Emissions GR Impacts

Red Necked Aussie Greenies

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. For his previous post on BNC about the Integral Fast Reactor, read “Rethinking Nuclear Power“.



UK Economist Lord Nicholas Stern is the latest in a growing list, including IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri and NASA climate scientist James Hansen calling for a global shift in dietary habits towards less meat. The CSIRO has issued a new Home Energy Saving Handbook which tells people diplomatically, but unambiguously, that if they do use the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, with its huge meat component, then use it for as brief a period as possible and switch to a high carbohydrate diet which has a much lower greenhouse footprint. The book also has a great section on the implications of suburban food growing, including a mention that this also tends to reduce meat consumption. This new CSIRO handbook is a long way short of the major public corporate apology that I called for in my recent book CSIRO Perfidy, but it’s an excellent start. All in all this CSIRO book is a great practical book about how people can significantly reduce their various footprints on the planet. It doesn’t fall into any of the all too common traps like considering the fuel consumption of a car, but ignoring the emissions generated during the building of the vehicle.

Stern’s call reduced animal product intake follows close on the release of a report on livestock and climate change from the Food Ethics Council in the UK(commisioned by World Wildlife Fund (WWF)). The press release announcing the report contains a statment which will probably raise the blood pressure of any meat producer. It says that the report:

Identifies a wide array of measures by which government might change consumption behaviour, …

The livestock industry can live with feel good statments about breeding for lower emitting cattle and the like, but changes to consumption, changes that would actually make a difference, that is anathema.

At the risk of boring people who know this stuff, let me quantify using an analogy that I hope will clarify. Consider a computer screen. I’m using a 19 inch 37 watt LCD. My TV is a little bigger and uses 58 watts. Most people know that huge plasma TVs can be more than a little bigger and use 10 times more power. Systems labelled home theatre can run to over 1500 watts … about half for the sound and half for the picture. Now, pause and think what would happen if somebody started making 7400 watt screens that were much the same size as normal screens. Imagine further that these screens caused serious and frequently life shortening health problems.

Would anybody defend such screens? Would anybody bother with a defence that better manufacturing could reduce their power usage by 25%?

The 7400:37 ratio is about the same as the ratio of greenhouse emissions between lean beef and pasta. The ratio is even higher if the short term (20 year) warming impact of methane is considered. A study hot off the press in Science into the indirect effects of methane calculates that adding these flow-on impacts lifts the warming due to methane by as much as 50%. This makes lean beef akin to a 10,000 watt screen.

Tim Flannery, in the longest chapter of his recent Now or Never essay (Quarterly Essay 31) has put forward a plan to massively increase global beef production … the direct equivalent of a plea to stock the planet with an abundance of 7400 watt computer screens. This has been criticised by both myself (see Quarterly Essay 32) and Peter Singer. Responding to Singer in the US edition of Now or Never, Flannery writes:

And in the beef sector, it’s been found that smaller breeds of cattle produce 25 percent less methane than standard breeds, and that the overall management of the herd has an enormous impact on the overall greenhouse gas balance of the business.

If he were consistent, Flannery should similarly allow that a 25% reduction in the power required for a 7400 watt screen should earn it a green energy saver badge.

In Perfidy, which is about far more than just the CSIRO’s dodgy diet, I examine the implications of Flannery’s call for more cattle in some detail. Firstly, it’s an impossible vision. But going with Flannery’s flight of fancy and assuming there is enough land to graze enough cattle so that most of the planet (leaving out a billion or so steadfastly vegetarian Indians) ate the same amount of beef as Australians (bearing in mind that more chicken is eaten than beef in Australia these days), we would add about another 98 mega tonnes to the annual global emissions of methane. If you are unfamiliar with the global methane budget, the current anthropogenic emissions are about 350 mega tonnes, so a 98 mega tonne injection of methane would be huge.

So, on the one side we have a growing international call to scale down the livestock sector, particularly cattle, but in Australia we either don’t report such calls (and you won’t find the Food Ethics Council paper on the Australian WWF website), or they get a brief mention on page 23 and we have high profile environmentalists like Flannery pushing in the opposite direction. One of the reasons I’ve always been on the fringe of environment groups and more comfortable in animal rights groups is that many greens (and Greens), like Flannery, seem to place the sanctity of the BBQ above the health of the planet. I have absolutely no idea what drives such people, they steadfastly refuse to follow where the evidence leads. Anybody who reads Peter Singer’s work will realise that for him and others in the animal rights camp, using information and logic to formulate ways to minimise suffering isn’t mere entertainment, but the final arbiter of action.

Which leads me to Kelly’s Bush.

Kelly’s bush is about 7 acres of bush land on Sydney’s wealthy North Shore. In the early 1970s it was threatened with development. Some regard the fight to save Kelly’s Bush as the birth of the modern Australian green activist movement. The fight was spear headed by the famous Green Bans imposed by the Builder’s Labourers Union, led by Jack Mundey. The bans began in the early 1970s, but the story I want to tell goes back a decade earlier to 1962. What happened in 1962? Yes, I know, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, but that’s just a book, what actually happened? What actually happened was that Bob Kleberg of King Ranch in Texas bought 50,000 acres of primary rainforest along the Tulley River in north Queensland (ironically not far from where Jack Mundey grew up) and worked out how to use 50 tonne bulldozers to fell giant rainforest trees for just $20 a cleared acre. A huge rolling steel ball with spikes is dragged between the dozers on a chain and when it hits a tree it climbs. As it mounts the tree, the dozers gain leverage and can knock down anything. By 1965, the 50,000 acres (about 20,000 hectares) was gone. By the early 1970s, I’ll wager some of that Tully beef ended up in BBQs and sandwiches at Green Ban picket lines in Sydney. Meanwhile the bulldozers where shipped to Venezuela and the now perfected methods were used there and later in Brazil in an attack on the planet’s rainforests that is on-going.

