Tuesday, 7 August 2007

"Walking does more than driving to cause global warming..."

Another paean today to the Law of Unintended Consequences, or as I've said it before: It Ain't Easy Being Green. The gentleman saying it here today is Dominic Kennedy who noted in last week's Times that "Walking does more than driving to cause global warming, a leading environmentalist has calculated." How 'bout that! Here's the argument behind the calculation:
Food production is now so energy-intensive that more carbon is emitted providing a person with enough calories to walk to the shops than a car would emit over the same distance. The climate could benefit if people avoided exercise, ate less and became couch potatoes. Provided, of course, they remembered to switch off the TV rather than leaving it on standby.

The sums were done by Chris Goodall, campaigning author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, [described by New Scientist as "the definitive guide to reducing your carbon footprint"] based on the greenhouse gases created by intensive beef production. "Driving a typical UK car for 3 miles adds about 0.9 kg of CO2 to the atmosphere," he said, a calculation based on the Government's official fuel emission figures. "If you walked instead, it would use about 180 calories. You'd need about 100g of beef to replace those calories, resulting in 3.6kg of emissions, or four times as much as driving.

"The troubling fact is that taking a lot of exercise and then eating a bit more food is not good for the global atmosphere. Eating less and driving to save energy would be better."

Mr Goodall, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Oxford West & Abingdon, is the latest serious thinker to turn popular myths about the environment on their head.

Catching a diesel train is now twice as polluting as travelling by car for an average family, the Rail Safety and Standards Board admitted recently. Paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic because of the extra energy needed to manufacture and transport them, the Government says.

Fresh research published in New Scientist last month suggested that 1kg of meat cost the Earth 36kg in global warming gases. The figure was based on Japanese methods of industrial beef
production but Mr Goodall says that farming techniques are similar throughout the West [although obviously not all the west].

What if, instead of beef, the walker drank a glass of milk? The average person would need to drink 420ml - three quarters of a pint - to recover the calories used in the walk. Modern dairy
farming emits the equivalent of 1.2kg of CO2 to produce the milk, still more pollution than the car journey.

Cattle farming is notorious for its perceived damage to the environment, based on what scientists politely call "methane production" from cows. The gas, released during the digestive
process, is 21 times more harmful than CO2 . Organic beef is the most damaging because organic cattle emit more methane.

Michael O'Leary, boss of the budget airline Ryanair, has been widely derided after he was reported to have said that global warming could be solved by massacring the world's cattle. "The
way he is running around telling people they should shoot cows," Lawrence Hunt, head of Silverjet, another budget airline, told the Commons Environmental Audit Committee. "I do not think you can really have debates with somebody with that mentality."

But according to Mr Goodall, Mr O'Leary may have a point. "Food is more important [to Britain's greenhouse emissions] than aircraft but there is no publicity," he said. "Associated British Foods isn't being questioned by MPs about energy.

"We need to become accustomed to the idea that our food production systems are equally damaging. As the man from Ryanair says, cows generate more emissions than aircraft. Unfortunately, perhaps, he is right. Of course, this doesn't mean we should always choose to use air or car travel instead of walking. It means we need urgently to work out how to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of our foodstuffs."

Simply cutting out beef, or even meat, however, would be too modest a change. The food industry is estimated to be responsible for a sixth of an individual's carbon emissions, and Britain may be the worst culprit.
Interesting stuff, no? Kennedy finishes up with a grab bag of eco-myths that he takes to with relish:
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Diesel trains in rural Britain are more polluting than 4x4 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.”
  • Burning wood for fuel is better for the environment than recycling it, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs discovered.
  • Organic dairy cows are worse for the climate. They produce less milk so their methane emissions per litre are higher.
  • Someone who installs a “green” lightbulb 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.
  • 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.
The moral of the story? It's not easy appeasing Gaia. Or trying to.


  1. Indeed! Btw Silverjet is anything but a budget airline, it's an all business class airline from Luton to New York with its own terminal, which is basically a lounge bar!

  2. It's good to see the debate moving up a notch. Everything is interconnected, you, me and the ecosystem and it is hard to take specific activities and say they cause x,y or z. What we need to do is look at the true cost of our goods and services and respond accordingly. The analysis above, although useful, is still lacking. What about the energy in manufacturing the airplanes, building the cars etc.

    The simple fact is we don't know yet because our pricing system is incorrect. Fix prices at the primary level and let them flow out through the system.

    I have some posts on this subject on my blog. Alternatively have a look at www.trucost.com

  3. Sustento

    You write that "our pricing system is incorrect". Really? How is that?


  4. Banker,

    Simply because externalities are not priced and therefore the price we pay for our goods and services are not correct. Externalities are usually picked up by the taxpayer and not the end consumer.

    All the debate around what is better for the environment is simply conjecture when the true cost of current activity is not known.

    It has allowed the environment to become a political football which gets hoofed around from one end of the pitch to another.



