Environmental impact of the food system

The last climate café was on the impact our food choices have on the environment, which is right up my alley. I was looking forward to these talks very much and I don’t think I was the only one because it was our busiest climate café ever with more than 120 people turning up on the night. Here are my notes.

Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen
Food choices and how consumerism can influence the carbon footprint.

Managing demand for livestock products is essential for future food security. By 2050 we can expect to need to feed around 9-10 billion people. This will level off to around 12 billion by 2100. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.  In developing countries we have a rising middle class and with increases in wealth comes increases in meat and milk consumption, both of which put more pressure on the food system. In the next 50 years we’re going to need to produce more food in the same land area than we’ve ever produced in the whole of human history. Increasing production by 10% or 20% is not going to be enough. This will be hugely challenging. It’s not like we’re currently doing a good job of this with some 800 million people going hungry.

One thing is certain: we cannot all eat a western diet because there’s not enough land. We must change our diets if we’re to produce enough food and make sure everyone has access to it – this is about food security. Furthermore, if we’re serious about tackling climate change then we need to address demand for animal products. This has two components: minimising waste and dietary change. In developed countries around 30% of purchased food products goes to landfill. This could potentially be reduced by 50%. Dietary change can also have a large impact on reducing our carbon footprint because meat products have a much higher impact than plants. There’s a 100-fold difference between eating ruminant beef compared with vegetables in terms of the CO2 emissions they produce. In other words, it’s 100 times better to eat a vegetable burger than a beef burger.

Currently 30% of all crops grown are fed to animals. If we weren’t feeding so many animals we’d free up land for other things like reforestation. Animals are not particularly efficient at converting protein from plants into energy. We’re about 10% efficient and so it makes little sense to filter plants we can eat through an animal that’s only 10% efficient and then eating the animal. We need to shift consumption from animals to the food we’re feeding those animals. Meat is a luxury consumption that we don’t need.

This doesn’t mean we all have to go completely vegan tomorrow. It’s not a binary choice of all or nothing. But we need to shift away from a diet centred on animal products to one that is more balanced and healthy. Doing so will give us benefits in triplicate: it will improve the health of the population, reduce the risks associated with climate change, and improve food security. The health benefits are a reduced incidence of diabetes and heart disease as well as a lower risk of some cancers. The challenge is how to incentivise plant-based diets so we can realise these benefits. We could tax the foods that put more pressure on the environment, the public health system, and food security.


Dr Stephen Whybrow, University of Aberdeen
Is eating less meat the answer?

We know we need to reduce our emissions by changing the foods we eat but what would happen if we all started reducing our meat consumption? The Scottish diet is already notoriously bad with too much sugar and fat and not enough fibre. How would switching to a plant-based diet impact our health and the micronutrients we need? Sugar and oils are high in energy but not much else.

The question is, how would meat-eaters change what they eat if plant-based diets were incentivised? If meat-eaters switched from lean chicken and veggies to macaroni cheese then this is not great for their health. One study found that 25% of meat-eaters would increase their dairy consumption if they reduced meat consumption and this is going to have only minimal benefits for the environment because of the high environmental impact of dairy farming. There’s also the question of whether people will compensate for no-meat days by eating more meat on other days.

In terms of nutritional requirements, will we get enough protein if we reduce our meat consumption? Yes, we eat way too much protein right now. What about iron? Iron absorption from plants is not as high as from meat. However the amount we absorb also depends on how much we have in our body. If our iron stores are low then we’ll absorb more. For most people iron is not going to be a problem. Of greater concern is B12 which comes exclusively from animal products. Folic acid also masks problems associated with B12 deficiency. What options are there? We could issue supplements to everyone or fortify foods.

Is eating less meat the answer? No, it’s only part of the answer. We also need to consider nutritional issues.


Scott Heron from RGU
Plastic: The Naked Truth

Inspired by a “naked onion” (an onion wrapped in plastic), Scott and his partner, Pam, decided to challenge themselves to go plastic-free for 30 days. Plastic packaging is a huge problem. Currently 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into the oceans every year. What happens to it? It will not decompose on human time scales so it will be there for a very long time. There is also the issue of micro-plastics which are ingested by plankton and end up cascading up the food chain.

How did Scott manage for the 30 days? He decided that everything they already had in the food cupboard could stay but all purchased things for the 30 days had to be plastic-free. It was hard to buy fruit and vegetables without plastic packaging. There’s no green grocer in Aberdeen. He tried to get meat and fish from the deli counters at the supermarket – at the meat counter they were happy for him to use his own container but this was not possible at the fish counter. He was told it was a health and safety risk. Scott was eventually able to source fish from the local fishmongers.