Such is the story of high profile environmentalism in Australia. The real fight to preserve biodiversity should have been fought in our supermarkets, but the big green organisations, the ones with a profile high enough to have a chance at effecting major consumer change, are too busy having BBQ fundraisers and fighting for can deposits and against plastic bags. But the deliberate focus on the trivial by many in the green movement is more generally symptomatic of what passes for ethical debate in Australia. This is particularly obvious when we consider the ethics of climate change.

Back in May, The Lancet published the results of a joint study with the University College London on the health impacts of climate change.

The study contains the following map (from a 2007 study) showing the causal responsibility of climate change compared with the likely adverse health impacts. The former were measured in giga-tonnes of carbon emitted between 1950 and 2000 while the latter were measured in mortality per million of population. The geographical area of each country in the map has been transformed so that relative areas correspond to relative causes or health impacts. The malnutrition component comes from an earlier World Health Organisation modelling study and is due to a projected increase in regional droughts.

Note that this is a per-capita measure of suffering, not an absolute measure. A map showing relative absolute suffering would make the ethical responsibility even more obvious but would possibly see some of countries which are major causes of climate change totally disappear in the map of adverse impacts.


The malnutrition impacts are considered to have already started. It is of course difficult to disentangle malnutrition due to climate change from malnutrition due to other causes but a June FAO press release shows we have climbed to over a billion undernourished people, having been hovering at about 800 million between 1990 and 2003 when the wheels started to fall off the global food machine. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is now reporting in its 2009 State of Food Insecurity report (SOFI) that the absolute number of malnourished people has been rising since the mid 1990s.

The Lancet isn’t on my list of regularly read journals, but I thought it a little wierd that I’d never heard of this report. So I did some googling to see who covered it at the time. Who did I find? The only sizable news sources which reported on the report were: Radio AustraliaThe ABC (online) and The Mercury. Unsurprisingly, I found no mentions in any of the major newspapers.

Taken at face value, the maps make the asymmetry of causes and impacts abundantly clear. We in the developed world are responsible for most of the pain and suffering that will be felt predominantly (but not exclusively) in the developing world.

Humans have an extraordinarily well developed sense of fairness and justice. But it isn’t just humans who have this. A sense of fairness extends, at least, to other primates. Capuchin monkeys will refuse to work for rewards where they can see other monkeys getting more rewards for the same work. Sound familiar?

The maps plus the monkey research make it entirely unsurprising that both the Chinese and the Indians are playing hard ball in the run up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Wondering why the report and the maps weren’t more widely reported in Australia, I formulated a quick hypothesis: Australians don’t care much for ethical issues. But then I thought more deeply and considered NSW’s MP John Della Bosca’s recent resignation and the blanket media coverage it received. So I modified my hypothesis. Australians treat ethics as a spectator sport, rather like football. Its great to watch a bit of biffo as long as you’re not on the receiving end of the real thing. This is supported by a few tables in How Australia Compares, a nice book of selected OECD data tables selected by Rodney Tiffen and Ross Gittins. In particular Australia is down at, or near, the bottom of the OECD countries in the income of its disabled people, the rate of children living in poverty in either single mother or two parent households, the level of unemployment benefits, and a host of other measures. This book came out in 2004 and most of the tables reflect data as of the year 2000, but I doubt much has changed. The generous country I thought I grew up in has either vanished … or perhaps it never existed.

But one aspect of the above maps worries me … the attribution of malnutrition to climate change.

Brazil doubled its cereal production between 1990 and 2003 with only a 35% rise in human population, it was awash with food. During the same period the proportion of Brazil’s cereal going to feed livestock went from 44% to 57%. Asia between 1990 and 2003 experienced a surge in livestock feeding between 1990 and 1995 going from 15% of cereals to 19%. The lower rate probably reflects the Asian preference for chicken and pork over beef. In any event, this fraction persisted until at least 2003. Indonesia and China dominate the Asian picture and both had a surge in corn production during the early 1990s, with the only beneficiaries being livestock. Total Asian cereal production, imports and and livestock feed ratios moved little between 1995 and 2003, despite a rising population. But the rising use of food for feed elsewhere in the world meant reductions in food available (and possibly affordable) to meet the short fall. The result was that undernourishment increased in Asia … exactly as the UN SOFI report finds.

Australia’s grain production goes up and down like a yo-yo so its difficult to discuss food/feed ratios on a yearly basis. But the amount of grain used as feed in 1990 was about 4 million tonnes, in 1995 it was 6 million, by 2003 it was 7.6 million and by 2006/7 it had surged to 12 million. So all up, Australians eat about 2 million tonnes, feed an increasing amount to livestock which leaves a steadily shrinking volume available for export.

The spread of western meat based diets globally has been accompanied by a spread of factory farming, obesity and chronic disease together with a change in the world’s livestock distribution. Factory farming now produces the bulk of the world’s 98 million tonnes of pigmeat and factory farms are high capital operations which demand, and can pay for, a consistent feed supply chain. They can outbid the world’s poor and turn food into feed and food producers into feed producers in exactly the same way that coffee drinkers turn food growers into coffee growers. While it is perfectly reasonable for any country to have a mix of food and cash crops, its the balance that matters.

Between 1984 and 2004 the world’s cattle population fell by 25% in the developed world but increased by a similar proportion in the developing world. This means that of the world’s 1.33 billion cattle, over a billion are in the developing world. Brazil has 190 million, Sudan and Colombia have 41 and 26 million cattle respectively and all three get a mention in the SOFI report with Brazil still having 12% undernourishment in 2004-6 despite a veritable glut of food production capacity.

