Category Archives: climate change

COP 19 and Climate Change: The Path to Resolution


The Conference

On November 11th, world leaders in business, industry, and NGOs will join representatives from nearly 200 countries to convene in Warsaw, Poland, for the nineteenth annual Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—an international environmental treaty established in 1994 to address the challenges of a warming planet.

The Sustainable Innovation Forum will be occurring alongside COP 19, featuring similar representation, with the objective of fostering innovative thinking and actions to transform energy policy and supply (energy security).

What was concerning to a few researchers in the 1980s, leading to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is generally widely accepted today—that global warming and climate change are very real, they are worsening, and they will exacerbate severe weather patterns, threaten food security, damage the health of our oceans, and detrimentally effect many lives. Developing countries already struggling with hunger, poverty, loss of productive topsoil, and human sickness will be particularly hard hit. Importantly, although natural sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions do exist, humans are to blame for the degree of climate change we are currently experiencing, because it is largely a byproduct of our actions—certain habits that have resulted in excessive GHGs being increasingly emitted into our atmosphere over the past century. Unfortunately, previous conferences of this type have ended in lack of formal agreement and have missed targets for change. The two largest emitters in the world, China and the U.S., don’t even participate.

Urgency       Image

Every aspect of global depletion has a timeline. It’s not really a question of if we will run out of certain vital resources or environment that sustains us… it’s WHEN. Perhaps the most critical timeline we face, regarding our survival as a species, is that of climate change. We have only a three- to four-year window of time from now to drastically reduce GHGs, or we will be thrust into irreversible warming of our planet. Most experts agree that if our planet’s temperature increases just 2 degrees Centigrade from pre-industrial levels, there will be catastrophic effects—complete loss of island countries, as well as severe droughts, flooding, and storms, just for starters. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because we are already halfway to that two-degree mark, and we’re most likely careening toward a 3.6- to 5.3-degree Centigrade rise in average temperature by the end of this century. Some researchers believe that enough GHGs have already been emitted to cause atmospheric changes that will force us into continued short-term warming, regardless of a reduction in emissions.

In fact, the International Energy Agency has been quite clear about the window of opportunity for us to limit global warming, and that window closes at the end of year 2017 (IEA).


Wrong Focus

To date, the attention at the previous eighteen COP conferences and all other high-level climate change meetings has been on reducing the burning of fossil fuels by the energy sector, which accounts for roughly 53 percent of all GHGs. (Energy accounts for 66 percent of global GHGs, and 80 percent of all energy consumption derives from fossil fuel). Many experts suggest elimination of coal, due to its lack of efficiency and large proportion of GHG contribution.

In 2006, a now widely cited U.N. study shocked the world by reporting that the livestock industry accounted for 18 percent of all human-induced GHG. Since that time, other researchers have found that this figure may be in excess of 51 percent, which would make it by far the most significant global contributor to climate change. This disparity (18 vs. 51 percent) was a result of at least three factors: underreporting and omission of key data, use of outdated figures, and likely editorial conceptual bias of that 2006 U.N. report (see Goodland & Anhang). Note that neither report (U.N. or Goodland & Anhang) accounted for the additional GHG and ecological damage contributed by the fishing industry—the fossil fuel used by fishing fleets, as well as the transportation, refrigeration, processing, and packaging of marine life that is extracted from our oceans or raised in aquaculture operations.


In or out of COP conventions, discussions of our climate change plight typically end up sooner or later referencing one of two figures related to the maximum amount of GHG our atmosphere can accept before catastrophic effects mount:

  • The first figure, 350, refers to the parts per million density threshold of carbon-equivalent GHGs.
  • The second figure, 565, refers to the maximum total number of gigatons (Gt) of GHGs our atmosphere is able to absorb.

Livestock have been shown to produce up to 32 Gt per year (from methane and CO2 production, deforestation, etc.). So, it is possible that we could exceed our atmospheric maximum of 565 Gt by the year 2030, simply from the continued production and consumption of livestock—without the energy sector or any fossil fuel consumption (gas, oil, or coal) even factored into the equation.

While attention should surely be given to the energy, industry, and transportation sectors, certainly animal agriculture demands equal time in any COP or similar climate change conference. BP, Shell, and Exxon are significant players in our climate change saga, but so is every business associated with the meat, dairy, and fishing industries as well as the consumers who eat their products. And it is certainly easier for consumers to reach for plant-based food items than it is for them to go off the grid with their electrical needs or drive a wind-powered car.

Mitigation vs. Adaptation    get-attachment-12.aspx

Unable to construct a workable legal framework by which all countries are accountable, and faced with what they now see as worsening climate change inevitability, the delegates at Doha, Qatar (COP 18) turned to discussions of methods for “adapting” to climate change, rather than mitigating it. Discussions about the role of agriculture were conveniently postponed, as had occurred at all prior COP conventions, so frank dialogue addressing the elephant in the room—raising and eating animals—remains quite remote. The participants at recent COP conventions have had no difficulty calling for the elimination of coal and replacement of fossil fuels by alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. It’s time they consider calling for the same measures with animal products and concomitant agriculture industries. Indeed, the solution to the climate change caused by at least one of the three largest emitters of anthropogenic GHGs can be readily found by any of the high-level COP 19 attendees—they simply need to glance down at what’s on their dinner plates!

