How Politicians and the Media are Misleading Us Over the Causes of the Climate Crisis...
As the clock ticks down to the pivotal COP26 Global Conference in Glasgow the host government, our own, is miserably failing to live up to the conference’s claim to be “the world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control”.
The inability of Britain’s political class to grasp this, unarguably the greatest crisis in human history, was exposed when their response at the 2019 General Election to the Climate Crisis amounted to a flippant contest between Conservatives and Labour over how many trees each intended to plant.
November’s gathering of global leaders is a recognition that, although it is a global threat, the only way forward is for each government to address its own specific causes of the crisis. We cannot honestly point fingers at China’s emissions when the principal means of cutting our own has been to send much of our carbon-intensive manufacturing there. Horror is expressed at Brazil felling its rainforest, forgetting the vast quantity of soya they grow to feed chickens in our own factory farms.
Leading climatologist Michael E Mann expresses relief in his latest book, ‘The New Climate War’, that the fight against the outright climate-denial is won. His new war is against the disinformation which has left a large proportion of the public believing that the resolution of the Climate Crisis has less to do with its actual cause - burning fossil fuels - than making undemanding minor adjustments to our lifestyles such as recycling, changing our diets and maybe planting a few trees.
Where is any sense of emergency? Even the relatively minor ‘blip’ of the 1970s oil crisis saw the world’s minds focused by a 50 mph UK speed limit and the preparation of petrol coupons while the US President, in a woollen cardigan, made a national TV announcement that thermostats should be turned down. Will such bold initiatives be announced by ‘Global Britain’ in November to cut our own emissions by 10% overnight and lead the world to do the same? It looks most unlikely.
Instead all we hear is ‘Net Zero by 2050’. Yes, Zero emissions is the true target, but ‘Net’ is the escape clause which will allow 30 years of obfuscation and cynical ‘offsetting’. This weasel-word mirrors the Medieval Church’s sale of Indulgences for the guilt-laden to buy off anticipated time in Purgatory. Then there is the scam of ‘Carbon Trading’, a form of protection-racket where payments are made, for example, to leave ancient forests unfelled.
The power of the fossil-fuel industry is deeply engrained. Every schoolchild and student of recent generations has even been educated with the aid of false illustrations of the Earth’s carbon cycle. Yes, they show carbon timelessly recirculating through atmospheric CO2, living vegetation, aquatic, marine and soil-life and every form of living creature and organism. But, without fail, those images include a power-station belching fossil-carbon formed millions of years ago on its disastrous one-way trip from deep underground directly into the atmosphere. No wonder people are misled. (See image at top of page).
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s figures on the adjustments necessary to maintaining a habitable planet not only demand the slashing of current emissions, but extracting vast quantities of already-released CO2 from the atmosphere. The only currently available means of doing so is to plant trees. In our climate trees grow slowly; it takes a decade for a sapling to begin to make a difference. The government’s own Woodland Carbon Code indicates that over a 100 year cycle one hectare (two football pitches), even of densely-planted conifer forest, only extracts 900 kg of carbon per year in comparison with the 150 million tons emitted annually by the UK.
Here in COP26’s host nation, instead of absorbing past CO2 pollution, trees are being traded in exchange for future emissions. ‘Carbon Trading’ transfers money from polluting corporations to big landowners to finance the clearance of their estates to plant trees in a cynical exchange which allows the former to continue to pollute and the latter to become even richer.
The UK has increased its tree-cover from 5% of its land area to 14% over the last century, with the government trumpeting plans to reach 17%. These trees are invariably planted on grassland which already stores vast quantities of carbon deep in the soil; never, for example, to replace heat-absorbing tarmac where they would actually make a real difference. It will be very nice to have more trees, but even if the entire UK were planted in forest it would only compensate for a small fraction of this densely populated island’s fossil-fuel emissions. It is obviously impossible for the gentle cycle of Summer’s natural vitality and Winter dormancy to begin to make up for the millions of years of accumulated carbon poured night and day, into the atmosphere from fossil fuels.
Saplings planted in the UK won’t balance the catastrophic destruction of the Amazon’s ancient rainforest, so claims are made that boycotting beef will compensate. That might work if Brazilian beef was actually sold here, but blaming British grass-fed beef for the disaster in Brazil is like accusing Savile Row tailors of abuse in Bangladesh clothing factories. Beef leads to another deflection, which the oil industry must love; the methane emitted by ruminants. Cattle belch methane, as do camels, deer, antelope, llamas and buffalo. So did billions of bison and aurochs for many millennia while the planet was actually cooling. The methane from ruminants and insects such as termites converts in the atmosphere to CO2, which is in turn absorbed by the pasture grazed by zebra, reindeer, giraffe, cow or sheep in a widely-ignored segment of this ancient natural cycle.
Sadly we can’t do much about the 220 million cattle in Brazil or the 300 million in India and we only have 9 million in the UK, already down from 15 million in the 1970s. A European beef animal emits 55kg of Methane per year (Crutzen et al. 1986). Each produces around 300kg of meat, making the average UK consumer’s annual 12kg of beef, 4% of an animal, equate to 2.2kg of methane. This is a powerful Greenhouse Gas but, because it does not build up in the atmosphere like CO2, scientists use a multiplier of 28 to reach a CO2 equivalent. 2.2kg methane x 28 = 62kg of CO2 per person, or 1% of the average Briton’s Greenhouse Gas emissions. Any alternative source of 12kg of high-grade protein per year is likely to leave a similar carbon footprint.
Exactly as Michael Mann warns in his book, a bizarre mix of polluting industries, big landowners, popularity-seeking politicians and well-intentioned but misinformed vegetarians and environmentalists are actually aiding the energy giants by deflecting public attention onto relatively minor issues such as trees and cows while catastrophically diverting scrutiny from the menace of fossil-fuels.
We risk drifting into a disastrous Marie Antoinette-esque reverie where the crisis can magically be resolved just by recycling, planting some trees and eating avocados flown from drought-ravaged Mexico and factory-made meat from giants like Pepsico who are investing heavily in the sector.
For many the fantasy may include driving in a 2 tonne SUV on roads hemmed in by forest and tick-infested scrubland in the faint hope of spotting a re-introduced lynx. Sadly, the fine vistas of our ancient pastoral landscapes where skylark, curlew and lapwing once soared over meadows and moorland will have gone, fossil fuels will still be burned and the planet will continue to overheat.
By The Eco-Worrier