Globally, this conversion of food to feed to drive increasing meat consumption accounts for the increase in undernourishment without requiring much, if any, input from climate change. As the better off eat more meat, they create a livestock industry which can outbid the poor for food.

But in Australia, our red necked BBQ culture reigns supreme. It’s impacts are felt in poor countries who can no longer buy as much of our grain because is has been siphoned off to feed livestock. Our culture is felt also in rich countries who buy our beef and get bowel cancer and heart disease as a result. We will continue to focus our ethical might on the sexual peccadillos of our politicians and our environmental muscle on plastic bags.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

59 replies on “Red Necked Aussie Greenies”

Our politicians are cock a hoop over growing sales to Asia of live cattle, dairy, LNG, coal and ores which need coal to process. Excavating a tonne of coal could release 15kg or so of trapped methane, not sure how many cow farts that is equivalent to. Nary a thought that Asia should make do with its local resources. What happens when we don’t have transport fuels to deliver these goods? In the case of animal protein for which 100 grams a day is plenty the fact is Asians should already have enough non-grain-fed fish and poultry to meet their needs.

Some specific ideas. Firstly instead of eating cattle so much we should retain a smaller national herd for ecological services like fire hazard reduction. They should wander around eating suburban road verges and parks. When they pass by run out and collect the manure to put on the vegie patch. As for plasma TVs I hope that future generation smart meters can work out that the allowance for home entertainment devices is 100 watts and that any excess has to pay a penalty rate per kwh.


but geoff:

the food and feed argument, isn’t this correlation and not cause? it seems to me that the best reason to cut down on red meat consumption (putting aside animal rights issues) is to reduce methane.

this wouldn’t have much of an effect on global inequality, which seems to me the real issue. capitalism is a growth and growing inequality machine. we could stop eating red meat tomorrow, and the world would not ipso facto become a whit more equitable. think grapes of wrath. Mountains of food burned during the depression to keep the prices up.

frances moore lappe, who I’m sure you’re familiar with, and probably know, wrote diet for a small planet 40 years ago, and made the same arguments. But she stopped making those arguments when she realized it was the social relations of production that were the problem.

people disagree of course, like Terje, who would want more capitalism (ideally defined).


I think if you are seriously concerned about the climate you do not focus on meat consumption. Eating meat…be it cattle, goats, sheep or llamas, is part of epoch spanning cultural norms that are not going to change. I know of one regime that was overthrown because the didn’t feed their people enough meat (Poland).

That people should eat a varied diet is without question a good idea (including animal products). That some people should eat less diary products is also true and that wide ranging herds of beef cattle are probably a bad idea, maybe, if you are really concerned about *doing something* around climate and not setting yourself of as eco-hippie militant vegans, I’d move on to something else.

[Animal Liberationists have a *terrible* reputation in the United States because they are so counter-cultural and a small wing of them are violent terrorists.] I for one will continue to fish and hunt and buy a rib-eye steak, now and again. People are not going to change and we have to reject life-style solutions to climate change.


It might be relevant to mention that 4 millions hectares in Brazil and 10 million in the United States are used for Ethanol production. Also increases in energy prices will also cause food prices to go up as it did during the last oil crunch. Modern agriculture is very energy intensive and energy price increases go into cost of food production. Not only in the equipment to produce and transport the food to market, but also for the fertilizer.

Also, you can reduce your GHG footprint by switching from beef to chicken or fish.


Two reasons:
ICE CREAM and GOAT CHEESE. NOT gonna happen dude! Those two things along constitute some of the most essential parts of human food groups along with coffee, smoked white fish and marrow bones :)

David Walters
(founding member of PETA: People Enjoying Tasty Animals)


I take Geoff’s message to be — for the general populace of whom he knows the majority will never become vegetarian — think more carefully about your diet, and eat less red meat. At least that’s what I try and practice. I love dairy (anyone who knows me personally knows I’m da cheese man) and eggs, and regularly eat meat. But that said, these days the majority of the meat I consume is kangaroo (kanga bangas especially), chicken, pork and fish. The low methane variety. I still eat lamb and beef, especially when I go out for dinner; just less frequently and I don’t normally choose to eat it at home.


When is synthetic meat going to hit the stores? You would have to put a gun against my head to stop me from eating red meat. Apart from the unbeatable taste, you gotta love that iron, zinc, vitamin B-12, and omega-3.

Oh all right, tell you what: I’ll stop eating meat when Australia switches from coal power to breeder reactors. I believe in monkey justice, too.


John Newlands@

Has your computer got a 300-400W power supply?
They are a ‘dual-use’ item, so for the sake of clarity, we can add computer systems in a non-commercial environment into the set of ‘entertainment devices’. Neat how we can take the world back three decades with just one thought, and increase the cost of living….


