Don't know how to save the planet? This is what you can do

(The Guardian, 25 Mar 2019) Should we become vegetarians? Is it OK to fly? The author of There Is No Planet B, A Handbook for the Make or Break Years, answers the big questions.

Do we all need to go vegetarian? Or vegan?

Our food makes up something like a quarter of our greenhouse gas footprint, and at the same time as cutting this we need to feed a growing population better than we are doing now, while rescuing our haemorrhaging biodiversity and avoiding an antibiotics crisis. There is no escaping the clear evidence that humans need to reduce their meat – especially beef and lamb – as well as dairy consumption. When we feed a soya bean to a cow, we get back only about 10% of the nutrition in beef, and it comes with a hefty dose of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) and very likely some deforestation.

But there is no requirement for us to go all the way to either vegetarianism or veganism – it is all about the proportions. We do not even need to make all the changes overnight. We just need to start chipping away so that the proportions in our diets change radically over the next 10 or so years. And most of us can use this as an opportunity to eat more healthily.

Is it ok to fly?

Here is an inconvenient reality: a long-distance plane will typically burn though about 100 tonnes of fuel, turning it into almost four times that weight in carbon dioxide. Because of some complex high-altitude effects, the climate change impact of this is perhaps double what it would be if we burned that fuel on the runway. There are three options: biofuel (but the strain on our land is huge), synthetic fuels generated using solar power (but we already need all the solar power we can get), and fossil fuel counterbalanced with a mechanism for taking carbon back out of the air (but we do not yet know how to do this properly, and when we find out, we will already need to be doing this as fast as we can to mitigate non-flying climate impacts).

Short-distance electric flights are almost becoming feasible but the need to save weight means that at the moment liquid hydrocarbons are the only suitable fuel for a long-haul flight. So, a bit of flying is still OK, but not as much.

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The Guardian, 25 Mar 2019: Don't know how to save the planet? This is what you can do