Prescription for Change     bookhardcover copy 

When looking at strategies for solving our increasing anthropogenic GHG-climate challenge, I believe we are faced with adopting one of two approaches here in the United States, which could then serve as an example for the rest of the world.

  • The first approach is to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel and fund research on alternative technologies, which is already underway. However, building renewable energy infrastructure such as solar and wind generators across our country to reduce climate change, although a good idea, is projected to take at least 20 more years and $18 trillion to develop. We don’t have 20 years, and we certainly don’t have $18 trillion.
  • So another solution to climate change would be to stop eating animals—today. It doesn’t have to take 20 years. And instead of $18 trillion, it costs nothing.

Replacement of all animal-based food products with plant-based alternatives is the clear immediate prescription for mitigating climate change.

Oh, and by doing so, we will also minimize our global footprint, essentially reducing nearly all other aspects of global depletion—land use inefficiencies and freshwater scarcity, damage to our oceans and loss of rainforests, rapid extinction of other species, world hunger, and escalation of chronic disease in humans.

Problems solved.


The Blue Planet Prize: What does it mean in 2012?

ImageYesterday, it was announced that Drs. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel will receive the Blue Planet Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards, for their work in creating the Ecological Footprint—a tracking or measurement of the impact we have on our planet. Since 2003, Rees, Wackernagel and their Global Footprint Network have used a data-determined metric as a monitoring device tracking how sustainable (or unsustainable) we are living. Their group and global partners now span six continents and apply the impact of the Footprint to many projects. As of 2012, they report that humans are in overshoot mode because we are using the equivalent of more than 1.5 planets to provide the resources taken, and to absorb our GHG emissions. One of their goals is to “increase international media outreach to broaden our message.” The work of this group is remarkable, and can serve as an important tool as we assess and then correct the detrimental effects we impose on our planet. They are to be truly commended.

But knowing that we are in an overshoot, unsustainable mode and actually taking the right steps to correct this are two separate issues. It is how we can best use this tool that becomes the question. The Global Footprint Network make it perfectly clear that they are “not anti-trade, anti-technology, or anti-GDP.” They are informational based only and “make no judgment about the value of technologies” or “the benefits, disadvantages or fairness of trade.” As such, it is left up to our nations’ leaders, policy makers, business leaders, and individuals to first become aware of the information provided by the Ecological Footprint and then to create change—if sustainability is their goal. The Global Footprint Network has come to the same conclusions as many other organizations in that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” However, as with other organizations, the Global Footprint Network stumbles with providing specific reasons and then a viable direction as to resolution—we need a clear pathway toward sustainability, not simply hearing recited observations that we are not there. Fundamental change is in order and it begins with conveying realities.

I can help with the clarification. This would be my approach: Our global demand to eat animals, without proper economic regard or reflection of resource use, has caused food production systems to become the largest contributing factor to our unsustainable Ecological Footprint. The raising, slaughtering, and consumption of animals—livestock, wild caught fish, and aquaculture—is the primary cause of Global Depletion. It is not a factory farm or “agribusiness” problem. It’s an eating animals problem. Our demand to eat animals is responsible for 30-51% of all anthropogenic ghg emissions and climate change, 80% of the deforestation of tropical rainforests, 100% of the overgrazing, 100% of the fisheries collapse, 100% of the food insecurity issues (with factors we can control), and at least 50% of the rapid extinction of terrestrial and oceanic species. This is what needs to be said.

So Drs. Rees and Wackernagel are quite right in stating that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” They, and the world however, need to identify the reasons, spell out the fact that although there are other contributing factors, our food choices as they involve animals and animal products are the largest single issue. We need to use this valuable information to create change, not simply point our finger at a generality that a problem exists. Although specifying the major cause of our ecological overshoot appears to be difficult for everyone to do, it is actually the easiest to identify and correct—simply begin eating all plant-based foods. No animals. Now.

I encourage everyone to take the information Rees and Wackernagel have so skillfully assembled, assign the major causative factor for overshoot, make the change to a fully plant based diet and then inspire others to follow suit. We have the information. Let’s do something with it.

Dr. O

What Was Missed At Durban

ImageThe 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference concluded Sunday morning (December 11) in Durban, South Africa. Although there was the usual drama that accompanies these conferences, ministers finally reached an agreement on a new text, referred to as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, that will see the Kyoto Protocol extended into a second commitment period by a number of countries. While this may seem promising, it marked the 17th time that a global climate change summit displayed the continued and blatant omission of addressing food choice as a significant factor.

In order to appreciate why this is so important we should first review what the event is all about. In 1997, 194 nations drafted and adopted the Kyoto Protocol—an international treaty developed from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to identify and mitigate human influencing factors on climate change. Nations now gather annually as part of the Conference of the Parties (COP).