Gregory: (what’s happened to comment numbers?) As we feed more grain to livestock there is a smaller proportion available for export … likewise in other grain producing countries. If rising grain productivity slows then the two factors
bite and the result is a billion hungry people. As for fish, they are one
percent of global calories, pretty much irrelevant as a serious global
food source. See previous post for detail

David: There are certainly many people who won’t change their diets, just
like there are many people who will still drive V8s, shoot protected
species, and beat their wives (no slur intended, its just that some people
continue to act in ways that have (or will) become recognised as
irresponsible … some cultures still regard wife beating as a right, and
a poll in Australia in my lifetime reported a distressing number of
men who thought a bit of a “slap” was ok).
We use cost signals or laws to change or reduce the impacts of
such people. But people can and do change their food habits. There
was no chicken industry in Australia when I was born (chicken yes, but
no industry). Now it is more popular than beef. This doesn’t
please me, but it is an example of huge change in a few decades. Plenty
of big meat eaters I know have vegetarian kids :)

Ijon: Its the heme iron in red meat that causes the bowel cancer (and yes
Gregory that one is causal … see my book for evidence). Evidence of
any heart benefits
to omega-3s hasn’t passed meta-analysis. Its just industrial propaganda.
B12 from labs is better than the real thing, which is too tightly bound and
not easily absorbed … which is why the US IOM recommends ALL adults
over 50 use supplements. Lastly zinc, AFAIK no one has
reported zinc deficiency in
vegetarians in first world countries … but I’ve noticed a “zinc push” by
the meat industry as all its other balloons have been shot down. There has
been relatively little work done on zinc so its a great nutrient to hype. and
I will of course hold you to your promise when the first breeder is


addinall: I could have used the computer and not the screen in
my analogy. My home machine for the last couple of months
has been a fit-pc2 … 7 watts … US$360 … great machine. No fan, no noise,
pre-installed Ubuntu.


I was a vegetarian for six years from 1998 until 2004. I now eat meat again. Blaming producers for producing what consumers want is a bit naive.

If you are concerned about beef production one potential benefit is the carbon sequestration potential of grass and soil. However this avenue to sequestration depends on maitenance of grass land being profitable.

The fabulous thing about sequestering carbon in grasslands is that you can keep on doing it forever – you can keep building soil on soil on soil… perennial grasses can outlive their owners; they’re longer-lived than a lot of trees, so the carbon sequestration is more permanent than it is in trees: the carbon’s not going to re-cycle back into the atmosphere if we maintain that soil management… and there’s no limit to how much soil you can build… for example, we would only have to improve the stored carbon percentage by one percent on the 415 million hectares (1,025,487,333 acres) of agricultural soil in Australia and we could sequester all of the planet’s legacy load of carbon. It’s quite a stunning figure.

—Christine Jones, Founder
Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation


Also from the above site.

Trees are the most visible –often spectacular– part of the above-ground biomass, so many people think that most CO2 is stored in that very visible (green) above-ground biomass.

Actually, a much larger amount is sequestered in the the soil — but only when soil is healthy and root systems abundant. Grasses, despite their humble appearance aboveground, have extensive and long-lived root systems underground. Grasses, in fact, account for a huge proportion of the biomass underground – so grassland, when it’s healthy, can account for a huge proportion of the carbon safely removed from the atmosphere. Improving grassland is a natural, safe kind of ego-engineering…, putting carbon back into the soil where it belongs.


One of the reasons that kangaroos are kinder to the environment than domestics is that they can “make their own arrangements” WRT where they graze.
Good farm management has the same effect and still produces the necessary with no adverse impact.
During the current drought my unirrigated pasture is green and thick even though the soil surface is cracked and dry.
The carbon accounting manual WRT farms needs to be approached with great caution.


good question about the puter. I’d have to run a watt meter on the combined system. However I gave the CRT monitor to a junk shop and now use an LCD screen that was to be thrown out by a university. I intend to get a new power supply and a large diameter fan and will use the small fans to run a charcoal stove. Too noisy if nothing else. At the moment my rooftop PV is producing 1400w despite high cloud. That’s why I leave the PC running when I dash out to water the vegie garden.

I also have a timer on a small electric hot water service set to 55C. The idea is to use sparing amounts of hot water so large current surges are not needed to catch up. Other ideas include microwaving food for internal heat then flame finishing to get external texture.

However I think voluntary electricity use reductions (aided by smart meters perhaps) are unlikely to permanently exceed 10% across the population. Australia’s population growth, desalination, electric transport and scorching summers will quickly cancel out that saving so we need new power sources a.s.a.p.


TerjeP: My focus is usually on consumers … my Kelly’s bush story is
all about Greenies who blame others (eg cattle producers) for knocking
down rainforest to produce the cheap beef they like to eat.

Biochar will be useful but is much over hyped. It is no silver bullet:

Barry: My messages are generally framed as conditionals. (A) If people are
concerned about their greenhouse footprint, then the less red meat the better. I’ve never done the numbers on cheese, but it comes from
cows so I’m guessing it won’t be too flash. Kangaroos and fish are not a sustainable source of more than a tiny fraction of the meat Australians consume. (B) If people are concerned about global hunger then intensively raised pigs and chickens (and cattle) are competing with people
and turning food into feed. What amount
of chicken and pork consumption is possible in a world of 6.7 billion is
without disadvantaging the poor is tricky to answer, but it will be much
less than the average Australian eats. (C) If people are concerned about
animal suffering, then don’t eat them.

All three conditionals are, I think, overwhelmingly supported by evidence
and a little logic. I don’t expect Australians to change much until
we get an extended El Nino, but when that happens, change won’t
be optional.

But I do understand about cheese (and gelato),
I haven’t eaten cheese for over twenty years, but it
was much, much tougher to give up than meat. My partner is Swiss and
fondue was quite common for us. But on the few
occasions when I’ve eaten it since, like when someone in a Pizza place can’t
seem to understand “NO CHEESE” … and I don’t like
to throw out food, I’ve wondered how I ever ate it. I’ve not met
too many vegans who don’t say exactly the same thing “I used to
love cheese but now it just tastes yucky, and that large lump of
fat in your guts feels revolting”.


While I wouldn’t be into forcing anyone else to go meat-free, I think it would be a very good thing if most people did.

A large part of the emissions associated with land clearing is associated with herd animals and a huge amount is associated with keeping them in food, water, transporting and refrigerating them — then there’s all the incidental vet services and pharma and chemicals and … it goes on … and of course there’s the cruelty, e-coli, salmonella, ag chemical run off to streams ….

