital to focus on our indirect usage.

Water use per person per day
Source: Eating Up the World: the environmental consequences of human food choices.

As well as water usage, animal agriculture impacts freshwater supplies in several other ways. In the United States, factory farms cause more pollution in rivers than all other industries combined [4]. Manufacturing of animal products such as leather pollute rivers with harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, mercury and chromium. The clearing of native vegetation for grazing animals reduces rainfall as well as increasing soil erosion and run off.

 

Land use

A significant amount of land is cleared in order to make way for grazing animals. Up to 60% of the Australian continent is grazed by animals that are purposed for human consumption [5]. This figure does not include the land cleared to produce food for farmed animals such as hay and grain. Clearing of land for grazing animals causes a number of issues, such as loss of habitat for native Australian animals, therefore significantly affecting the populations of these species.

There are a range of other consequences resulting from the clearing of native vegetation to graze cattle. Loss of ecological productivity due to loss of topsoil, the removal of vegetation cover which is the most crucial way to prevent erosion, worsening of drought through changing of climate and the altering of water tables, causing salinity issues across Australia (ref: Eating Up the World).

Land disturbance (%)
Source: Eating Up the World: the environmental consequences of human food choices.

CSIRO have found that 92% of all land degradation in Australia is due to animal agriculture. Other industries including plant agriculture, mining, forestry and residential building form the remaining 8%[6].

 

Our Air

Animal agriculture plays a huge role in global warming in several ways.

As they digest food, ruminants (sheep, cattle) produce methane. Methane is a hugely damaging greenhouse gas.

The impact that livestock have on climate change are understated in official figures, due mostly to applicable data being omitted, classed under non-livestock emission headings, or included with conservative calculations. A much more accurate way of quantifying the impact of methane is to average its warming impact over the time it takes to break down, which is around 20 years [7].

Every year, Australia’s livestock animals produce close to 3 megatonnes of methane [8]. If looked at over a 20 year period, the warming impact of 1 megatonne of methane gas has the warming impact equal to 105 tonnes of carbon dioxide [9]. This means that 3 megatonnes of methane is the equivalent of 315 megatonnes of carbon dioxide.

The clearing of land for grazing animals and to grow crops for intensively farmed animals, is an ineffective way to produce food. Often native vegetation is burnt to stop regeneration of forest from occurring.

The average carbon dioxide equivalent for land clearing in Australia, spanning over the last 20 years, is 69 megatonnes annually.

When considering both the impact of methane and land clearing for raising livestock, a total of 384 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent is emitted. This is more than double the emissions of Australia’s coal and fire powered stations, which emit around 169 megatonnes annually.

These figures also don’t take into account the impact of the emissions from the livestock industries' supply chains. Large amounts of energy are required in order to feed, transport, slaughter, refrigerate and cook livestock animals and this in turn produces additional greenhouse gases.

If we are to truly tackle climate change we not only have to move away from highly damaging energy infrastructure such as coal to cleaner and more sustainable energy solutions. We need to also tackle climate change with diet change. It is essential that we move towards more sustainable food systems to avoid catastrophic consequences for our planet.

 

References

[1] Meyer, W. 1997 “Water for Food – The Continuing Debate”, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269396797_Water_for_Food_-_the_continuing_debate

[2] Pimentel, D & Pimentel, M, “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment”, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003; 78 (suppl): 660S-3S, http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/78/3/660S

[3] CSIRO and Australian Government, 2006, State of the Environment Report, Australian Government Printing Service

[4] Waterkeeper Alliance, 2008, EPA Factory Farm Pollution Rule Illegal, Says Federal Appeals Court,

<http://www.satillariverkeeper.org/waterkeeper.html> [Accessed on 12 October 2009].

[5] Hansen, J; Sato, M; Kharecha, P; Beerling, D; Berner, R; Masson-Delmotte, V; Pagani, M; Raymo, M;

Royer, D.L.; and Zachos, J.C. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”, 2008. http://

www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf

[6] Foran, B., Lenzen, M., and Dey, C., 2005, Balancing Act: A triple bottom line analysis of the 135 sectors of the Australian economy, CSIRO.

[7] Eating Up the World: the environmental consequences of human food choices.

[8] Australia’s UNFCCC submission 2013 http://unfccc.int/national_reports/annex_i_ghg_inventories/

national_inventories_submissions/items/7383.php

[9] Schindell, D.T.; Faluvegi, G.; Koch, D.M.; Schmidt, G.A.; Unger, N.; Bauer, S.E. “Improved

Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions”, Science, 30 October 2009; Vol. 326 no. 5953 pp. 716-

718; DOI: 10.1126/science.1174760, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.figures-only

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