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Contrary to Tim Flannery et al: we must stop meat eating to stop starvation & greenhouse gas pollution

by : Dr Gideon Polya
Monday January 24, 2011 - 03:21

Professor Tim Flannery is a leading Australian environmentalist but raised the ire of many other environmentalists by supporting the empirically ineffective and hence counterproductive Carbon Trading-based Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) approach to putting a price on carbon pollution. He has now rejected the sensible approach of the vegetarians by stating that “I believe that in a world facing a food shortage and a climate crisis, livestock represent a potent weapon in the fight to stabilise our climate.” As detailed below, Professor Flannery, no matter his good intentions, is wrong on both matters.

Tim Flannery: “Worldwide, many graziers are radically rethinking the nature of their businesses in ways that look set to achieve a significant enhancement in the retention of soil carbon. One of the most promising approaches, which is now being practiced on around 12 million acres globally, is known as holistic management… Over the past few decades some pioneering graziers, following Savory’s methods, have been doing things very differently. They use electric fencing to divide their land into small paddocks, and pull all of their livestock together in just one of these paddocks. Within a day or two, the cattle have eaten everything they can reach, and the ground has been churned into a bare, dung-filled mass. The farmer then releases the cattle into the next small paddock, and so on until, at harvest time… It is argued by those who oppose meat eating that cattle produce methane, and therefore a better strategy would be to destock the rangelands altogether. But is it really desirable to abandon use of the world’s rangelands at a time of perilous food security? Furthermore, if the rangelands were to be destocked and left unmanaged, it is likely that fire would burn the vegetation, which would lead to more carbon entering the atmosphere and huge increases in nitrous oxide. I believe that in a world facing a food shortage and a climate crisis, livestock represent a potent weapon in the fight to stabilise our climate.” [1].

According to Wikipedia: “Professor Tim Flannery (born 28 January 1956) is an Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist and global warming activist. Flannery was named Australian of the Year in 2007 and is presently a professor at Macquarie University. He is also the chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group. His controversial views on shutting down conventional coal fired power stations for electricity generation in the medium term are frequently cited in the media… In 1984, Flannery earned a doctorate at the University of New South Wales in Palaeontology for his work on the evolution of macropods. Prior to this, he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English (1977) at La Trobe University and a Master of Science degree in Earth Science (1981) at Monash University. He has contributed to over 90 scientific papers.” [2].

Professor Flannery’s argument that BS (cow dung) can help save the planet is, in a phrase, BS, as set out below. Whether we go over the cliff at 1 kph, 100 kph or 200 kph has the same end result. Doing something that is arguably better is no use if it doesn’t prevent disaster.

Professor Flannery has made the same fundamental error in supporting a Carbon Trading-based Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) approach to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution.

As evident from the failed December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, the worst greenhouse gas polluters of the First World support cap-and –trade Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) approaches to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution despite contrary advice from top climate scientists and climate economists. In short, a Carbon Tax is the best way and Carbon Trading is flawed, will not work, is inequitable, has been empirically ineffective, will divert us from effective action and will lead to a carbon pricing “bubble” and another market meltdown. Indeed Carbon Trading flies in the face of Professor Nicholas Stern’s advice that “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen”. [3, 4].

Carbon trading is inherently fraudulent because it involves a government selling something it does not possess, specifically the right to pollute the one common atmosphere and one common ocean of every country in the the world.

Nevertheless, environmentalists such as Professor Tim Flannery and environmentalist groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Australian Climate Institute (Sydney) have been convinced into supporting the Carbon Trading ETS approach e.g. that of Obama that is now evidently defunct in the US and the disastrous, proposed Australian ETS or falsely named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The weak argument they offer is in effect that something is better than nothing or in Professor Flannery’s own words: ““Because a first step is better than nothing”. Professor Tim Flannery’s support for more efficient production of red meat to help stabilize the climate is a further example of the erroneous proposition that “a first step is better than nothing.”

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is currently at 392 parts per million (ppm) and increasing at an upper estimate of 2.5 ppm per year. [5, 6].