I think if a proper price were put on these things, then most humans would either go meat free or eat it as a delicacy — and most people would be far healthier as a result — and we’d help preserve the biosphere.


I can give up almost anything -meat is easy -cheese is very easy -but CHOCOLATE -no way! Whoops- forgot about the milk content !
Is VERY DARK CHOCOLATE better- ecologically speaking? :)


perps: some of the best chocolates are vegan, best in small quantities with
the free trade coffee of your choice. The trick is to stop after the quantity that
feels good and before the quantity that makes you feel sick!

Jade: Meat was rationed during WWII … I don’t see that happening until
climate change really bites.


This kind of discussion is similar to the ones about “if we all consumed less”. This is the sort of counter-cultural solutions that detract from the bigger issues…like real carbon solutions around energy production and not about the issue of how many if at all, shrimp should be tossed on the barby…

A few things to note. Over 2 billion people rely on seafood. Seafood is VERY manageable if done correctly, seriously, with enforceable limits on catch. Alaska’s fishery is one of the best managed in the world and is totally sustainable. No one, I mean no one who has tasted Copper River King Salmon will EVER give it up. Vegans have been destroyed wholesale by the accidental tastings of such morsels.

Cattle can also be sustainable. There are “cattle” and there are “cattle”. The issue of methane from bovines is largely mitigated by the kind of feed they eat. If they eat grasses, and herded non-feed lot style, their impact of the environment is a 10th of that of feed lot cattle. Less gas, too. Corn feed…a totally unnatural food for grain, convert cow’s stomachs into methane refineries.

The fact is many cultures are very wedded to eating animal products in various forms. This is simply not going to change except by a very small segment of the worlds middle classes. The “broader masses” will generally ignore such calls and see it as a fad, even if it is taken seriously by the practitioners.

(And I have had imported fresh Aussie lamb and it IS delicious. Bah.)



This article along with all other calls for changing our eating habits is about as brainless as it gets.

With a half life of 8.4 years in the atmosphere for methane and virtually zero increase in over 100 years in the number of ruminants on the planet, the burping of catt;e creates NO increase in the quantity of methane in the atmosphere, the effect of which is miniscule compared with CO2 and even less compared to water. The methane produced by animals is invariably constructed from previously sequestered carbon in the grass and grain produced for the purpose of providing the world’s gtowing population with a very necessary animal protein, iron and a lot of pleasurable dining experiences.

The expectation for the life of methane is consistent with the fact that the concentration of methane fluctuates and has not significantly increased for the many years since its measurements were commenced. I wonder what Stern et al propose to do about the main sources of methane, the termites, the swamps, the….. This article just further demonstarates the political rather than scientific nature of the calls being made.
John Nicol



I agree with you in general on the subject of meat. However, you are wrong to suggest that corn feeding results in more methane than grass feeding. Rumen methane production increases as dietary fibre levels increase.

I was wondering whether global ruminant biomass has, in fact, actually increased as a result of man having co-opted most of the planet’s primary productivity. Is it possible that we have merely substituted domestic for wild without having caused any increase? I know that this is not really relevant to the current discussion – just curious.


I agree Doug, and I’m no biologist, but it is exactly that: fibre, that causes methane. But fibre content itself various on time of year in grasses, how new the grasses are, how much moisture, etc. My understanding is that methane is also produced more by how long various plant fibres stay in the various bovine stomachs. Corn, not be a natural food for bovines, stays the longest, thus requiring more digestion, thus outputting more methane.




I’m afraid you’re still wrong. The fibre content of grass (on a dry matter basis) varies from about 20-40%, being highest in the more mature stages. With maturation, one also gets increased lignification. Lignin (indigestible) binds to cellulose and hemicellulose (digestible fibre) causing poorer overall digestibility and increasing gut passage time.
You state that corn is an unnatural diet for ruminants. I take it that you are referring to maize grain (rather than to whole crop silage). Certainly, the diet could be considered unnatural if a high proportion of it is composed of cereal grains. However, under such circumstances, the rumen becomes acidic and the rumen bacterial efficiency is impaired, reducing methane production. The ruminant animal, under such circumstances, functions more like a non ruminant . Gut passage time is reduced and feed conversion efficiency increased. The downside of the unnatural diet is ulcers and liver abscesses but certainly not more methane production.
Ruminants have evolved to handle beta-linked carbohydrates (fibres) efficiently (but slowly) by giving their contained bacteria first crack at the ingested food. Inevitably, the fermentation process results in a significant loss of digestible energy in the form of belched out methane. Logically, we should farm horses for meat rather than using cattle.


I personally believe that every individual shares in the responsability of being aware of the impacts of his or her actions. When talking about food, this translates to being aware of the processes involved with the production, sale and delivery of that food. But how many people bother? It’s pretty clear, in a water and energy limited society, that few people appear interested in making small sacrofices to lifestyle choices.

So perhaps, in addition to encouraging people to make deliberate, well informed choices that will make them a happier person at the end of the day (maybe), we need to be aware of the market processes between primary production and the comsumer that have an even greater impact on industry.

You just need to speak to a primary producer to find markets drive primary production, not consumers.


I like that last sentence, Nerissa (the rest is fine too of course). can you elaborate or cite some good references that make this point?



“As for plasma TVs I hope that future generation smart meters can work out that the allowance for home entertainment devices is 100 watts and that any excess has to pay a penalty rate per kwh.”

It’s one thing to tax carbon, it’s completely another to presume to tell people what they can and can’t use energy for. The state is a useless parasite; the cretins that work for it have no business engaging in social engineering or wealth redistribution.


