We can’t keep eating as we are – why isn’t the IPCC shouting this from the rooftops?

(The Guardian, 8 Aug 2019) In its crucial land and climate report, the IPCC irresponsibly understates the true carbon cost of our meat and dairy habits.

It’s a tragic missed opportunity. The new report on land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shies away from the big issues and fails to properly represent the science. As a result, it gives us few clues about how we might survive the century. Has it been nobbled? Was the fear of taking on the farming industry – alongside the oil and coal companies whose paid shills have attacked it so fiercely – too much to bear? At the moment, I have no idea. But what the panel has produced is pathetic.

The problem is that it concentrates on just one of the two ways of counting the carbon costs of farming. The first way – the IPCC’s approach – could be described as farming’s current account. How much greenhouse gas does driving tractors, spreading fertiliser and raising livestock produce every year? According to the panel’s report, the answer is around 23% of the planet-heating gases we currently produce. But this fails miserably to capture the overall impact of food production.

The second accounting method is more important. This could be described as the capital account: how does farming compare to the natural ecosystems that would otherwise have occupied the land? A paper published in Nature last year, but not mentioned by the IPCC, sought to count this cost. Please read these figures carefully. They could change your life.

The official carbon footprint of people in the UK is 5.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year. But in addition to this, the Nature paper estimates that the total greenhouse gas cost – in terms of lost opportunities for storing carbon that the land would offer were it not being farmed – of an average northern European diet is 9 tonnes a year. In other words, if we counted the “carbon opportunity costs” of our diet, our total footprint would almost triple, to 14.4 tonnes.

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The Guardian, 8 Aug 2019: We can’t keep eating as we are – why isn’t the IPCC shouting this from the rooftops?