Top climate scientists say that we must be urgently reducing GHG pollution rather than increasing it. Thus some leading scientists argue that we must reduce atmospheric CO2 concentration from the current dangerous and damaging 392 ppm to a safe and sustainable 300 ppm for a safe planet for all peoples and all species. Prior to the last century, the atmospheric CO2 concentration had not exceeded 300 ppm for about 800,000 years, the period in which man finally evolved from primate precursors. [7, 8].

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Potsdam Institute, Germany) has estimated that for a 67% chance of avoiding a disastrous 2C temperature rise the world must get CO2 emissions to zero by 2050. All men being equal and hence requiring equal shares in atmospheric pollution, leading per capita GHG polluters such as the US and Australia must get to zero CO2 emissions by 2020 (this being quite achievable according to Beyond Zero Emissions’ plan for 100% renewable energy for Australia by 2002 and Professor Mark Jacobson’s plan for 100% renewable energy for the world by 2030). [9, 10, 11]

We can achieve this. Before the disastrous December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, NASA’s Dr James Hansen was asked “Is there any real chance of averting the climate crisis?”. He replied: “Absolutely. It is possible – if we give politicians a cold, hard slap in the face. The fraudulence of the Copenhagen approach – "goals" for emission reductions, "offsets" that render ironclad goals almost meaningless, the ineffectual "cap-and-trade" mechanism – must be exposed. We must rebel against such politics as usual. Science reveals that climate is close to tipping points. It is a dead certainty that continued high emissions will create a chaotic dynamic situation for young people, with deteriorating climate conditions out of their control…Governments must place a uniform rising price on carbon, collected at the fossil fuel source – the mine or port of entry. The fee should be given to the public in toto, as a uniform dividend, payroll tax deduction or both… Intergenerational inequity is a moral issue. Just as when Abraham Lincoln faced slavery and when Winston Churchill faced Nazism, the time for compromises and half-measures is over.” [12, 13].

In short, what is required to save the planet is (1) Change of societal philosophy to one of scientific risk management and biological sustainability with complete cessation of species extinctions and zero tolerance for lying, (2) urgent reduction of atmospheric CO2 to a safe level of about 300 ppm as recommended by leading climate and biological scientists, and (3) a rapid switch to the best non-carbon and renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tide and hydro options that are currently roughly the same market price as coal burning-based power) and to energy efficiency, public transport, needs-based production, re-afforestation and return of carbon as biochar to soils coupled with correspondingly rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning, deforestation, methanogenic livestock production and population growth. [14].

Biochar is a major component of reducing atmospheric CO2, global warming and bushfire risk. Biochar can be made from anaerobic pyrolysis at 400-700C of biomass from expertly-advised agricultural and bushland fuel hazard reduction harvesting (e.g. straw, wood waste, woody weeds) and thus (a) reduce bushfire threat; (b) provide a valuable, soil-enriching and crop productivity-enhancing product for producing “terra preta” soil; (c) help combat man-made global warming by drawing down atmospheric CO2; and (d) provide rural employment and farm income supplementation.

In my view biochar (charcoal) is very likely what can save the Planet’s biosphere. The technology is straightforward and has been used by charcoal makers for thousands of years, specifically heating plant material to 400-700 degrees Centigrade in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic pyrolysis) to generate carbon (C) from plant cellulose (roughly (CHO)n) .Carbon (C) is stable (unless you set fire to it and have plenty of oxygen - neither being likely underground) whereas plant cellulose (roughly (CH20)n) is oxidized by soil organisms to yield the GHGs CO2 and H2O or worse still, converted by anaerobic bacteria to methane, CH4, which is about 21 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 100 year time scale (72 times worse on a 20 year time scale). The amount of biochar that can be made from plant waste each year is roughly the same as the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere each year from carbon burning by man. [15].

Unfortunately Professor Flannery has a flawed view of biochar as revealed by these comments on being asked about biochar (my corrections to his assertions are in bold) :

TIM FLANNERY: Look, the specific technologies, I think, are yet to be debated, but I would be surprised if biochar weren’t included in there. I mean, the precise nature of the offsets, I should say, are still being worked out, but I’m sure that charcoal is one of the obvious ones. And just to let you know how that works, you know, just imagine a coal-fired power plant burns a ton of coal, you get 3.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide because the little carbon atoms join with bigger oxygen atoms to make them a CO2 molecule (you actually get much LESS because not all coal is carbon and not all the carbon, C, gets burned or fully oxidized to CO2). That floats around in the air, a plant gets hold of it, strips the oxygen off again (no, just some of the oxygen O is stripped off) and just keeps the carbon in its own tissue, so you’ve got that 3.7 going back to a single ton again ’cause there’s carbon in the plant structure itself (not so; the photosynthesis equation is actually : CO2 + H2O -> CH2O + O2 i.e. carbohydrate (CH2O)n is generated, not carbon, C). You then combust that, make charcoal out of it and then store the charcoal, which is almost pure carbon, in the soil (CH2O -> H2O + C).