“Now, pause and think what would happen if somebody started making 7400 watt screens that were much the same size as normal screens. Imagine further that these screens caused serious and frequently life shortening health problems.”

People would avoid them like the plague unless they were _spectacularly_ good.

“Would anybody defend such screens?”

Yeah. It’s none of my business if anyone wants to use them.


By the way, such a monstrosity not only exists, it’s quite common.

Take for example the woolheaded hippies who drive tens of miles to the local farmers market, buy some locally grown, “organic” food and drive all the way back home. If you crunch the numbers, it takes more energy than delivering produce from the other side of the globe using a container ship.

Tens of kilowatts of power wasted for no other reason than enjoyment, check.

Significantly higher risk of dying, check.

Should you legislate against this offensive behaviour? No, you should point and laugh.


Take for example the woolheaded hippies who drive tens of miles to the local farmers market, buy some locally grown, “organic” food and drive all the way back home. If you crunch the numbers, it takes more energy than delivering produce from the other side of the globe using a container ship

I very much doubt it. I’d like to see the modelling. Also, GHG mitigation is not the only reason to buy organic. Buying only in season is good practice.

Driving tens of miles for that sole purpose would be silly of course, whatever the comparisons with international freight.


Advisory for the chocoholic above:

About 2/3 of the world’s chocolate is produced in circumstances that would fail ILO standards, often with super exploited child labour.

John Nicol: you are mistaken in your reasoning as you neglect the fossil inputs to commercial ruminant production, which are very significant. In effect, the animals are being fed from fossil fuels.


Jade – yes I know- that is why I buy fair trade chocolate!
Geoff – you obviously have the same indulgences as I do – coffee and chocolate together – unbeatable!
I will check out vegan chocolate (is there a fair trade vegan product available?- see Jade’s comment above)
I already buy fair trade coffee.
As to the trick of stopping eating chocolate before you feel sick – I’m still working on it! :)


I find it interesting to have a post and discussion on the agricultural effects on climate change without mentioning nitrous oxide at all. According to this UNEP diagram, based on IPCC data, N2O is almost as important a greenhouse gas as CH4 (methane) in the global agricultural sector:

So when considering only agriculture ~7.5% of global emissions come from CH4 and just over 6% from N2O.

I’m not sure on this (perhaps someone can tell me), but aren’t N2O emissions from agricultural soil more related to nitrogenous fertilisers and cropping than livestock?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m more or less vegetarian, I’m not trying to argue beef consumption is a good thing, but I’d like some proper perspective on this.


David Walters:

I disagree with your argument:

‘This kind of discussion is similar to the ones about “if we all consumed less”. This is the sort of counter-cultural solutions that detract from the bigger issues.’

There are some instances that we simply do need to learn to reduce consumption in our attempts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. The example that comes to mind most immediately is wood and forestry emissions. Deforestation accounts for ~18% of global emissions; much higher than transport, and nearly as high as electricity. The ONLY way to reduce emissions from forestry is to stop all deforestation worldwide – to stop consuming wood like this.

We can relatively easily transform our electricity grids to clean energy by using nuclear power and also reduce transport emissions, but if we don’t address the other issues of forestry, agriculture and industry, we’re probably still toast.

Social change and changes in consumption are imperative in my opinion.


There is some hipocracy in wanting people to take “personal responsibility” for an issue and then taxing them and punishing them when they don’t make the choices you prefer them to make. This isn’t personal responsibility at all. It’s a bit like saying that we want people to take personal responsibility for their drug usage and then locking them up if they take drugs. If I am personally responsible for my actions then I must be free to determine my actions and free to reap what I sow.


I’m not saying consumption is irrelevant, personal consumption in this case, I’m saying it’s been discussed here completely abstracted from the social norms of a given society. There are 2 billion people without power, another 1 billion at least who have a real ‘under use’ of power for a variety of reasons, including also poverty. You can’t preach “less consumption” to them.

Wood production, since you brought it up, can be absolutely managed and increased. The problem of deforestation is greater in developing countries where they turn forests into charcoal and land for soybeans. None of these situations are necessarily derived from ‘choice’ but broader social problems brought on by structural adjustment programs (privatization, for example) and, severe or contorted underdevelopment. I think in a broad based, and often revolutionary situation, these problems can be alleviated and *in this context* nuclear power can play an absolute huge *material* role.

When you write “The ONLY way to reduce emissions from forestry is to stop all deforestation worldwide – to stop consuming wood like this.”.. this becomes a banal b for real solutions. You stop ‘consuming’ wood like this when we mandate better recycle programs of deconstructed buildings; when we provide power for people to cook with and light their homes so they don’t have to burn wood to do it; we stop the privatization of electricity when it means a vast *lowering* of the number of ratepayers (see Mexico today).

But your simplistic “stop consuming” is hardly convincing since it would take *imposed* rationing; an *imposed* lowering of standard of living or the way we live; and *imposed* authoritarianism that would push people *away* from what you are seeking to attain into the hands of those that argue you for a backward development of society. And therefor you will loose. Such ‘catholic’ solutions are like “Why don’t we all get along to end war”. It’s utopian.



Just a thought
Stop eating meat and you can add a few more species to the endangered list. And are they also going to start culling the buffalo and the wildebeast in the interests of methane reduction?


Stop eating meat and you can add a few more species to the endangered list.

Unlikely. In fact, you could take a few off the endangered list since loss of habitat is a key driver of endangerment.

And are they also going to start culling the buffalo and the wildebeast in the interests of methane reduction?

I can’t see why they would. They are only recycling CO2 not digging it up in the form of fossil fuels.



