The Lives of Otters

If you walk at night along an open marsh or riverbank, you may well come across an incredible animal. This mammal with two arms and two legs is agile enough to chase and catch a fish underwater and smart enough to use tools. There are as many as 13 distinct species of otter, but I will be focusing on two: the sea otter and the Eurasian river otter. Sea otters recently captured the hearts of millions when they were featured on David Attenborough’s Our Planet. In this piece, I will be looking at what makes otters so special, and what makes them so damn endearing.

If you walk at night along an open marsh or riverbank, you may well come across an incredible animal. This mammal with two arms and two legs is agile enough to chase and catch a fish underwater and smart enough to use tools. There are as many as 13 distinct species of otter, but I will be focusing on two: the sea otter and the Eurasian river otter. Sea otters recently captured the hearts of millions when they were featured on David Attenborough’s Our Planet. In this piece, I will be looking at what makes otters so special, and what makes them so damn endearing.

While humans eat about 3% of our body weight in food each day, Eurasian otters can stuff in a whopping 15 to 20%. That figure goes up to 25 to 30% for sea otters! That is roughly the equivalent of an average human eating 3 bowling balls every day. Sea otters eat so much because they have an extremely fast metabolism, which they need to keep warm in the cold ocean waters. That is also the reason why sea otters have the thickest fur of any animal, with 850,000 to 1,000,000 hairs per square inch. Pleasingly, that is around 420 times thicker than human hair.

To quote Attenborough, “such a luxuriant coat requires a great deal of attention”. Sea otters must thus spend several hours a day grooming themselves to remove salt crystals and add natural oils. They also use this time to work air bubbles into their coat to provide an extra layer of insulation. This trapped air provides 4 times more insulation than the same thickness of blubber. Take that seals! Their thick, oily fur means that an otter’s skin never gets wet.

Around 90% of all the sea otters in the world can be found off the coast of Alaska. The way they eat is truly amazing. Sea otters dive down to collect crabs, sea urchins and other hard-shelled invertebrates. They also collect a rock, which they store under their armpit. The otter returns to the surface and balances the rock on their belly. They then use the rock as a tool to break open the shells and get to the sweet meat within.

Believe it or not, sea otters are also responsible for sequestering carbon, and are thus an ally in the fight against climate change. Sea otters are a ‘keystone’ species, meaning that they have a disproportionately large effect on the ecosystem when compared to other species. One effect of removing sea otters from their ecosystem is that sea urchin populations explode, devouring the carbon-storing kelp forests which the otters call home. In this way, sea otters are indirectly responsible for sequestering between 4.4 and 8.7 million tonnes of carbon each year. In other words, they sequester the same amount of carbon that would be released from deforesting an area between the size of Disney World and Washington DC every year.

Adult sea otters can grow up to nearly 5 feet! Bet you didn’t see that coming. That’s about 4 bowling pins or a little over 1 Danny DeVito. That makes sea otters the largest of all ‘mustelids’: the class of animals which includes weasels, ferrets and badgers. Sea otters are also the only mustelids which don’t produce a strong-smelling secretion from their anal glands to attract mates and mark territory. In order to stop themselves floating apart, sea otters wrap themselves in seaweed to form what is called a ‘raft’. Sea otters have been observed floating in groups of up to 1,000 individuals.

Beginning in around 1741, Russian hunters brought sea otter populations to their knees in order to sell their warm, dense fur. In the process, they completely exterminated the Stellar’s Sea Cow, a close relative of the manatee which measured 9 meters in length. That’s about half a bowling lane or a little over 6 Danny DeVitos in case you were wondering. Sea otter populations rebounded from just 50 individuals in 1914 to around 3,000 animals today. Some populations, however, are once again in decline as a result of oil pollution and habitat loss. They are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN red list.

Eurasian otters mark their territory by depositing faeces on boulders, bridge-footings and grass tussocks. These blobs of dung, known as ‘spraints’ have been used in recent years to track otter populations and find out what they eat. That is because it is very hard to observe them in the wild, since they are mainly nocturnal and largely hunt underwater. Eurasian otters are not picky. While they mainly feed on fish, the Eurasian otter has also been found to eat crayfish, frogs, insects, and even animals like ducks and rabbits.

Despite being solitary creatures, these otters have a pretty complex social life. Males (called ‘dogs’) have a rigid territory which they defend from other males, while female territories overlap. It is thought that females (called ‘bitches’) share a group range, but that each individual has a core area where they spend more than half their time. Essentially the only reason males and females meet is to mate. The male contributes nothing but sperm to the raising of young, despite cubs taking up to 13 months to become self-sufficient hunters. The nest in which the mother raises the young is known as a ‘holt’.

