I am in support of the student strike for climate action, coming up next Friday, and here’s why: I’m reminded of my own days of student strikes, nearly 50 years ago, in a big powerful country across the Pacific. I was a freshman in engineering, newly settled in student dorms, loyally following in my father’s footsteps. And the madness of Vietnam War was raging on. My older brother had been drafted and was in the thick of it – walking point in the jungle and hoping not to kill anyone and make it out in one piece. My draft lottery number was 40; I would be an early pick by the draft board when my student deferment ran out. The university was on strike. There were student protests nearly every day and police curfews at night. A bank was burned to the ground. A student was killed by a police bullet. Hundreds of students were arrested. Then, as now, the grownups asked, “Do these silly kids think they can really change anything?” “They should stay in class and learn something about the world before they protest!”
And we were right. We now know fully well that war was a cruel, cynical and worthless waste of blood and treasure. We students didn’t know all the history or whether to believe the “domino theory” of communist aggression in Southeast Asia. We didn’t know that our political leaders were lying to us about the progress of the war and the magnitude of civilian casualties. We just knew something was inherently wrong with invading another country and killing its people to win their “hearts and minds” and keep them from joining a rival political alliance. There was something in our nation’s founding documents, things we learned in grammar school, that said this wasn’t right.
The arguments with my father were epic. He had too much invested in keeping the status quo – the job in the defense industry, the mortgage, the family, the retirement – to want to rock the boat. It was easier and simpler to believe the president and carry on. His conscience was clouded by the daily responsibilities of life. We had none of these entanglements. We had ideals and energy, and our consciences were free to honour those ideals. We thought a lot about the future and how it could be better.
I would like to think that our protests helped end the Vietnam War. In any event, it was the right thing to do. What would our political system be like if a few courageous colonists hadn’t stood up to mad King George and devised a new system of governance that didn’t need kings? What would our labour laws look like without the sacrifices of striking workers of two centuries ago, trampled under the hooves of mounted police? Sometimes, when change is needed, we need to protest. It isn’t always easy and without sacrifice. Many have paid with nightstick lumps on the head, with days in court and nights in jail… and some with their very lives. With the benefit of history, we now call these people heroes. Their sacrifice is the dues that we periodically need to pay to live in a free and just society.
So, as the world charges headlong into future of climate instability, I can understand those who react like my father: “Give stability and prosperity to me and my family and don’t rock the boat!” For young people, like I was so many years ago, it is different. They are all potential with little to lose, brimming with passion, ideals, and newly acquired knowledge about our world. I said, “Give me a future without war!” Today, they simply say, “Give me a future!”
If New Zealand is to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, we will all need to cut these emissions in our daily lives. That means changing our lifestyles to low greenhouse gas alternatives. We know about the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuel – the principal contributor to global warming worldwide. But there are also substantial emissions associated with many of the foods we eat. And, unfortunately, the highest emissions are associated with some Kiwi favourites – beef, lamb and venison.
Ruminants, the group of animals including cattle, sheep, goats and deer, have chambered stomachs which allow them, with the help of bacteria, to digest the cellulose fibre in grass and hay. Unfortunately, some of these bacteria also generate methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, which gets released to the atmosphere. In addition, pasture fertiliser and cattle urine are rich in nitrates, part of which are converted by soil bacteria to nitrous oxide gas, another potent greenhouse gas. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions are largely responsible for pushing red meat up in the emissions ranking.
According to a 2011 report by Environmental Working Group, a US non-profit advocating for consumer product safety and sustainability, a kilogram of consumed beef – the beef we actually eat - produces the equivalent of 27 kilograms of CO2 from burned fossil fuels. The shorthand for this is 27 kg of “CO2e” (carbon dioxide equivalents), to account for greenhouse gases other than CO2. So what does 27 kg mean in this context? For comparison, a kilogram of consumed beef creates about the same amount of greenhouse gas as a drive from Blenheim to Nelson and back in a standard petrol passenger car.
Keep in mind that the value for New Zealand beef, which is mostly grass-fed, may be different than that for US beef, which is largely grain-fed. But while there are emissions associated with feed grain, that are not associated with grass-fed beef, these emissions could be more than offset by the slower growth rate of our grass-fed beef (meaning more lifetime emissions), so the exact difference is unclear. The other important point about this ‘emissions value’ of 27kg is that it includes production, transportation, processing, cooking and waste!
Lamb is even higher, at 39 kg CO2e per kg of meat consumed, largely because less of the animal is used for food. Pork, chicken and eggs produce less of these emissions, at 12.1, 6.9 and 4.8 kg CO2e per kg, respectively, and may be better meat choices for the climate-conscious consumer.
So, if cattle produce so much greenhouse gas, what about dairy products which come from cattle? Cheese tops the scale of non-meat foods, with 13.5 kg CO2e per kg consumed; more than pork. The emissions associated with air freighted imported cheese are about 46% higher, so it is far better to eat New Zealand cheese. By comparison, yogurt and tofu each produce about 2 kg CO2e per kg consumed (as long as they are not being flown into the country!).
Milk is relatively low, at 1.9 kg CO2e per kg consumed, but Kiwi consumers tend to drink quite a bit of it, so the emissions add up. The emissions from milk substitutes, such as soy, pea or almond milk, are quoted from a number of sources and are around 0.4 kg CO2e per kg. The value for milk substitute actually consumed will be slightly more, to include waste and transport, but will still be about a quarter of that of cow’s milk.
The emissions associated with fresh vegetables are relatively low; for example, 2.0 kg CO2e per kg consumed for broccoli and 1.1 for fresh tomatoes. Interestingly, about a quarter of the emissions associated with these fresh vegetables is due to waste and another quarter due to transport. This shows the importance of buying locally grown produce in keeping emissions low. Air freighting fruit and vegetables from California generates another 1.2 kg CO2e per kg. Sea freighting that same distance generates only an additional 0.2 kg CO2e per kg.
Grains and beans have relatively low emissions. Rice ranks highest at 2.9 kg CO2e per kg consumed due to methane produced in waterlogged rice paddies. Lentils rank lowest with 0.9 kg CO2e per kg consumed, half of which is due to the energy needed to cook them.
Learning about these values has certainly changed my eating habits and, hopefully, these values will also have you thinking about how to reduce your household’s emissions. Food for thought, if nothing else!
The Blog posts are a collection of opinion articles written by CKM member Tom Powell for the Marlborough Express. Tom is a retired geologist who came to New Zealand in 2004 to work in the geothermal industry on the North Island, is a New Zealand citizen and now lives in Blenheim.