I see no hypocrisy here. There’s no conflict between people voluntarily taking action and also having a sumptuary cost or perhaps a quota imposed on the activity.


And yes, I agree with the idea of cutting back on us cutting down forest as per the above.

Some of what David says is fair enough, but we must protect our old growth forests and likewise ensure that we arfe using all the resources we take sustainably.


David: There are not 2 billion people who rely on seafood. FAO data show that it is about 1% of global calories. Garnaut made some similar claim, but I think he said 1 billion. Perhaps seafood production has doubled since his report. The Japanese eat 15% of global fish, which doesn’t leave many to share around the other 1.87 billion. Some cattle impacts are reduced by grass feeding but methane is increased, by up to 3 fold.

John Nicol: Sorry John, but this blog is a little unusual in that people actually tend to attempt to prove what they say with evidence. e.g. I’m living proof that meat protein isn’t “very necessary” (QED). I think my various posts on this blog demolish everything you say. I’m guessing you haven’t read them. If you want more detail, then you can buy a copy of my book :) (

See also the call in October 23 Issue of Science contains a strong recommendation for a multipronged attack on short lifetime greenhouse gases:

Its one of a growing number of such calls.

kasphar: sheep and cattle have driven most species extinction in Australia … its usually called “habitat destruction” and nobody mentions the livestock. The ratio of nitrogen from livestock to that from wildlife was quoted in “Livestock’s Long Shadow” as 23:3, this gives some indication of how totally we have replaced wildlife by livestock. In the case of ruminants, they provide about 1.7% of global calories (FAOSTAT). So much destruction, so little food.


Jade: It isn’t the CO2 from wild ruminants that is the problem, but the methane
and while it is true that the C in the methane isn’t new carbon, it is put
on steroids for a decade by being transformed into methane. So people may
indeed start culling buffalo to reduce methane … my guess is they
will readily cull 150,000 buffalo in northern Australia
and justify it with talk of methane before they do
anything at all about 28 million cattle … I’ve already seen the first news
story running this line a few days ago.



While methane is certainly a more powerfuil GHG than CO2, in stoichiometric terms the carbon content is the same. Eventually, the methane reduces to CO2 but AIUI the mass of the resultant gas is lower so although the short term perturbation is greater over the longer term (a century) it’s the same. The ruminant can’t add any carbon beyond what it consumes and if that is all naturally occurring biomass … essentially it’s a solar-powered feral animal.

Do I think buffalo should be culled humanely? Sure because like all ferals they do other damage, but let’s not put that under GHGs. The commercially raised ruminants on the other hand …

Like you I have been meat-free for a long time — nearly 30 years and have raised two children this way.


Jade, Geoff’s not saying that the ruminants are adding carbon to the system. But by chemically binding 4 hydrogen atoms to the carbon atom rather than 2 oxygen, they are changing the propensity with which that molecular bound carbon atom will absorb and re-emit infrared radiation.

So, if you have a carbon atom, called “Coaleen” which is respired as a CO2 molecule, then after 100 years there’s a good chance she’ll still be airborne and doing her GHG thing. Over that period of time, she’ll have enjoyed a relative forcing of “1”.

If she’d been bound up in a methane molecule after a visitation to the rumen, she’s have been forcing at some rate higher than 1 — the precise rate would depend on how long she’d stayed with her hydrogen chums before shedding them and uniting with a couple of oxygen gals. On average, that relative rate would be 23 when levelised over 100 years, or 72 when levelised over 20 years, but for a given molecule it could be higher or lower.

Either way, that carbon atom, and many like her, can be better or worse climate forcing agents, all depending on what other atoms they’re bound up with, and for how long. Same atom, different GHG impacts.


But Barry, does the resultant methane, when it reduces to CO2 leave the same mass of CO2 as CH4 beforehand?

I may have misread, but AIUI, although each mol of CH4 is more potent than each mol of CO2 there are fewer of the former afet about 8-12 years.


Jade, it’s the same mass of carbon, but the molecular weight is different. A mole of methane weighs 16 g, a mole of carbon dioxide weighs 44 g. Yes, CH4 breaks down fairly quickly to CO2 but consider this. Let’s say we measured the climate forcing effect of two carbon atoms, “Coaleen” and “Ethan”.

Coaleen was bound up as CO2 for 100 years. Ethan was bound up as methane for 10 years and CO2 for 90 years.

Which one, Coaleen or Ethan, would have the greater climate forcing effect over this century?


Thanks Barry

Just to clarify that I am interpreting correctly, what you are saying is that allowing a fixed number of carbon atoms, whether they bind with two Oxygen or 4 Hydrogen makes a difference to their radiative forcing in favour of the latter?

Secondary question — is it clear that if one compared 100 typical feral buffalo and 100 typical grass fed poll herefords for meat production that the CH4 produced in the ruminants of the 100 feral buffalo would exceed the methane produced by the poll herefords?

After all, the ferals would have to take pot luck. Maybe they would go hungry for a time, not put on weight etc, whereas commercial cattle can’t be allowed to do that.

Comparing both with those fed on commercial grain, notwithstanding what you say about CH4, wouldn’t the grass fed poll herefords have a lower footprint overall?

Just wondering


Hi Barry, interesting post but I am confused about this: “So, if you have a carbon atom, called “Coaleen” which is respired as a CO2 molecule, then after 100 years there’s a good chance she’ll still be airborne and doing her GHG thing”, and “Coaleen was bound up as CO2 for 100 years.”

Tom Segalstad, from the University of Oslo, Norway, suggests the atmospheric CO2 residence time (lifetime) is only about 5 years. Segalstad comment is based on a compilation by Sundquist that lists the results of 36 separate studies, based on a number of different measurement methods, that give an atmospheric CO2 residence or turnover time ranging between two and 25 years.