Otter populations have declined significantly across Europe, with the species recently becoming extinct in the Netherlands. Ireland is left as one of the last strongholds for the Eurasian Otter. Their decline was linked to the use of organochlorine pesticides, highly toxic chemicals which have made their way into the aquatic food chain. Organochlorine pesticides include DDT, the chemical at the heart of Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 work Silent Spring. The fight against organochlorine pesticides was the catalyst for the birth of the environmentalist movement, and it is easy to see why.

Organochlorine pesticides are a form of chlorinated hydrocarbon, a group which also includes Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), an industrial chemical which has also been found in the spraints of Irish otters. More PCBs are found in the spraints of Irish otters the further east you go, since there is more industrial activity in the area surrounding the capital. Sadly, significant numbers of Irish otters are also killed on the roads, and habitat loss poses another grave threat.

While some residue from organochlorine pesticides can still be found in the spraints of Irish otters, levels are generally low. Some populations are starting to recover in the UK thanks to valiant conservation attempts, but we are very much not off the hook yet. If we are to save these adorable marine mammals, we must continue to designate riverbanks, marshes and coastlines around the world as special areas of conservation and set about the task of rewilding them. Only then may the otter’s prey return, and with it, the security of their species.

Carbon Neutral Lent: Week 1 – Food

Ireland’s carbon footprint is an unusual one. At 34% of the total national emissions, agriculture has a greater impact on our emissions profile than any other European country. For comparison, waste (which includes the footprint of all our plastic) is responsible for just 1.5% of our emissions. Even so, it seems like businesses and well-meaning citizens are far more concerned with ditching plastic straws than they are with reducing the footprint of the foods that we eat.

Welcome to the first week of Carbon Neutral Lent! The pancakes are gone, which means the time has come for spreadsheets. This week we will be looking at the messy and complicated topic of the carbon footprint of food. Don’t forget to head over to the CNL landing page to download the tracker spreadsheet which will allow you to estimate your carbon ‘foodprint’ at the end of each week by asking you one simple question! Also, come on down to our event in the Landmark pub in Dublin on the 3rd of March, where CNL founder Darragh Wynne will be joined by a variety of guests to talk about the carbon footprint of food. Come for the information, stay for the music!

Ireland’s carbon footprint is an unusual one. At 34% of the total national emissions, agriculture has a greater impact on our emissions profile than any other European country. For comparison, waste (which includes the footprint of all our plastic) is responsible for just 1.5% of our emissions. Even so, it seems like businesses and well-meaning citizens are far more concerned with ditching plastic straws than they are with reducing the footprint of the foods that we eat.

Our unusually high agricultural footprint is not, however, necessarily a result of our eating habits. It is because we make our money producing extremely high-carbon foods and then exporting them to other countries. To be precise, it is because we produce a whole lot of beef and dairy. Dairy cow numbers increased in Ireland by 27% between 2013 and 2018, in large part due to the removal of the milk quota in 2015.

This goes to show that the types of food we grow and eat can have a massive effect on our emissions. A kilogram of locally grown, in season carrots comes in at 0.25 kgs of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). The same weight of beef is a whopping 17kg CO2e. In other words, pound for pound, beef produces 68 times more carbon than locally grown carrots.

Of course, the comparison is not so simple as this. A kilogram of beef contains about 5 times more calories and about 25 times more protein than a kilogram of carrots. Still, 5 times the calories for 68 times the carbon is a monster trade-off. Getting 1 calorie from beef produces around 14 times more carbon than one calorie from a carrot. Plus, carrots contain far more fiber and carbohydrates and far less fat than beef.

As for protein, how much you need depends on how much you weigh and how active you are. The rule for a sedentary person is that you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. As a 70 kilo man, I would need 56 grams of protein per day. Conveniently, that is exactly the average recommended intake for a sedentary man. That’s about 3.2 Tesco beef burgers of 84 grams each.

Alternatively, you could get that protein from non-animal sources for a fraction of the carbon price. Quorn burgers, for example, contain 18g of protein per hundred grams. In other words, I’d need 3.7 Quorn burgers of 84 grams each to get my daily dose of protein. What’s more, the carbon footprint would be reduced by 90%!

Quorn is far from being the only low-carbon source of protein. We get protein from almost everything we eat. 100 grams of chickpeas, for example will give you 20 grams of protein. Soybeans are also a great source, with 100 grams containing 16.6 grams of protein.  It is easy to see how, over the course of a day, we can take in as much protein as we need without the help of meat.

