A recent article published by The Times is claiming that using your car is better for the planet than walking. This is a pretty good example of a very oriented article and pretty bad journalism, which is unfortunately very frequent with environmental issues. So let’s see what’s behind this article and how wrong it is.
The “scientific basis” is extracted from a book about lowering your carbon impact in your daily life. The original point in the book was that the livestock industry is one of the most polluting, even more than transportation. As an illustration, the author has made a simple (actually too simple) calculation trying to demonstrate that driving produces less greenhouse gas than walking because of the steaks you’re eating. Indeed an EU study has shown that the livestock industry has a very heavy environmental impact (which by the way isn’t really a surprise). But that’s very different to the orientation of the Times’ article which is roughly “we have all wrong so why bother?”.
The obvious mistake in the calculation is that the atmospheric pollution produced by a cow is calculated factoring in everything – deforestation, production of the grain needed to feed it, transportation of the meat and the world famous cow fart. For the car it’s only considering fuel, which basically means that your car and the road materialized from nowhere. But unless you personally know Harry Potter, producing a car is far from being carbon neutral.
The second obvious mistake is that I know very few people who eat exclusively meat. I don’t know how much calories come from meat in an average American diet but I would be surprised if it was more than 30%. Then you could also argue that the calories consumption on the human side is exaggerated: if you start walking 3 times a week to your grocery store, the human body will “tune” for this exercise (what a beautiful machine) and will be more and more efficient, eventually using fewer calories.
So the Times article is pretty much full of shit (cow shit that is). Like most articles of this kind they focus on one specific aspect ignoring the rest of the chain. They didn’t even bother reading the EU report that motivated this whole discussion. They mention cow gas emissions (read fart) as the main issue, whereas the EU study clearly states that the first problem is deforestation (pastures and feed crops).
And the list of “green myths shattering facts” is even more stupid:
Traditional nappies are as bad as disposables, a study by the Environment Agency found. While throwaway nappies make up 0.1 per cent of landfill waste, the cloth variety are a waste of energy, clean water and detergent
Actually this one is not too stupid. The study mentioned here is serious and independent, it has been slightly disputed but the results seem valid. My only issue here is that it’s hard to optimize the disposable chain as its a pure waste of material (unless you find a way to make virtual nappies), whereas there are plenty environmentally friendly detergents and economic washing machines.
Paper bags cause more global warming than plastic. They need much more space to store so require extra energy to transport them from manufacturers to shops
Right but plastic bags don’t degrade. So they’re going to be a space and recycling problem for loooong years. Paper degrades within days.
Diesel trains in rural Britain are more polluting than 4×4 vehicles. Douglas Alexander, when Transport Secretary, said: “If ten or fewer people travel in a Sprinter [train], it would be less environmentally damaging to give them each a Land Rover Freelander and tell them to drive”.
It’s no secret that the UK train system sucks. But I’ve heard that some countries have much better trains. And faster too.
Burning wood for fuel is better for the environment than recycling it, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs discovered.
Maybe but it wasn’t obvious to me that wood was what the recycling chain was focusing on.
Organic dairy cows are worse for the climate. They produce less milk so their methane emissions per litre are higher
Right but they feed on grass instead of grain. The production of grain needed to feed a cow is also a whole industry and an important cause of deforestation (the biggest factor in the livestock CO2 production calculation). I wouldn’t be surprised if organic wasn’t much better than the regular production chain in that respect but don’t build a blanket statement like “organic dairy is worse for climate” from an anecdotal fact.
Someone who installs a “green” light bulb undoes a year’s worth of energy-saving by buying two bags of imported veg, as so much carbon is wasted flying the food to Britain.
So don’t live in Britain, it’s a well known fact that islands are bad for the climate. Seriously, I don’t know where this data comes from, but the insinuation that economy efficient light bulbs are useless is once again plain silly. If this is true (which I doubt), it’s the supply chain that should be improved.
Trees, regarded as shields against global warming because they absorb carbon, were found by German scientists to be major producers of methane, a much more harmful greenhouse gas.
A study issued in January 2006 has shown that under certain circumstances, usually very warm temperatures (above 30C), plants could produce methane, which is a surprise. Plants were thought to never produce methane. The exact causes are still unknown and the quantities produced are still laboratory approximations (other mechanisms could influence the result in real world situation). The scientists author of this study have themselves pointed out that this effect wasn’t strong enough to affect the effectiveness of reforestation policies significantly. Moreover this production already existed far before we, humans, started affecting our environment. This is plain FUD my friends.
So to conclude, I believe there are 2 interesting lessons here:
- Most journalistic productions about climate issues and global warming are of very poor quality, mostly because they try to build sensational headlines on subjects that are still being under study. And there’s also a clear editorial line from some publications… So unfortunately we still have to check the facts ourselves if we want to make sensible decisions and start build our own trusted sources.
- What should really be a concern is the impact of livestock farming on the environment, provided that the majority of the earth population won’t agree to go veggie. There are several ways to do so and nobody bothered paying too much attention so far. So try to check where your meat comes from, be ready to pay more for it (cheap meat is usually produced at the expense of natural resources) and vote for people who care about environmental issues.
Thanks to Assaf for the pointer.