The intent of COP, then, is to essentially find methods of reducing the production of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) into our atmosphere by the three principal component gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Greenhouse gases (which also include water vapor and ozone) are those that absorb and emit infrared radiation. The Protocol, as a legally binding agreement, was entered into force in 2005 with the objective to reach a target reduction of 5.2% GHG emissions from the 1992 levels by the year 2012. Commitments in the Kyoto Protocol were based on “joint implementation”, “clean development mechanism”, and “international emissions trading.” Emissions trading was established to allow nations that can easily meet their targets to sell credits to those that cannot.

Although some strides have been made since 1997 with the Bali Action Plan in 2007 (COP 13) and the Cancun Agreements reached at COP 16 in 2010, the conferences have been characterized as seeing minimal progress in their first fourteen years due to differences in opinion between developed countries and also because the treaty applied to only industrialized nations—“37 Annex I countries” as referred to in the Protocol—but imposed no mandate on developing countries which includes emerging economic powers and significant GHG emitters like China, India, Brazil , and South America, Mexico, and Korea. As of December 2011, the U.S. has not and will not agree to an extension of Kyoto beyond 2012 or sign the treaty unless there is a balancing of requirements between developed and undeveloped countries. The Cancun Agreements realized the need to commit both economically strong as well as developing countries by proposing a Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help deliver financial aid to poorer nations. The GCF was proposed to mobilize $100 billion annually from private and public funds but has yet to see implementation.

As of early 2011, many scientists felt the existing Kyoto pledges were far less than what was needed to reach the UN’s goal of keeping a temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the calculated maximum amount above which we will likely see truly catastrophic effects. China, India, and the U.S. are waiting until a mandatory review of new science findings scheduled for 2015. This caused postponing the redrafting of internationally binding GHG emission commitments and involvement of unsigned countries until then. With this delay, it is predicted that global warming will reach 3.5 degrees Celsius or worse in coming years. (Climate Action Tracker, 12-6-11)

The negotiations in Durban revolved around extending the Kyoto Protocol, inclusion of all nations into a binding contract, and adoption of the GCF. In last few and extended hours of Durban amidst heated debate, an agreement was made by more than 190 nations to do just that—to continue towards a treaty that will include all emitters, define and enforce goals, and implement the GCF by 2015 which will be fully in force by 2020. Nations also agreed to create measures that would involve preserving tropical forests and the development of clean energy technology.

The World Resources Institute described the results at Durban as a “major climate deal” that would lead to better negotiations. While on its surface, the results at Durban could be construed as purposeful, even successful, the conference did little more than simply keep future talks viable—an agreement to agree. Major emitters such as China, India, and the U.S. are still not bound and so the outcome at Durban should be viewed as unsatisfying to anyone striving for real change in GHG emission policy. Alden Meyer, director of policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists responded by saying, “The decisions adopted here fell well short of what was needed.” The U.S. chief American climate negotiator, Todd D. Stern, stated that he was “hopeful that negotiations in coming years would produce a more equitable arrangement.” Since the primary goal of these COP meetings is to reduce the impact human activities have on climate change, one would have to view them as unsuccessful, since GHG are in fact on the increase and major contributing sectors, such as the meat, dairy, and fishing industries have not been properly addressed.

Regarding climate change, most researchers agree on the following:

  1. Global warming is occurring
  2. Climate change is worsening
  3. Major destructive and catastrophic events—flooding, droughts, rise in sea levels, melting of polar ice caps, etc. will occur and are directly proportional to rises in Earth’s temperature
  4. Climate changes are related to increases in greenhouse gases
  5. Anthropogenic (human induced) GHG emissions are large enough, beyond natural emissions, to be a significant contributing factor to global warming and climate change
  6. The largest sectors for anthropogenic emissions are energy and agriculture, together comprising more than 95% of these human induced GHG emissions
  7.  The single largest component of agricultural emissions are those from raising livestock, which contributes between 20% and 51% of all total GHG emissions globally (energy+agriculture)

Although wider acceptance of a Protocol extension and inclusion of all nations into a binding international contract now seem a delayed but future possibility, there remains an obvious omission from any COP discussions and implementation strategies. What is clearly missing from this list above is a #8, which would connect the final dot—that, since raising livestock is one of the single largest contributors to human induced GHG emissions and since the objective of all annual COP meetings is to mitigate human induced GHG emissions, then we simply need to stop raising livestock.  However, this would necessitate definitive and legally binding universal language stipulating that all countries “stop raising and eating animals”—with strict, time activated, and enforceable measures in effect. To date, policy makers have been unwilling to do this and there has been no such statement or regulation in the mix. With or without annual international climate change summits, with or without signed agreements, proper progress will not be made with reducing GHG emissions until the issue of food choice is on center stage and raising livestock is eliminated by all nations.

More on this subject can be found in the book “Comfortably Unaware.”