It is important to note, however, that the recommended protein intake for someone who partakes in a strenuous physical activity like weight lifting or endurance running is considerably higher. Nearly twice as high, in fact, with strength and endurance athletes recommended to take in 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If I were to spend all day in the gym, then, I would need 119 grams of protein per day. For active people such as this, protein shakes can provide the rest of the daily protein that you are not getting from food. Plus, there are vegan options available!

That brings us nicely to the question of how much better veganism is for the environment than vegetarianism. One study found that you can cut 1.82 kilograms of CO2e per day by switching from a medium-meat diet to a vegetarian one. The same study found that switching from a vegetarian to a vegan diet would save nearly a kilogram more carbon per day. In other words, going vegan is a fair bit better for emissions.

Cheese is the third highest-emissions food after beef and lamb. That’s right, a kilo of cheese produces more emissions than a kilo of pork or chicken, although it must be said that cheese is usually eaten in much smaller quantities. Vegan food also uses less land and water to produce than eggs and dairy, further reducing a vegan’s impact on the environment. Whether or not food comes from animals is perhaps the best indicator of how high-carbon it will be. If you hadn’t guessed, animal products are almost always worse. But why is meat so bad for the environment?

The simple answer is that growing crops and eating them is a far more efficient process than raising animals for food. That is because you have to grow a lot of crops to feed to the animals while they grow big enough for slaughter. It uses much less land and water and produces far fewer emissions to cut out the middleman and go straight to the source of the nutrition; the plants.

Plants build their bodies using carbon they take from the air, water they take from the ground and energy they take from the sun. They don’t need to move, digest food, pump blood around their bodies or keep themselves warm and that saves them a lot of energy.

Animals, on the other hand, burn up most of the energy they take in from plants by walking around, breathing and keeping warm. If you feed a cow 100 calories in the form of grain, only 3% of those calories will be returned in the meat. That means that you have to feed them a whole lot more over their lifetime than you will get back in the end.

In the case of ‘ruminant’ animals like cattle and sheep, there is the added problem of methane. Ruminants are hoofed mammals that have a 4-chambered stomach, one of which is called the rumen. Microbes break down the ruminant’s food in a process known as ‘enteric fermentation’, which produces a lot of methane. To be precise, it produces 30% of all anthropogenic methane emissions.

Water use is another major consideration, with a 2003 study finding that “Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein”. I worked out for a previous article that eating a pound of beef wastes about as much water as leaving your shower on for about 15 hours.

Eating plants is not just low-carbon. It is also gives a much higher yield per hectare than producing meat. In a much-cited study from 2013, Emily Cassidy et al. found that “given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people”.

In other words, if it were not for the fact that we waste plant nutrition by feeding it to livestock, the population could grow to 10 billion by 2050 (as projected) and we could still feed every person on earth with ease. According to the same study, “36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet”. That is a huge amount of waste considering how many people do not have enough to eat.

That brings us very neatly to the incredibly important topic of food waste. In Ireland, over a million tonnes of food are wasted each year. The excellent Climate Queens podcast figured out that that’s enough to fill Croke Park with food waste twice each year. Globally, one third of all food produced goes to waste. That is more than enough to feed the roughly 11% of people in the world who are chronically malnourished.

If food waste were a country, it would have the third highest emissions of any country on earth after the US and China. That is because approximately 10% of all carbon emissions globally come from food waste, costing the world about €550 billion per year.

Food waste is a win-win area in which we can both seriously cut emissions and increase the total food available for consumption. Try keeping a journal of which foods you are throwing out. If you find that you are regularly throwing out half a tub of coleslaw, for example, you can start buying a smaller tub. It really is that simple!

There is so much more we could say about the carbon footprint of food. I haven’t even touched on the emissions from fertilizers, how different types of feed affect the emissions profile of livestock or the very important topic of animal cruelty in agriculture.

If you take two things away from this piece, however, let them be that
a) you should cut down on meat and dairy as much as possible and
b) you should eat the food that you buy.

If we all made these two simple rules a priority when it comes to which food we choose to buy, we could massively cut emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. In the process, we would also increase the land available for crop production, forests, wetlands and renewable energy projects. Plus, we would save a whole lot of money and water.

What are you waiting for?