Part-way through the challenge Scott ran out of salt and went to a beach north of Aberdeen, collected some sea water, then boiled off the water to make his own. Two things that he found surprisingly difficult to buy without plastic packaging were pasta and coffee. He eventually found pasta in a cardboard box but there was a tiny bit of plastic in a window on the box.

At the end of the 30 days Scott found his diet had improved considerably and he was eating far less sugar. He’s also much more aware of how pervasive plastics are.

Scott and Pam are starting another plastic-free challenge on the 14th February which is in two days! If you want to join them head over to the Facebook page.

 

Protected bike path for Union St – Event

Where: At the King Edward statue, corner of Union Street and Union Terrace.
When: Saturday 3rd February from 11:30am – 12:30pm.

The city council has a masterplan to rejuvenate the city but the current plans include no cycling provision on Union Street, one of the most congested and polluted streets in Aberdeen.

To unlock the many potential benefits of the masterplan, safe cycle facilities must be installed on Union Street. Please join me on Saturday, 3rd February, to tell the council and sign the petition.

Kids welcome!

 

Renewable Energy: At Home & Work

If you missed Climate Café number 3, here’s a summary of the talks. The next café will be on the 6th February and the focus is on food and the impact our food choices have on the environment. Please join us!

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Neil Stuart from Home Energy Scotland

Home Energy Scotland has expert advisors who visit homes and provide free and impartial advice on how we can reduce our energy bills. They can advise on renewables, energy efficiency, waste prevention, and even transport. There are government incentives home owners can access to encourage the uptake of renewables and Home Energy Scotland can help explain how these work. They include feed-in tariffs and interest-free loans. If you can generate your own electricity then you can sell what you don’t use and people typically only use about 25% of what they generate. If you’re interested in investing in renewables then you can access interest-free loans of up to £17,500 per household for renewable energy systems. The Energy Saving Trust has a tool you can use to find out what technologies are suitable for your home. There’s also a green homes network which is a group of homes that have installed renewable energy or made energy efficiency improvements and are offering to share their experience with others who are curious to see how it all works.

Lauren Milton from Élan Hair Design

Lauren Milton shared her inspiring story of how the family-run hair salon in Inverurie went green and has become recognised in the UK as the most eco-friendly and sustainable hairdressing salon. It all started with a switch to LED lighting which not only reduced their CO2 emissions, but also saved them money. From there they went to PV panels, and implemented other measures which resulted in a 68% reduction in water use, a 95% reduction in CO2 emissions, and increased turnover every year. The sustainable business approach has led to lower costs, better PR, and increased customer loyalty.

Erik Dalhuijsen on living offgrid 

Erik lives on a boat which has two solar panels that power everything except for hot water and cooking. He advocates for changing behaviour to match circumstances. For example, when there’s ample supply (the sun is out or the wind is blowing) run the instruments that require power. When there’s no power, turn them off. It’s very feasible to live this way and doesn’t make life difficult.

Dave McGrath from Grampian Energy

Grampian Energy can provide advice for homes and businesses in the North East of Scotland on renewables and energy efficiency. The first thing Dave recommends to those interested in reducing energy costs is to understand your demand and then reduce it. This is the single, easiest thing you can do. Most homes use about 3,500 – 5,500 kWh (kilowatt hour) per year and of that heating consumes around 60-70%.

An easy way to reduce demand is to replace all incandescent bulbs with LED. An incandescent bulb uses around 60W which is £35/year. LED lights use 6W which is £3.50. This is a huge saving for a very small investment. When buying new appliances get ones with a triple-A rating. Also consider the impact of cooking. For example Chinese cooking (e.g., stir fries) consumes very little energy whereas a roast which sits in the oven for several hours uses a lot. Consumer electronics also consume a lot of energy so think twice before buying a huge LCD TV for the teenager’s bedroom.

For heating costs, the amount of heat required to heat a building is equal to the amount that leaves it. The EPC rating of the property is very important and will give you an indication of this heat loss. The biggest loss is through the walls especially in Aberdeen’s granite homes that often have a thin layer of plaster as their only insulation. Some insulation is harder and more expensive to install than others. Roof insulation and double glazing is pretty easy whereas underfloor is hard to do. You can also reduce heat loss by sealing off drafts, especially around doors. Having a timer can also reduce consumption by turning on heating only when it’s needed. You can also turn it off/on for specific rooms according to need. You can fit radiators with TRVs (thermostatic radiator valves) which control the flow of hot water into the radiator allowing you to set the temperature of the room to the level you want.

