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Time is running out.  Animal agriculture and land use offer the only low cost, large scale, minimal impact means of both slowing global warming and capturing legacy CO2.  What we eat controls almost a third of the land area on our planet, providing a powerful means to reverse climate pollution.  We urgently need a robust debate - which we carefully avoid because it involves that cherished personal issue: diet.

Here are the facts:

1.  It'™s already too hot
Global warming has now put 30 countries in extreme risk of natural disaster, with developing economies most at risk.  Extreme droughts are now the norm.   Rain and snow now come in buckets.  Crops are being hit hard.  The Arctic is melting decades before expected.  Once this summer air-conditioner is gone, albedo flip methane release is likely to tip.  The evidence couldn'™t be clearer.

Nature is doing its best to soak up emissions, but at just under 1 degree C warming we have more evaporation, boosting water vapour in the atmosphere by 4%.  Coupled with higher sea surface temperatures, this is driving mega downpours, as well as hotter and drier droughts.

2.  Past CO2 pollution has locked us in to 3-5 degrees C hotter temperatures
Right now, we are on track for 4.9 degrees C (8.8 degrees F) hotter temperatures.  Why? Because CO2 lasts for centuries, and will keep heating even if we stop all CO2 emissions now.  This is the ogre that is so alarming.

We can't wait to "de-carbonise our economy".  We need strong action in the next few years.

3.  There is only one way to slow the heating quickly
Short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) can slow the heating by half a degree, or much more  in coming decades.  The US EPA and the UNEP know this.  Hilary Clinton is working with a coalitionof governments to stem SLCPs.  

You may have never heard about the climate impacts of soot (black carbon) and ground level ozone, but they are large.  Black carbon is 460-1500 times stronger than CO2, and is responsible for 30% of Arctic warming.  Since 1750, ground level ozone created by us has warmed the earth one-fifth as much as CO2.  Methane is the third SLCP, second only to CO2 in the heating stakes.

Slashing black carbon, methane and ground level ozone is the only way to stop the inevitable heating from CO2 in time.  Many climate activists don'™t like this because it will draw attention away from CO2, but it is the only way.  And what is the greatest source of all three SLCPs?  Agriculture, particularly livestock agriculture.

Grassland (pasture maintenance) fires are the greatest source of black carbon.  Livestock is the greatest source of methane, and of the emissions that create ground level ozone (methane, carbon monoxide and non-methane VOCs) -“ livestock is also the greatest source.  Slashing livestock numbers is a powerful means of controlling all three and a solution to the climate train wreck happening before our eyes.

4.  There is only one practical way to clean up the atmosphere
Let'™s talk about the ogre that has us so alarmed -“ CO2.  Geo-engineering fixes to cool the planet have been blocked because they cost too much or have dubious side-effects.  Even proponents talk about the least-worst options.

The only large-scale, low-cost, least side-effect solution on the table was proposed by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency three years ago: stop eating meat, and return the world'™s grazing pastures to forests, savannah and native grasslands.  Seriously.  They found that this solution would cost just 1/5th of any other mitigation option.

This has the potential to draw down at least 20 years of CO2 emissions, and we don't even need to plant trees -“ we need only to stop burning.  A prime example of this was published in Nature last year -“ if the burning stopped, 51% of the African continent would revert to woodland and forest.  Africa is the world'™s fire capital, where herders burn off dry grass every year.

Here is a two week period of fires  showing that the world is constantly burning.  Note the African savannah fires and the Eastern Europe and South American pasture and agricultural fires.

Eating has more effect on our planet than anything else we do.  Grazing land covers 25% of the land mass (70% of all agricultural land) and half the cropland is for feed.  Much of this land was forest.  Australia recognises this in its Carbon Farming Initiative.  The top half of Australia is open tropical woodland, and is burnt each year to remove dead grass for grazing.

So what'™s stopping us?

Clearly we have a low cost, large scale, minimal impact solution to arrest the inevitable heating, plus draw down the legacy CO2.  Climate chaos will force us to take these ideas very seriously.

What'™s stopping us from doing it?  The truth is that meat and dairy industries are heavily subsidised to the tune of billions of dollars.  Our tax dollars are distorting the market, making the excellent plant-based proteins less competitive.  This must change.

Governments are heavily influenced by industry, and need groundswell support before they will act.   There are many opportunities to speak up, for example foods for school lunches, advertising of junk foods and what supermarkets stock on their shelves.

Media must carry the debate - it can no longer be ignored.

But don'™t forget that each of us have the power to change all this -“ the next time we eat, the next time we shop - we can be the change we want to see in the world.

Let'™s deal with a few objections

Pastures use land that cannot be used to grow crops.  Yes, but in this age of climate crisis, the highest and best use of 25% of the earth'™s surface is to grow more trees and perennial native grasses to soak up legacy CO2.

We need all the food we can produce and more. No.  Livestock'™s Long Shadow showed we would have a 50% surplus of food if we stopped eating meat.

Animals eating grass, producing methane that breaks down to CO2 is a natural cycle.  The problem here is that methane is CO2 on steroids -“ far more heating.  Methane and CO2 are not the same -“ methane explodes!

Savannah burns naturally anyway. Yes, but far less frequently.  In temperate zones, fires start from lightning strike, but far less frequently than happens now.  In tropical savannah (the main culprit) lightning strike fires are rare.  The major driver by far is 'œtossing the match'. This paper from Australia (similar to African savannahs) explains.   Frequent burning stops forests re-growing and causes long term soil carbon loss. Traditional indigenous fires were fine-scale mosaics set throughout the dry season, but were far less widespread.  

Cell grazing builds soil carbon. Yes, but the majority of the world'™s grazing livestock are on tropical pastures, where low stocking rates and fewer water points make cell grazing prohibitive -“ aside from the livestock emissions.

Grass fed beef is better for the environment.  No.  Cattle produce 3-5 times more methane eating grass than they do eating grain, and almost all cattle are 'œfinished' on grain in any case -“ to make the meat more marketable.

Traditional herders rely on livestock.  Some still do, but even the Masai in eastern Africa are turning to cropping because their herds are dying in the extreme drought.  Traditions can change very quickly.

Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop

Originally posted to GerardWB on Tue Aug 21, 2012 at 05:01 PM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS, DK GreenRoots, Meatless Advocates Meetup, Climate Hawks, J Town, and Science Matters.

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