Carbon Neutral Lent: Individual and Systemic Action

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

Depending on who you ask, climate change is a policy problem, an engineering problem, a communications problem, an ethical problem; the list goes on. At its heart, however, it is a physical problem. Carbon is carbon. Climate change does not care about fairness. It will react to the quantity of greenhouse gases which are cumulatively released into the atmosphere, regardless of whether those emissions come from Exxon Mobil or from your meat, lights and planes.

The Guardian recently reported that just 20 companies are responsible for a third of all emissions since 1965. Those numbers can easily make one feel that individual action is a fool’s errand. Surely we can just shut down these companies and we’ll be fine? Again, it is somewhat more complicated than that. What does it mean for a company to be ‘responsible’ for emissions? Those who read past the headline of that Guardian article will have seen that while 10% of those emissions came from the extraction and transport of the fossil fuels, 90% of the emissions came from us, the consumer, burning the fuel for energy. The fossil fuel industry facilitates the burning of fossil fuels but we are the ones to pull the trigger.

Would these companies have produced those emissions if there was no one there to buy their oil and coal? Even now, would they be raking in the cash if we didn’t need their fuel for our cars or their energy for our homes? If there’s a market for it, then someone’s selling. If there’s no market for it, it stays in the ground where it belongs. That’s capitalism. Supply and demand. Don’t worry, I don’t like it either.

Of course, petrochemical companies like Shell do bear a disproportionate share of the blame, not least because they have between them spent vast sums of money trying to obscure the facts about climate change by funding right-wing think tanks, factually inaccurate media campaigns and the ‘research’ of a select few ethically suspect scientists. Think of the solar panels they could have built with that money.

Another major consideration is the massive gap in per capita emissions between the developed and developing world. There is a huge number of people in the developing world who emit next to nothing. The average emissions for the group of 47 countries categorised by the UN as ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) is 0.3 tonnes per person per year. The average for the rich 35 ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD) countries is 9.6 tonnes. That’s one hell of a difference.

The difference becomes even more stark when you look at individual nations. Per capita, the average annual carbon emissions in the US are about 20 metric tonnes. Burundi, on the other hand, are listed by the ‘World Bank’ as emitting 0.0 tonnes per person per year. In my view, there is no possible argument to be made that could justify that level of inequality.  

The fossil fuel industry is particularly culpable, yes, but so are normal people in the developed world. Our vast over-consumption precludes the possibility of an equitable redistribution of resources to the global south. We have gained a massive advantage over the developing world through colonialism and the burning of fossil fuels. We must now right those wrongs by fighting to restore some semblance of global equality. Perhaps that means sacrificing some of the things that we only have as a result of exploitation.

If we don’t reduce our individual footprints in the developed world, the very act of pulling people out of poverty in the developing world will lead to incredibly dangerous levels of emissions. The question is whether we should ask the rich kids to stop eating beef or ask the poor kids to stop eating at all. I know which seems fairer and more ethical to me.

Don’t get me wrong, individual action is not enough by itself. Not by a long shot. We do need systemic change. Among other things, we need governments to build renewable energy infrastructure and provide funding to retrofit houses. We need them to expand and green public transport, impose quotas on cattle herds, set targets for reforestation and protect marine habitats. Unfortunately, this all takes time that we don’t have. Especially at the pace we are going at. Again, climate change is a physical problem. While we argue over the wording of a document, carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere faster each year. Climate waits for no man.

While we fight for systemic change, we must also reduce our individual consumption in the developed world if we are to give people in the developing world time to improve their socioeconomic conditions. If you have quit the meat or stopped flying, that is a good thing. Your efforts have not been for nothing. You have reduced the global average per capita emissions, giving the developing world more time to reduce poverty before it has to start worrying about the resulting emissions.

In philosophy, a distinction is often drawn between necessity and sufficiency. While bread is necessary for a sandwich, for example, it is not sufficient. You also need a filling. I would argue that while both individual and systemic action are necessary in the fight against climate change, neither are sufficient in their own right. Systemic change takes time that we don’t have, and individual change does not give us the emissions reductions that we need. Together, they might have a shot.

In the developed world, we must fight the powers that be and force widespread systemic change. That is the most important thing we can do. In the meantime, however, we must also reduce our own footprints. That is the only way I can see for us to achieve a truly just transition. We cannot be expected to live carbon-free lives in a carbon-rich system. We can, however, be expected to try. Why? Because the alternative is so much worse.

Short Change: The Vampire in your Living Room

Printers, microwaves, chargers, DVD players, desktop computers and many other devices all drain energy when turned off or not in use. This drain is known as ‘vampire’ or ‘standby’ power and is responsible for a huge amount of energy loss each year. Since that energy is largely generated by burning fossil fuels, vampire power accelerates the rate of global warming as well as raising your electricity bill.