In terms of renewable energy sources, free sources of power include solar PV, solar thermal, and wind. A solar PV system will set you back about £5200 for a 4KW system.  Micro wind works in rural settings but is not worthwhile in the city. A large system costs around 30k-35k. Other environmentally-friendly heating options are biomass boilers and heat pumps. A biomass boiler is good for people who have their own source of timber. Heat pumps are basically refrigerators in reverse but they’re very efficient producing around 3.5kWh for every 1kWh.


A big thank you to all our speakers for the inspiring and informative talks!

Tidal and wind power in Scotland, and adapting to a post-oil future

The second climate cafè last Tuesday evening was a great success. We heard two terrific talks. The first was on the future of tidal power in Scotland and was delivered by Dr Ian Davies of Marine Scotland Science. Then we heard from Dr Leslie Mabon from Robert Gordon University talking about the adaptation in the North East to a post oil future. Here’s my summary of the two talks.

The Future of Tidal Power in Scotland

Scotland is perfect for tidal and wind power with much of the Scottish coastline suitable. However before any project proceeds there are factors that must be considered. The Scottish coastline is also used by the fishing industry and there are ferry and shipping routes to take into account. There are also lots of protected animal species along the coastline such as birds and sea mammals. All these things are considered before a project is approved.

Stromness, which is in Orkney, is home to The European Marine Energy Centre. It’s a research and testing facility for wave and tidal power and is the only centre of its kind in the world. There are also a couple of offshore wind farms near Aberdeen. There’s one in Aberdeen Bay which is 2km offshore with 11 turbines, 176m high. There’s another just north of Stonehaven known as the Kincardine project which has 5 turbines. Just launched this year is Statoil’s Hywind project which is a floating wind farm and the first of its kind in the world. The cost of electricity generation from wind farms is falling rapidly and will continue to do so. The offshore wind farms are particularly good because there’s less concern from interaction with others. There’s also plenty of space.

Adaptation in the North East to a post oil future

For almost half a century Aberdeen’s fortune’s have been determined by North Sea oil. It created jobs and has made people rich. The average oil industry salary is £64,000, a substantially higher figure than the average wage in the UK which is £27,000. About 10% of all jobs here are in oil and gas. We have become dependent on one industry and this dependancy is a barrier to change. It has become a part of the fabric of the city. For instance, most airports have advertising for perfume, jewellery, or fashion but at Aberdeen airport you’ll see ads for drilling. You can even buy fridge magnets of oil platforms. For these reasons the people here will be resistant to change and maybe even defensive about the problem. What incentive does someone have to accept a much lower salary in a different industry?

What’s the solution?

We need to provide retraining schemes for workers as well as tax breaks and incentives for new industry. As individuals we can pressure politicians to support the transition.

Is it time to get rid of the family car?

We dispensed with the family car three years ago and I’ve never regretted it. We are a family of four: two adults and two primary school children and we found we were able to walk or cycle to most of the places we wanted to go. We are lucky to live in Aberdeen where there’s a fantastic car club, a good bus service, and it’s reasonably flat which makes it good for cycling, although the cycling infrastructure could be better.

The best thing about not owning a car is you’re not tempted to use it for short trips that don’t require a car. It’s too easy to form bad habits and drive 300m up the road when there’s a car sitting in the garage. I know because I used to do that. Now I walk or cycle and get exercise for free. I use the word free in a non-monetary sense: it’s exercise without having to find the time to do it because it happens as a consequence of going from A to B. We’re also producing less pollution which is good for air quality and have lowered our greenhouse gas emissions. Even better, we’re saving money as we no longer have car-related expenses like petrol, depreciation, insurance, maintenance, and MOTs.

One huge cost of car ownership which is often ignored is the space needed to park the millions of privately-owned vehicles. Each parking space is 2m x 5m which is 10m2. Multiply this number by the 31 million cars in the UK and that’s 310 million square metres of land set aside just to park cars. This doesn’t includes all the roads and motorways needed to move them around. It’s an enormous amount of space. Imagine if that space was instead reserved for people, for parks, for trees, or for homes.

Living car-free is liberating. You’ll spend more time outdoors talking to people. You’ll also never have to vacuum the inside of a car ever again. It’s worth it just for that.