TONY JONES (interviewer): So, how does this work for a farmer? I mean, you’re talking about part of their crop is used obviously for export; the rest of it, the waste then becomes turned into charcoal and therefore somehow holds the carbon that’s in that waste. Is that what you’re talking about?

TIM FLANNERY: That’s absolutely right. If you look at a tree, it’s basically just congealed carbon (No, it is actually carbohydrate, mainly cellulose, (CH2O)n).” [16, 17].

Raising and eating cattle to save the Planet and doing it by overstocking to transiently replace all paddock vegetation with dung are both erroneous suggestions as summarized below.

1. World Bank analysis recently established that annual greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution was 50% bigger than hitherto thought and that methane-generating (methanogenic) livestock contributed over 51% of the revised higher amount. To save the planet and reverse atmospheric GHG pollution we should adopt a vegetarian diet and eliminate methanogenic livestock. [18].

2. Re overstocking, in 1925 part of Koonamore Station in arid zone South Australia was fenced off from sheep and cattle by the University of Adelaide Botany Department. I stayed there several times and saw the result 45 years ago of lush growth inside and quasi-desert outside (scattered bluebush and salt bush and even more sparse stunted trees). Indeed LandSat images of the Earth in the 1970s revealed a rectilinear, grossly overstocked South Australian station from outer space, the core message being to keep herbivores out of native vegetation and to stop overstocking . [19].

3. The amount of biochar (charcoal, carbon) that can be made from anaerobic pyrolysis of plant waste (heating to 400-700C in the absence of oxygen) is roughly the same each year as the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere each year from carbon burning by man. Indeed having got to zero GHG emissions through cessation of industrial and agricultural GHG pollution, it is still necessary to generate and store biochar, as well as to do re-afforestation, to reduce the atmospheric CO2 concentration from the current 392 ppm to about 300 ppm. [7, 15].

Humus refers to biodegraded biological material in soils that adds to soil quality. Indeed humus in soils represents a major carbon sink. The humus compounds most resistant to further biodegradation are humic acids formed by the microbial degradation of dead plant matter, notably cellulose-associated lignin. However while biochar is carbon (C), carbon dioxide is CO2, cellulose is (CH2O)n, humic acids still have oxygen linked to the carbon skeleton and a formula that is roughly (C2H2O)n. The aromatic (benzene ring-containing) and metal-chelating carboxylic acid (-COOH) moieties in humic acids make these substances relatively water insoluble, thus preventing further microbial degradation. [20].

Humus in soils is fine (as is biochar in soils) but anaerobic degradation of cellulose materials by methanogenic (methane-generating) livestock bacteria comes at a big price: the generation of methane (CH4) that is 72 times worse than CO2 as a GHG on a 20 year time scale.

Whereas the FAO attributed 7,516 Mt (million tones) CO2-e )CO2 –equivalent) to livestock, the recent World Bank re-assessment increased this to over 32,564 Mt CO2-e and increased the estimate of annual man-made GHG pollution from 41,755 Mt CO2-e to 63,803 Mt CO2-e. Conversely, converting plant waste to biochar via renewable energy-powered microwave furnaces carries no such GHG debt. [18].

Doing something “Because a first step is better than nothing” is counterproductive if doing something makes things worse. Former Liberal-National Party Coalition leader Malcolm Turnbull believes (unlike some of his fellow Coalition MPs) that man-made climate change is a reality and that we should do something about it. Malcolm Turnbull eventually lost the Coalition leadership because of his highly principled support for the highly flawed Rudd Labor Government ETS that was also supported by environmentalists like the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and Professor Flannery “Because a first step is better than nothing”.