TVs, Printers, microwaves, chargers, DVD players, desktop computers and many other devices all drain energy when turned off or not in use. This drain is known as ‘vampire’ or ‘standby’ power and is responsible for a huge amount of energy loss each year. Since that energy is largely generated by burning fossil fuels, vampire power accelerates the rate of global warming as well as raising your electricity bill.

According to UC Berkeley, Americans lose 200-400 terawatt hours per year to vampire power; that’s enough electricity to power all of Italy! That is quite something, given that the US population is only about 5 times larger than that of Italy. Some investigations into vampire power have found that many appliances actually use more energy during the time when they are idle than they do when they are in use. One survey of office buildings in Thailand found that 90% of the electricity used by printers, copiers and fax machines was vampire power. In other words, it would cost 10 times less money and emissions to run these devices if they were simply unplugged when not in use. Another study found that 80% of electricity used by video recorders in Australia was used in standby mode.

So how can you identify an energy vampire? Unfortunately it is not as simple as throwing holy water at your devices. There are, however, some good rules of thumb. Anything that can be turned on with a remote control is likely an energy vampire, since the sensor which picks up the signal must remain on 24/7. Another likely culprit is any device, like microwaves or radios, which constantly displays the time on a screen. There are, however, many other devices which consume power when not in use but show no external signs of doing so.

This issue negatively affects both the bank accounts of the average consumer and the global effort to combat climate change. Compared to dismantling the fossil fuel industry or convincing everyone to stop eating meat, this is a relatively easy fix. One way to slay vampire power is on the side of the consumer. If you buy a couple of extension cords with on/off switches, you can easily cut power to things like TVs and printers when they are not in use. Try keeping your remote control beside the extension cord so that you can flip the switch when you go to pick it up. There is, however, only so much we can do.

The more promising solution to vampire power is technical and is the responsibility of electronics manufacturers. For example, energy-saving devices can be built which automatically cut power when not in use for a certain amount of time. Another example would be phone or laptop chargers which cut the power when the device is fully charged or unplugged. It is estimated that changes to the power circuits of devices could reduce vampire power by as much as 90%, so manufacturers have the power to largely fix this issue all by themselves. One problem with this is that consumers are more likely to buy, for example, a TV which can be turned on remotely, so manufacturers have an incentive to keep producing goods which drain power when not in use.

Cutting vampire power would allow us to supply many more people with electricity without a corresponding increase in CO2 emissions. Improvements in efficiency such as this will be necessary to fight climate change, but must occur in tandem with a number of other tactics, including a conscious effort to reduce energy consumption across the board. It is the responsibility of manufacturers and consumers alike (but mainly manufacturers) to be careful about how much power is being used, and to identify and eliminate any power drain which is not absolutely necessary.

3 Things You Should Really Know about Climate Change

In recent years, study after study have confirmed our worst fears about climate change and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Many people now find themselves scrambling to come to terms with the complexities of climate change. Here are 3 things you should know:

In recent years, study after study have confirmed our worst fears about climate change and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Many people now find themselves scrambling to come to terms with the complexities of climate change. Here are 3 things you should know:

The Snowball Effect

One of the scariest things about climate change is that as it gets worse, new mechanisms are triggered which contribute to and accelerate the problem. Such mechanisms are called ‘positive feedback loops’. The most obvious and dangerous example of a feedback loop is the melting of the polar ice caps. Both land and the ocean are darker in colour than white ice. Since darker shades absorb more heat from the sun, the loss of reflective white ice causes the land, ocean and atmosphere to warm at an accelerated rate. As more ice melts, the earth gets hotter. As the earth gets hotter, more ice melts and a vicious circle is born.

Perhaps scarier is that the permafrost (soil or rock that has been frozen for more than 2 years) currently contains twice as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. Permafrost is what is known as a ‘carbon sink‘ since it traps huge amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that would otherwise be warming the planet. While there is plenty of CO2 in the permafrost, there is also an abundance of methane, a GHG that is 20 to 30 times more efficient than CO2 at reflecting heat back towards the earth over a 100 year period. Another positive feedback loop is that of forest fires. Each tree that burns releases all the carbon it has taken in over its lifetime and darkens the area where it stood, allowing for more heat absorption. Less trees means higher temperatures which means more fires and more fires means less trees.