  5. Externalities are often argued by those who think they are only negative, but there are also positive externalities. Agglomeration is one (when businesses co-locate and benefit other businesses by more than what they are paid themselves), at the other end of the scale are ones as simple as the positive externality generated by seeing attractive women - which improves health and also generates business benefits.

    So called environmental costs may be real (e.g. high levels of particulates on health) or simply notional (noise). In many ways people already price these into their activities, it costs less to buy a home on a major highway or airport flight path for example.

    The externalities that matter are those that are, in effect, a matter of trespass. Pollution of water is simply a trespass of a form of property, the fact it is in the commons is the problem. Pollution of air is a trespass of private property as well, the problem is that roads and footpaths are the commons, so polluting that air seems to be a problem. Privately owned roads would, for example, face potential lawsuits from adjacent property owners if the vehicles using their roads created excess pollution.

    Advocates of environmental pricing mean environmental taxes - they mean the government taking money for people doing something notionally bad. The government rarely uses this to "fix" the problem, witness the environmental taxes in the UK which are simply a revenue gathering exercise that has a marginal effect on behaviour.

  6. Libertyscott

    Yes. That's it alright.

    Also the matter of prior use and homesteading needs to be understood; much more thoroughly understood. For example, if the road was present prior to my erection of a house adjacent to that road, I have no valid complaint about the presence of smoke or particulates etc. Prior use applies. Similarly, were I to homestead land downstream from a factory, I can't very well go demanding the factory stop using the river to remove its by-products or waste. They had right of prior use.

    One must diligence one's investments in this life!

    As for "externalities", that's just another way of spouting bullshit!

    Cheers and good living to you!


  7. The assumptions used to produce the points you make are if anything worse than the ones you're trying to refute. How likely is it that someone who walks will eat only beef to get extra calories? And only feedlot beef at that? Sheesh, if they ate sausages instead of steak the numbers would go down, and heaven forbid they chew on a hamburger instead... they might actually save emissions.

    One interesting point I saw was that NZ beef is probably better for the environment than British beef if you're in the UK, because the transport emissions are more than made up for by the NZ cows eating grass in paddocks instead of processed feed in a shed.

    And so on through your article.

  8. At the end of the day it just shows that the free market is the best and only means of working out the costs of cause and effect....who's surprised?

  9. James, Yes the market is the best way of working out the costs as long as all the costs are incorporated.

    The reports referred to by anonymous include external costs in their calculations which is why they can show that NZ beef or whatever is "better for the environment", which is not a term i really like.

    I;d prefer us to simply say cheaper.

    Liberty, you sound like you are quoting from an economics textbook. Externalities are widely dispersed and very real. They are not some made up number and are not restricted to pollution activities. As to government being hopeless at handling this issue, well i'm in agreement there.

    Banker, you'll have to do better than that.

  10. Sustento

    No. I don't have to do anything at all. You, on the other hand, have a lot to "do."

    Since you are the one who believes that the cost of goods/services etc. must be amended to incorporate YOUR values (at extra cost to everyone else), it is YOU who needs to establish exactly how & why EVERYONE else should surrender their own judgement of value and be forced to adopt your ones (incurring higher costs to trade or act in the process).

    I do not intend to pay, trade or transact cost according to your values. No-one else should be forced to either!

    Away with you! Be gone thief!


  11. My god - being good is so complicated. Just as well I don't bother.

  12. It's not about being good or having money whipped off you for no reason. It's simply about paying the full cost of the goods or services you use.

    There will always be debate about what those costs might be but to simply disregard them is not viable. I've met economists who debated vigorously those costs but never one who didn't accept they existed.

    If you want scientific papers on ecosystem values and external costs i'd be happy to direct you to them.

  13. You've gotta love this: "It's simply about paying the full cost of the goods or services you use."

    Full cost? According to whom?

    Full cost? How much is that? According to whom?

    One thing's for certain, it aint voluntary trade these guys are promoting... this is all about expropriation of other people's property.

    What a rort!

  14. I missed this post, but the original article is notable for what is left out. While Goodall appeared to be scrupulous about calculating the full CO2 costs of the food chain fueling the walker, he quite glaringly fails to be so scrupulous when it comes to the emissions from driving.

    What about the carbon costs of drilling, refining, and transporting the petrol? What about the costs of manufacturing the car? Did he remember to add the emissions of the driver breathing? And when calculating the emissions from walking, did he subtract the emissions of a person who decides not to walk at all? Also: who walks 3 miles to the corner dairy? Did Goodall choose this distance so that he could assume a heightened heart rate (and hence greater emissions intensity)?

    His calculation is clearly incomplete. That said, he makes a good point (which PC didn't see fit to include -- odd that) that a true accounting of the upstream carbon cost of the foods in the supermarket are an important part of any forward-looking plan to curb AGW.

    More denialist propaganda, please!

  15. Eddie, you suggest I've cropped inconvenient parts of the article.

    I posted what I was sent. You appear to be judging me by your own standards.

  16. My mistake, PC. You did indeed copy and paste the whole article. I disagree only with your interpretation.


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