Blame the planes not the cows

The point here is not to call for an end to air travel nor disparage the airline industry but rather to simply call attention to how absurd some thinking can be.

Dr. Nevil Speer

August 21, 2019

4 Min Read
Blame the planes not the cows

How often do you think about your individual carbon footprint? It’s an important question given the conversation about climate change. Given some of the events of the past month, making it personal seems pertinent. At the very least it provides an alternative perspective about global warming (oh, and offers a lesson in irony, too).

First, a little background to set the stage for the discussion to follow (the travel details will matter later on). My daughter recently did a study abroad in England. My wife and I flew to London (from Nashville through Orlando) at the completion of her three-week course for some family vacation time. While there, we also traveled roundtrip to France via the Eurostar.

As a reminder, London runs five hours ahead of the eastern time zone. Every morning we’d catch the headlines just as they were breaking from several European sources well ahead of U.S. news feeds. The morning of Aug. 13 especially caught our attention – the breaking story in London went like this: “University bans hamburgers 'to tackle climate change'.”

Goldsmiths College, University of London, has new leadership, professor Frances Corner. Apparently, she’s passionate about reversing climate change. As a result, she’s banning beef on the university’s campus. Her explanation being:

“The growing global call for organizations to take seriously their responsibilities for halting climate change is impossible to ignore. Though I have only just arrived at Goldsmiths, it is immediately obvious that our staff and students care passionately about the future of our environment and that they are determined to help deliver the step change we need to cut our carbon footprint drastically and as quickly as possible. Declaring a climate emergency cannot be empty words. I truly believe we face a defining moment in global history and Goldsmiths now stands shoulder to shoulder with other organisations willing to call the alarm and take urgent action to cut carbon use,” she is quoted as saying.

 Meanwhile, the London Times coverage entitled the story, “Where’s the beef? Meat is off the menu at the university.” But what really caught my attention from the paper was an adjacent article with the following headline: “Weatherman says climate change great for tourism.”

The travel story was touting recent comments by British TV weatherman Bill Giles. His thesis being that climate change could help tourism become the “backbone of [the] post-Brexit economy.” Giles is proclaiming that, “People all over the world, and especially Europe, could be seduced to come and enjoy the U.K. as our climate becomes more acceptable and their own becomes unbearably hot.” The disparity among the stories couldn’t have been more conspicuous. So, as a tourist and avid beef consumer, I decided some personal application would be useful.

With that, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (an agency of the United Nations), just my portion of the roundtrip flight represents roughly 1,950 kg of CO2. Keep in mind, there were some 450 people on each of my flights that crossed the Atlantic.

Now for some context around that number. Per capita CO2 production in the U.S. is roughly 17 metric tons annually. Undoubtedly, my portion is higher because I do quite a bit of domestic travel. Nevertheless, my CO2 share for the international flight represents a whopping 11% of that annual per capita footprint. In other words, international travel adds up fast!

But wait, it gets better yet. The Environmental Protection Agency assigns agriculture as being responsible for 9% of all U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The agency also designates the livestock sector as accountable for “almost one-third” of agriculture’s annual output. Stated another way, individual consumption of milk, meat and eggs is responsible for only 3% of total GHG emissions. Based on the national per-capita average of 17 metric tons of CO2, consuming animal products results in just slightly more than 500 kg on an individual basis.

Now, back to my flight. The food / travel disparity is four-to-one. That is, a single international roundtrip flight produces four times the CO2 equivalent for an individual passenger compared to eating meat, milk and eggs for an entire year! That is, four people would have to adopt a vegan lifestyle for an entire year to negate my impact by traveling to London. The same holds true for my 450 fellow passengers – four-to-one – or about 1,800 people would need to become vegans for a year to negate just one roundtrip to London.

By the way, there are some 2,000 to 3,000 trans-Atlantic flights every single day. That’s a lot of passengers and a lot of CO2 over the course of a year’s time! That math is huge – it requires way too many vegans to even start counting.

In essence, it all boils down to a weird, inexplicable quandary. On one hand, we won’t eat beef – because we believe it will make a favorable impact toward climate change (notwithstanding all the evidence that’s NOT the case). On the other hand, despite readily available data detailing its huge detrimental impact, we’re glad to exploit climate change by encouraging travel to Britain (because it’ll help the national economy).

The point here is not to call for an end to air travel nor disparage the airline industry. Rather, it’s simply to call attention to how absurd this all seems. It’s just too easy to simply blame the cows, not the planes. Oh…the irony of it all.

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