So where does your 100 years come from and what is the basis for this assertion? Thanks, in anticipation.


David Walters,

“Wood production, since you brought it up, can be absolutely managed and increased. ”

I’m curious as to how this is possible? Even selective forestry, while great for local biodiversity, has a high carbon footprint. And selective forestry can’t be scaled up that much. Even if we replace native forests immediately by planting new trees it takes a minimum of decades for it to compare to the carbon sink capacity of the originial forest. And monocultures simply don’t cut it, as a carbon sink or for biodiversity.

I agree: “You stop ‘consuming’ wood like this when we mandate better recycle programs of deconstructed buildings”. This is precisely the type of change in consumption that we need to see. The “Cradle to Cradle” concept, if you like (a book I highly recommend!). But once again, this is an efficiency argument, and I don’t see it as all that different to more efficient/intelligent consumption in agricultural terms.

You make some good points, and I’m certainly not trying to advocate the “imposing” of anything of the sort you mentioned above.


My concern is preserving forests and in this case the secondary issue of carbon out put is just that, secondary, w/regards to forestry. Many eastern states in the US do a great job of managing their forests with replanting and as you note, selected harvesting. Old growth needs to be preserved. There is very little of it left and thus it’s actual economic value is very little. Most wood in the U.S. the last time I looked this, was harvested from second and third growths.

It needs to be pointed out that much of these secondary and tertiary growths ARE like old growths in their diversity as they regrew naturally and were not planted… and there is an issue of conservation here as well.

Prairies also have amazing carbon sink, greater than some forests actually, since so much CO2 as someone mentioned here is in the soil.

But the biggest issue is not this, it’s reducing the huge carbon output of coal and natural gas and then, transportation fuels. My concern for forestry is more one of conservation than of carbon issues per se in the advanced countries.

In the tropical areas, this is very much a more serious problem and it deals with something I wrote about previously that has to do with the insane marketization of ‘everything’ a growing thinks like soybeans in the Matto Grasso are of Brazil to feed to cows to make big macs in the US. That, folks, is the free market as a reactionary force. But this destruction of the forest is not about wood products but about protein. So protection of forests and clear cutting has to be stymied by extreme law enforcement.

People like Chico Mendes, radical socialist rubber tapper died in Brazil because of his defense of the forest and the productivity of it as a forest. I have no problem with this at all even if the ‘market’ demands his trees to be cut down.

The issue there is providing stable and growing incomes for people that are simply not destructive to the rain forest. There are, of all places, a Malaysian program that is very comparable with tropical agriculture and doesn’t require creating huge swaths of palm oil trees to make fuel.


But David,

“the biggest issue is not this, it’s reducing the huge carbon output of coal and natural gas and then, transportation fuels.”

As is shown in the source below, the carbon output from deforestation is just as important as from electricity generation and transport. In fact it’s about 35% higher than transport and 74% as high as coal generated electricity. Emissions from agriculture are equal to that of transport, for that matter.

% of world GHG emissions:-
Electricity & Heat – 24.6%
Deforestation – 18.3%
Transport – 13.5%
Agriculture – 13.5%

(it’s 2000 data but I doubt the ratio from one to the other has changed significantly).

I’m sure programs, such as the one in Malaysia, are great (in terms of conservation) but in terms of climate change mitigation it sounds to me like the equivalent of promoting solar power to replace coal fired electricity generation – it effectively does nothing.


TeeKay&David: 1) Emissions are not forcings. When methane appears
in official data it is converted to CO2eq using a factor that his little to do
with its impact on warming over the next couple of decades. See

Also a recent science paper (just 2 pages, but it packs a wallop!)

If you aren’t a subscriber, then email me (

2) a single lifestyle choice (e.g., eating meat) has impacts that are generally
smeared across multiple categories (ag+trans+deforestation+energy).
A recent WorldWatch paper revised the Livestock’s Long Shadow
estimate of 18% as the combined forcing due to livestock upwards to
51% of total anthropogenic forcings. They included a component that they
shouldn’t have, but missed some others, so the result is close
to the mark, even if the method wasn’t correct.

3) the Science paper above shows how critical it is to tackle both short term
and long term forcings.

4) Methane’s indirect effects are complex and a paper last week calculates
that the full forcing due to methane has been underestimated by about
50%, perhaps even more:;326/5953/716


Some observations on forestry as I live smack in the middle of it. Out the window I see a 20 y.o. pine plantation for paper pulp to one side and on the other a regrown native forest clearfelled in the 1960s. Firstly I’m convinced that forest cover affects the microclimate and encourages rain. It may moderate wind gusts and prevent dehydration. I’m not sure that mature forests outside the wet tropics are ongoing carbon sinks. However they are cut down for fast decomposing products like paper and then the trash and stumps are fired since the ash supposedly helps regeneration. That forest may not have had a ‘hot’ fire for centuries. It then becomes drier, windier and less shady while nutrients are washed into streams. Soil carbon is not built up to replacement levels. Along with global temperature increases it means that some iconic tree species may never regrow to their former grandeur even if they were left alone for 400 years or so.

Here’s the weird angle; nearly everyone who supports retention of old growth forests appears to be rabidly anti-nuclear. However it hasn’t been on their front page lately


I hear the message regarding methanogenic ruminants. I’ve basically weaned myself off beef, the rest of the immediate family are close behind. The real issue for us is dairy. We love our cheese, and soycheese is an abomination. We’ve swapped butter for margarine, but will struggle to crack milk for a long time to come.

BTW kasphar, buffalo culling is back on the agenda due to methane emissions. Last time it was due to bruxellosis. That’s nteresting.


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