Along with ice and trees, soil is another major carbon sink. Recent studies suggest that as the earth heats, microbial activity in soil causes the carbon that has been accumulating over millennia to be released into the atmosphere. Each year, the burning of fossil fuels releases about 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. 3,500 billion tons are trapped in the soil. If the earth gets hot enough that significant amounts of this carbon are released into the atmosphere, the consequences will be dire for all life on earth.

Yet another example of a carbon sink that may turn into a carbon source is the ocean. The ocean is currently the largest carbon sink on the planet, having already absorbed half of all the carbon we have released since the industrial revolution. However, the warmer the water is, the less CO2 it is able to hold. In addition to this, water vapour is a greenhouse gas and climate change is sure to bring a huge increase in ocean evaporation. However, this particular issue is not as dire as it seems.

The problem of ocean evaporation has something that is rare when talking about climate; a silver lining. More water vapour in the atmosphere means more clouds which block incoming solar radiation. This is a negative feedback loop which could help to regulate the temperature of the earth. The more water that evaporates from the ocean, the more clouds there are to block the sun’s rays and hopefully help to cool the planet. Research has shown that the reflective properties of the extra cloud cover should actually cool the earth, despite water vapour being a GHG.

Feedback loops illustrate how fragile our climate really is. Given their existence, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is like poking a tiger in the eye. Because of feedback loops, relatively low emissions can have far greater consequences than they otherwise would. It is imperative that we cut our own emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible if we are to avoid setting off these chain reactions that would surely alter the conditions of our planet for millennia to come.

Going Veggie Makes a Difference

Animal agriculture is the second largest source of greenhouse gases after energy production. There is much talk of reducing greenhouse gases by taking the bus or by refusing to fly, but animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all modes of transport combined. Not too long ago on an evolutionary scale, humans accounted for 1% of the earth’s mammals, with the other 99% being wild animals. Now, humans and our livestock make up a staggering 96% of all mammal biomass on earth.

It takes a huge amount of water to raise animals for food, cattle being the worst offenders. Between the water given to the animal directly and the water required to grow food for it, it takes roughly 7,000 litres of water to raise one pound of beef. That means that by eating a portion of beef about the same weight as 3 tomatoes you waste as much water as you would by leaving your shower on for about 15 hours. If you were to eat the 3 tomatoes instead, you would use about 100 litres of water instead of 7,000. Think about that the next time you decide that taking a bath is too wasteful.

Some people say that the effect of animal agriculture on climate change is exaggerated. I say it cannot be exaggerated enough. While animal agriculture accounts for only 11% of emissions directly (methane from animals burping), its effects on the planet go much further than that. One third of all ice-free land on earth is used to raise livestock, and one third of all grain on earth is used to feed them. This greatly reduces the space and resources available to wild animals.

Animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation, depriving many wild animals of their homes and access to food. In addition to this disastrous impact on biodiversity, trees are one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet. One acre of forest can accumulate 100 metric tonnes of CO2 over time and we cut down roughly 18 million acres of forests a year. That means that the trees we cut down each year contain between them approximately 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2. To give you perspective, the average emissions per person globally is 5 metric tons per year. In the world’s largest forest, the Amazon, 90% of deforestation is carried out in the name of animal agriculture. In many cases, the forest is cut down and the wood is simply burned just to make room for livestock, releasing all the carbon trapped during the tree’s lifetime back into the atmosphere all at once. By expanding our land use to feed our booming populations, we are depriving the planet of one of its natural defense mechanisms against rising CO2 levels.

It takes about 65 square feet of land to make a quarter-pounder. The average american eats about 62 pounds of beef per year. That works out to almost half an acre of land use per person for beef alone. If you expand that number to include all Americans, over 121,000,000 acres of land are needed for the production of beef each year. That is roughly the size of Spain. In reality, America produces more beef than it consumes. Right now, 654,000,000 acres of america are used for grazing (not just cattle). That is almost the same size as India, a country with 4 times the population. There are only 327 million Americans, but global populations are set reach 10 billion by 2050. If this is not unsustainable then I don’t know what is.

The crux of this problem is that there are only so many resources available to the animals that live here on earth. By redirecting the majority of those resources (like land, water and food) to just a few species (like cattle, chickens and pigs), we completely derail the balance that has existed in the global ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years. People fail to make the connection between the food we eat and the massive loss of biodiversity which is currently taking place. The truth is that they could not be more linked.

