The wealthy are to blame for the end of the world as we know it

by Rebecca Macfie / 10 July, 2017

A German industrial area. Photo/Getty Images

Influential environmental scientist and Hillary Laureate Johan Rockström talks to Rebecca Macfie about red meat, the Trump effect and how people in the world’s wealthiest countries are destroying the planet.

“It’s over this 30-year period that we will determine the future for humanity.” Johan Rockström, a lean, blue-eyed Swede with a global reputation in the science of sustainability, delivers his urgent message as a matter of peer-reviewed fact, rather than apocalyptic alarm.

Three decades: it’s not much time in which to stage a revolution in the way the world fuels its economies, feeds its growing population, protects the oceans and rescues its fast-diminishing biodiversity.

Rockström spoke to the Listener on the sidelines of the EAT Stockholm Food Forum, a gathering of 500 international experts focused on the interconnected health and environmental damage caused by the modern food system. Just a few hours earlier, he had been recognised for his work on defining the Earth’s environmental limits by being named the 2017 Hillary Laureate – described by former prime minister and UN Development Programme administrator Helen Clark as the New Zealand equivalent of the Nobel Prize for leadership.

Johan Rockström. Photo/Mikael Axelsson

Rockström led seminal research, published in 2009, that quantified nine “planetary boundaries”, described by the researchers as the “safe space for human development”. They include limits on carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, fresh water extraction, ocean acidification and stratospheric ozone depletion. According to a 2015 update on the research, humanity has smashed through four of the nine boundaries: carbon dioxide; the volumes of excess nitrogen and phosphorous being dumped onto land and into water; the conversion of rainforest, wetland and savannah for agriculture; and biodiversity loss.

The scientific consensus is that the Earth is being pushed out of the Holocene – the 12,000-year period of climatic stability that enabled human societies to develop agriculture and form civilisations – and into the Anthropocene, an epoch in which “humanity [has] become the largest driver of change at the planetary scale”.

Rockström says the change started 40-50 years ago, but the blows dealt to the environment were largely absorbed by a resilient planet until the 1990s. “We have now reached a saturation point,” he wrote recently. “We have built our societies and economies on the assumption that Earth has an infinite ability to absorb our abuse. We assume that Earth can subsidise our lives.”

Rockström says we are at a critical point and the clock is ticking. Along with luminaries such as economist Lord Nicholas Stern and UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, he says global fossil fuel emissions must peak by 2020 – a mere three years away – and then start falling rapidly to a largely fossil fuel-free world by 2050.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. Photo/Getty Images

Rockström’s Carbon Law

In a recent paper in Nature, he and co-researchers proposed a concept that borrows from Moore’s Law of computer technology, which notes that computer processing power doubles about every two years. Rockström’s Carbon Law – intended as a road map for innovation and policies such as steep carbon prices – would see emissions halving every decade between now and 2050 and renewable energy doubling every five to seven years.

It can be done, he says. Renewable energy accounts for only 2.8% of the world’s energy supply, but it has been growing rapidly for the past decade. Even without a realistic price on carbon, and despite the $500-600 billion in annual subsidies ploughed into the fossil fuel industry, renewables have been doubling every five and a half years. And change can come more quickly than expected: in just two years, coal use in China flipped from a 3.7% increase of in 2013 to a 3.7% decline in 2015.

Recent research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that solar electricity generators are now as cheap to install as coal-fired plants in Germany, Australia, the US, Spain and Italy and will be cheaper than coal in China, India, Mexico, the UK and Brazil by 2021.

But the scale of transformation required is enormous, and even if coal, oil and gas are banished from the world energy system, it will still not be enough to keep global temperature increase to the 2°C promised by the Paris accord, let alone the aspirational target of 1.5°C. Profound changes will also be needed to diets, and methods of drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it underground, in soil and in biomass, will have to be deployed on a large scale.

All this has to happen while the population rises from today’s 7.5 billion to a predicted 9-10 billion by 2050. But Rockström has an inconvenient message for those who argue that soaring population growth is an underlying cause of climate change and a barrier to its reversal.

Two-thirds of girls in sub-Saharan Africa don’t get to secondary school. Photo/Alamy

“It’s not a question of blaming population growth. That’s quite an elitist perspective, because the biggest driver of us threatening the climate system and ecosystems and oceans is actually affluence in the rich part of the world.”

