By Jeremy Radachowsky
In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris next month, countries are promoting research into new climate-friendly technologies – things like capturing carbon emitted from smokestacks and storing it underground, increasing efficiency of energy use and the transportation sector, and even wilder ideas such as changing the reflectivity of earth’s surface.
Yet, there are two existing technologies that are ready to be acted upon today, whose collective impact could be larger than any future technological breakthrough.
The first technology is a 400-million-year-old solar-powered device that extracts CO2 from the atmosphere and converts it into material useful for construction, essentially “printing” solid materials layer by layer like a 3D printer until a finished product up to 300 feet tall is achieved. Once deployed, the device requires no human input – just water, sunlight, and molecules found in most soils.
This technology is called the “tree.”
A more recent technology extracts tons of carbon already trapped in vegetation and converts it into a small amount of protein-rich food for human consumption. Along the way, large quantities of climate-damaging gasses are emitted. In the moist tropics, the process also requires the clearing of climate-friendly forests and is ten times less efficient than many other methods of food production.
This technology is called the “cow.”
Cows were domesticated by humans more than 10,000 years ago and made sense in the context of a small human population and abundant resources. However, in an era of high population density and climate change, cattle are now an antiquated and obsolete solution to today’s environmental and food security issues. Trees, on the other hand, remain vital to our continued existence.
Today there are 7.4 billion humans, 1.5 billion cows, and 3 trillion trees on planet Earth. By 2050, the human population is projected to increase 30 percent to 9.6 billion. In the same period, cattle are projected to increase by over 70 percent to a total of 2.6 billion. Meanwhile, up to 15 percent of today’s tropical forests – a million square miles – could be lost to deforestation for industrial agriculture, including for cattle ranching and cattle feed production.
As we spend hundreds of millions of dollars and borrowed time to develop new technologies to arrest climate change, we continue to devastate our best existing technology – the tree – and replace it with one of the worst – the cow. To have any chance of mitigating climate change, there is only one path: Fewer cows, more trees.
Valiant efforts are underway to make cattle ranching less impactful through practices such as producing cattle only on previously cleared land, intermixing cattle and trees, protecting water bodies, rotating pastures, and developing breeds that emit less methane. However, using cattle to feed a growing human population in the face of climate change is like retrofitting vinyl records to store music in an iPod.
As we increase production efficiency, we must also reduce the overall quantity of cows and look to more efficient and less impactful food production methods.
This goal would be facilitated by reducing total demand – in part by working to reduce red meat consumption as a cultural practice.
Policy must play also a role. Cattle ranching is highly subsidized worldwide – both directly and through subsidies for corn and soy feed production. Furthermore, when cattle graze illegally in protected areas or overgraze on public land, they can degrade and destroy natural ecosystems while taxpayers and the global atmosphere foot the bill.
We must stop subsidizing and incentivizing harmful cattle ranching practices.
On the flip side, we must incentivize forest protection and restoration.
In our globalized economy, market-based forces can be extremely powerful. Initiatives to allow carbon emitters to make payments to those who protect forests are already underway. And in response to consumer pressure corporations are increasingly committing to zero deforestation throughout their supply chains.
However, more can be done. Consumers – including individuals, corporations, cities, states, and nations – can choose to buy products that support forest conservation.
Although counterintuitive – especially after we’ve seen documentaries of chainsaws devastating tropical forests – one of the best ways to promote forest maintenance and carbon storage is to cut some trees down.
When done correctly, certified selective timber harvesting not only mitigates the impacts of logging on forests, but serves as a critical incentive for forest managers – including community and indigenous people – to protect vast tracts of standing forests since their livelihoods depend on it. Forest use becomes a tool for, rather than a threat to, global forest conservation.
For example, if the world’s cities were to buy certified timber for bridges, boardwalks, benches, and buildings rather than using carbon-intensive concrete, they would have a lower carbon footprint while also promoting global forest conservation.
The Road Ahead
The road ahead is not easy. As we continue to search for technological breakthroughs to stop climate change, we must act now with the knowledge and tools at our disposal.
Addressing our dependency on cattle will require a paradigm shift and the reorientation of an entire sector. Saving the world’s forests will require major governmental and private commitments, as well as improvements to reduce illegal logging and ensure that certified timber is truly sustainable.
Half a century ago, when faced with the daunting prospect of putting a man on the moon, President Kennedy said that we chose to take on such challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – because there were some challenges we were “unwilling to postpone.”
Today, getting to the moon is easy in comparison to humankind’s next great challenge – protecting our common home, the earth.
We can start with fewer cows, more trees.
Dr. Jeremy Radachowsky is Assistant Director for the Latin America and Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). He will present “Trees, Not Cows” at the “Wood at Work” conference at New York City’s Bronx Zoo on October 30, 2015. For more information or to register for the conference follow this link: www.woodatwork.nyc.