Climate Change is not Binary

When people talk about climate change, the sentiment is often that we need to do something before it is ‘too late’ to ‘stop’ climate change. Unfortunately, that time has already passed. The carbon we have already released will take a long time to have an effect on the climate, and emissions are still rising. There is no way this is going to end perfectly. We have already sealed the fate of countless people by releasing as much CO2 as we have. This, however, is no reason to give up the fight. Many people have become fatalists about climate change, saying that its effects will be terrible now regardless of what we do. So why bother trying? The answer is that climate change is not a ‘yes or no’ question. If anything, it is multiple choice. Our actions now and in the coming years will dictate not ‘whether’ climate change will happen, but rather how badly the effects will be felt by future generations. It is never ‘too late’ to act, because things can always get worse.

I will be taking many of the stats in this section from a terrifying but brilliant book by David Wallace Wells called ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘. According to Wells, it is estimated that at 2 degrees of warming, “the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity”…”there would be 32 times as many extreme heatwaves in India, and each would last 5 times as long“. This is the fate we have all but guaranteed for the next few generations of people and animals. Things are going to get very, very bad and there is nothing we can do about it. However, the effects of 2 degrees of warming pale in comparison to those of 3 degrees.

According to Wells, at 3 degrees, droughts in Africa are predicted to last 5 years longer than they do now. In the U.S, wildfires would destroy at least 6 times as much land as they do now. The number of people without access to drinking water or food will continue to increase at breakneck speeds. Recent research suggests that if we immediately meet the goals set out in the Paris climate accord, we will still warm the planet by around 3.2 degrees. Currently, no industrial nation is on track to meet those goals. When it will happen is hard to say, but in the next couple of centuries, humans will be faced with the devastating situation I have just described. But even if we have locked in 3 degrees already, things could still get much worse.

Each degree brings with it new levels of unimaginable suffering for both humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Our job now is to mitigate as best we can how badly climate change will be felt by generations to come. 2 degrees is better than 3 degrees, true. But 3 is better than 4. 4 is better than 5. 5 is better than 6 and so on. The UN predicts that we are due for about 4.5 degrees by the end of the century. Their worst-case scenario (if we carry on doing what we’re doing) is 8 degrees by the end of the century. With that amount of warming, one third of the planet would be uninhabitable due to direct heat alone and two thirds of our major cities would be underwater. Things will get bad, yes, but they don’t have to get that bad.

Getting High on Grass – Can Plants Really Fuel a Plane?

Humans have been using biofuels for as long as we’ve been using wood to fuel our fires. In the last hundred or so years, however, we’ve begun to understand how plant matter can be converted into liquid fuels that could soon power a plane. In this piece, I’ll be looking at where biofuels are now and where they need to be if they are to significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

Updated 11/09/2019

In the wake of recent studies showing how dangerously close to the brink we are when it comes to climate change, it is more important now than ever to seriously consider every possible alternative to environmentally damaging fossil fuels. One such alternative comes in the form of biofuels. Humans have been using biofuels for as long as we’ve been using wood to fuel our fires. In the last hundred or so years, however, we’ve begun to understand how plant matter can be converted into liquid fuels that could soon power a plane. In this piece, I’ll be looking at where biofuels are now and where they need to be if they are to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. I’ll be concentrating my efforts on recent attempts by the scientific community to make grass a viable fuel for transportation.

Grass is the most abundant plant on the planet. In my home country of Ireland, more than two thirds of all land is covered in naturally growing grass. If we could refine and perfect the process of turning grasses into fuel (grassoline), this could be a real contribution towards slowing the march of climate change. The problem right now is that it is expensive and inefficient. Many scientists in the field, however, think that given time and money, we could tap into this huge source of unharnessed power and perhaps help to save the planet in the process.

The reason grass in particular is being considered as a biofuel is not because it is necessarily the most efficient plant to use, but rather because of its abundance and willingness to grow in fields that are inhospitable to food crops, known as marginal lands. Another reason that grass is attractive as a biofuel is that it is not really needed for anything else. Other candidates for biofuels (like wood, sugarcane and soybeans) have the disadvantage of being useful for things like furniture, rum and tofu.

But why aviation fuel? One reason is that while cars are slowly turning electric, it is unlikely that planes will follow suit any time soon. This means that in the near future, cars could be powered by renewable sources whereas planes will continue to require liquid fuel. The other more pressing reason is that travelling by plane is far worse for the environment than any other mode of transport. This is down to two factors; first, planes are less efficient than other modes of transport in terms of emissions per passenger mile. Second, planes allow us to travel a far greater number of miles than we would otherwise be able to travel. The carbon footprint of flying from London to Hong Kong and back again is about a quarter of the average UK person’s annual carbon footprint.