It’s the world’s wealthy, not poor people in developing countries with high population growth, who eat huge quantities of red meat, drive petrol-powered cars and fly around the world on high-emission planes.

In any case, a future population of at least nine billion is already baked in to the system, he says. “You have to remember we are only 30 years away. It’s just one generation to 2050.

“What’s important is we have crossed the population transition. The average number of children per woman in the world today is two. We’ve passed peak child … apart from in a few African nations and war-torn countries. The reasons the population is still rising are this delay factor and the increase in life expectancy.”

That doesn’t mean population growth is off the hook, however. “The big question is what happens between 2050 and 2100, and we have to do everything we can to avoid the population becoming 11 billion. And we have to do that now.”

The solutions are already well known: contraceptives, schooling for girls and economic development, he says. Historical experience and research show that educated women have fewer and healthier babies and are less likely to marry against their will. Environmental writer Paul Hawken, in a new book called Drawdown, which ranks the impact of technologies and policies to address global warming, puts the education of girls as the sixth most effective out of the 80 analysed. Yet two-thirds of girls in sub-Saharan Africa and half of girls in South Asia don’t get to secondary school. Cost, lack of transport, gender discrimination and pressure to perform chores such as fetching water and firewood stand between girls and school in many countries.

Author Paul Hawken (Drawdown). Photo/Getty Images

Food is a big part of the problem

Although the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change is well accepted in most parts of the world, understanding of the contribution of diet and agriculture is lagging. Yet the food system – including deforestation – is responsible for about a quarter of global emissions. Red meat and dairy products are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases per gram of protein produced.

So are red meat and milk the new coal?

“To put it simply, the answer is no,” says Rockström. “I mean coal is 100% wrong always. But there is good and bad meat. And the challenge is not getting rid of meat; the challenge is not to over-consume it.”

Intensively farmed grain-fed ruminant animals are responsible for a disproportionate share of agricultural emissions. On the other hand, extensive grass-based farming systems – provided they are managed sustainably and are not dumping excess nutrients into the environment – will be a “necessary source of animal protein” to help the world deliver on the UN’s sustainable development goals of ending poverty, protecting the planet and providing prosperity for all by 2030.

The trouble is that in developed countries, we eat far more animal protein than is good for either our bodies or the planet, says Rockström. Recent health research has drawn a strong link between excessive red-meat consumption and higher rates of diseases such as cancer, heart and respiratory illness. He says the latest evidence suggests the maximum red-meat intake for a healthy diet is just 100g a week – an amount many New Zealanders and other Westerners would exceed most days of the week.

So fixing diets will help fix the planet, he says. “We have the facts that our diets are responsible for 80% of deforestation, 25% of greenhouse gases, the majority of biodiversity loss. But we also now have, just in the last year, a massive production of really high-level science showing the evidence that good healthy diets can actually reduce global mortality by 6-10%, reduce greenhouse gases, halt deforestation and reduce biodiversity loss and at the same time earn us money.”

Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Irresponsible & dangerous

Rockström says in Europe and Asia, denial of human-caused climate change is “dead”. But not so in the US, where the Trump Administration is not only withdrawing from the global climate accord but also stripping away five decades of environmental regulation built up since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring revealed the toll of indiscriminate pesticide use.

Although Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement has triggered a vocal and cohesive show of determination from states and companies under the “We are still in” banner, Rockström says the harm caused by the president’s move has to be acknowledged.

“One has to be absolutely crystal clear that he has caused damage, and he is dangerous and he represents the world’s largest and most powerful nation. So, of course, it is not only egotistical and irresponsible and unscientific; it is dangerous … We tend to forget that the status quo is not an option.

“What we need to do now is to very rapidly decarbonise the world economy, so what was needed from the US was a stepping forward, not stepping backwards to the 1950s. But I don’t foresee it having a significant impact on India, China or the European Union. You might see some blips, but it’s encouraging that we have not seen one nation that has suddenly said it will follow the US and step out of the Paris Agreement.

“So the US is alone. It’s just the US, Nicaragua and Syria – Syria because it’s at war and Nicaragua because it wanted an even more ambitious agreement. The US is a total, total isolated outlier, and what’s happened within the US has been extraordinary, with the cities and states stepping up.

“And in Europe, you could talk of a Trump effect – that he has revitalised the goal.”

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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