However the Turnbull-Rudd ETS compromise involved permanently excluding agriculture from GHG considerations and thus proposed to ignore over 51% of the GHG pollution problem - forever.

Finally, let us consider beef eating in a starving world. The conversion efficiency (kg grain to produce 1 kg gain in live weight) is as follows: herbivorous farmed fish (e.g. carp, tilapia, catfish; less than 2), chicken (2), pork (4), and beef (7). In 2003, 37 percent of the world grain harvest, or nearly 700 million tons, used to produce animal protein. Meat eating is an indulgence in a starving world threatened by a worsening Climate Emergency and Biofuel Genocide. [21, 22].

Professor Tim Flannery has stated “I believe that in a world facing a food shortage and a climate crisis, livestock represent a potent weapon in the fight to stabilise our climate” but is wrong on both counts.

As outlined above, methanogenic livestock production contributes over 51% of our annual GHG pollution. Further, while food prices are escalating and threatening the lives of billions of people, it takes 7 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef. Methanogenic livestock production must cease if we are to stop mass malnutrition and to save the planet in the short time we have left to do so.


[1]. Tim Flannery, “Red meat can be green”, Sydney Morning Herald On-line, National Times, 9 August 2010: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/red-m... .

[2]. “Tim Flannery”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Fl... .

[3]. Sir Nicholas Stern, quoted in Alison Benjamin, “Stern: climate change a “market failure””, Guardian, 29 November 2007: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environme... .

[4]. Gideon Polya, “Science and economics experts: Carbon Tax needed not Carbon Trading”, 300.org: http://sites.google.com/site/300org... .

[5]. “”Nasty gloom-and-doom situation” lies ahead, scientists say”, SIKU News, 3 August 2009: http://www.sikunews.com/Front-page/... .

[6]. Dr Andrew Brierley (St Andrews University, UK) and Dr Michael Kingsford ( James Cook University, Australia) quoted in “Scientists claim planet is heading for irreversible climate change by 2020”, Current, 2 August 2009: http://current.com/news/90591626_sc....

[7]. “300.org – return atmosphere CO2 to 300 ppm”, 300.org: http://sites.google.com/site/300org... .

[8]. Dr Andrew Glikson, "Human evolution and the atmosphere: return of the Pliocene?" (2008): http://sites.google.com/site/yarrav... .

[9]. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, “Terra quasi-incognita: beyond the 2 degree C line”< 4 Degrees & Beyond, International Climate Conference, 26-30 September 2009, Oxford University , UK : http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/4degrees/pp....

[10]. [12]. .Beyond Zero Emissions, “Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan”, 2010: http://www.beyondzeroemissions.org/... .

[11]. Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “A path to sustainable energy by 2030”, Scientific American, November 2009,p(p 58 – 65: http://www.scientificamerican.com/a... .

[12]. James Hansen, “ Copenhagen summit – Is there any real chance of averting the climate crisis?”, Guardian, 29 November 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentis... .

[13]. James Hansen, “Storms of My Grandchildren. The truth about the coming climate catrastrophe and our last chance to save humanity”, Bloomsbury, London, 2010.

[14]. “Climate emergency facts and required actions”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: https://sites.google.com/site/yarra... .

[15]. “Forest biomass-derived Biochar can profitably reduce global warming and bushfire risk”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: https://sites.google.com/site/yarra... .

[16]. Oz environmentalist Professor Tim Flannery supports disastrous Australian Carbon Trading ETS”, Greenblog, 15 July 2009: http://www.green-blog.org/2009/07/1... .

[17]. ABC interview with Professor Tim Flannery, “Tin Flannery discusses Obama’s climate change summit”, ABC Late;line, 29 June 2009: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/cont... .

[18]. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anfang. “Livestock and climate change. What if the key actors in climate change are … cows, pigs and chickens?”, World Watch, November/December 2009: http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf... .

[19]. R. Sinclair and D.Graetz, "Eighty-three years of vegetation change on the TGB Osborn Vegetation Reserve, Koonamore": http://www.austrangesoc.com.au/user... .

[20]. Humic acid”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humic_acid.

[21]. Gideon Polya, “Biofuel famine, biofuel genocide, meat & global food price crisis”: http://globalavoidablemortality.blo... .

[22]. FAO, “World food situation”: http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituati... .

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