The idea that we could use grass, algae and other plants to produce aviation fuel is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. The fossil fuels which we currently use are themselves made of organic matter that has, over a very long time, undergone a natural process called pyrolysis. Human beings have been using the process of pyrolysis for our own gain for thousands of years in the form of charcoal burning. Pyrolysis involves separating materials into their constituent molecules in the absence of oxygen. This means, very roughly, heating up the material to a specified temperature, covering it, and allowing it to separate into liquid, solid and gas. These products can then be refined into fuels. Recently, it has been found that microwave heating produces a higher pyrolysis yield than traditional methods since it can be done entirely in the absence of oxygen and at a very precise temperature. Another benefit is that the characteristic ‘hot spots’ of microwave heating aid in pyrolysis.

You might be thinking that grass is an important source of food for livestock. The beauty of using grass as a biofuel is that this resource would not be lost. The solid by-product of grass pyrolysis can still be fed to livestock. What’s more, by removing the liquid constituents, the feed can be preserved much longer than fresh grass cuttings. In the UK, biofuels already account for nearly 3% of all road and non-road mobile machinery fuel, but with the predicted change in efficiency given a few years, they could eventually account for a lot more than that.

Right now, scientists can only produce a few drops of biofuel from grass in the laboratory. Tests carried out at Ghent University in Belgium show, however, that there is a potentially very efficient energy source in grass if we can learn to harness it correctly. In April 2017, the researchers at Ghent found that a certain type of bacteria (clostridium) can be used to metabolize certain grasses into decane, a key ingredient in both petrol and aviation fuel. While this breakthrough cannot yet be used effectively, it is key knowledge that will inform future research into better biofuel technologies.

Hang on, you might say, if refining plant matter gives us the same fuel as we are already using, then why is it better for the environment? Surely biofuels release the same amount of CO2 as fossil fuels? This is indeed true. The difference is that the CO2 in living plants has only recently been absorbed from the air by the plant and is simply being released again. As the grass grows, it sequesters CO2 from the air. When it burns, that recently absorbed CO2 returns to the atmosphere to be trapped by the next batch of grassoline. Because of this, biofuels are said to be ‘carbon neutral’. With fossil fuels, the CO2 has been absent from the environment for a very long time, trapped underground. By burning it, we are releasing extra CO2 rather than what was already there.

A major obstacle to biofuel efficiency growth is that governments and companies are not willing to invest heavily in something that may not yield solid results for years to come. This is simply short-sightedness. The science will continue to improve. Lack of investment only slows down the process. The people who invest heavily now will surely see a huge return in a matter of years. Another well-known obstacle in the way of all renewable energies is the huge sums of money tied up in the fossil fuel industry. The industry is worth about 7 trillion USD globally. No wonder, then, that lobby groups are able so easily to sway policy-makers.

Biofuels are controversial among environmentalists, since they come with a number of downsides. Perhaps the most worrying is that every square foot of land which is used to produce the fuel is land that could instead be used to nurture biodiversity. Species are currently being lost so quickly as to constitute the sixth mass extinction in earth’s history. For me, using food crops like corn as feedstock is entirely off the table, since it opens the door to a future in which rich elites use corn-fed biofuel to fly away on their holidays while depriving poor people of food which is vital to their survival.

Another drawback is that biofuels are not very efficient when it comes to land use. According to Mike Berners-Lee, using solar panels instead to generate the power for flying would require 270 times less land than growing wheat for biofuel. The problem, however, is building a good enough battery. Right now, 1 kilo of jet fuel carries about the same energy as 20 kilos of premium lithion-ion batteries. One ray of hope came in March of 2015; ‘Solar Impulse 2’ began its attempt to become the first entirely solar powered plane to fly around the world. The journey was arduous and long for the two pilots. One of the pilots was named Bertrand Picard, a Swiss medical doctor who who was already the first person to fly around the world non-stop in a hot air balloon. Captain Picard of the USS Solar Impulse finally landed the plane in Abu Dhabi on July 26th 2016, from the spot where it had departed 505 days earlier.

Regardless of what figures like the US president may say, climate change is a very real and very serious danger. Biofuels are just one example of the many ways in which we can combat this danger, but they are one which will continue to grow in importance for years to come. The question is whether our money would be better spent developing renewable energies like solar and wind which require far less land and are thus better for wildlife conservation. When it comes to planes, however, grassoline may help to ease the transition to a low-carbon world. Every little helps in the fight against the huge and menacing entity that is climate change.

Some Further Reading and Research Sources