Meaty Questions Surround UN Climate Talks

cowLast week’s UN climate talks set the stage for upcoming talks in Paris, and it’s clear that what’s being discussed will not bind politicians to do what’s needed. Indeed, politicians have promised to reverse climate change for more than 20 years – but in that period, greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 61%. Now it’s said that we may no longer be able to control climatic outcomes if we don’t reduce a significant amount of carbon in our atmosphere by 2017 or at latest by 2020.

Yet using renewable energy to reverse climate change is projected to take long past 2017 or 2020. In fact, it’s projected to take at least 20 years and $36 trillion. Some of the problem is that atmospheric carbon is invisible and abstract to most people – and in part because of this, many people don’t believe that humans are responsible for climate change. This makes it hard for politicians to act at the scale and speed that’s needed.

However, there is a solution for which it doesn’t matter that greenhouse gas is usually invisible, or that many people don’t believe that climate change is caused by humans. This solution can be grasped from the fact that after a spokesman for the pork industry predicted that corn at $4 per bushel would degrade his industry, climate change then helped to raise corn prices to more than $4 per bushel for three years in a row – and the world’s biggest pork producer suffered three years of net negative returns.

In other words, because of the visible and tangible effects of climate change, there’s a business case to replace pork and other livestock products with better alternatives. Better alternatives are foods consisting of – or made from – grains, legumes, and nuts, such as peas, soybeans, and almonds. It’s widely recognized that replacing livestock products with better alternatives can have a large beneficial effect on climate change.

Notably, though, the business case for replacing livestock products with better alternatives doesn’t require that people believe that greenhouse gas exists, or that politicians act on climate change. This business case exists because food production uniquely occurs outdoors – so food companies suffer more directly from climate change than any other part of our economy. As a result, food companies will soon have to make products that require many fewer crops to be grown

It takes many fewer crops to produce alternatives to livestock products. Moreover, almost every livestock product now has a plant-based alternative that tastes about the same.

Equally important, replacing livestock products with better alternatives can be done in less than a year, as that’s how long it takes to produce most livestock products and alternatives. That’s in stark contrast to the time it takes to replace fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure – as most infrastructure has a lifespan of at least 20 years, and infrastructure is almost never replaced before the end of its useful lifespan.

So developing renewable energy can’t respond to changing demands in real time. In contrast, there’s a long and strong track record of developing food products to respond to changing demands in more or less real time.

If using a business case to replace animal-based foods with plant-based foods on a large scale by 2017 or 2020 sounds improbable, let’s remember that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates acted on a business case for producing and marketing new technology to replace old technology on a global scale within a few years. Indeed, using a business case is a well-trod pathway that’s successfully replaced millions of consumer products worldwide, including tube TVs, dial phones, cassette tapes, big cars, New Cokes, McLean Burgers, and much more.

For example, Ethan Brown factored in climate change in creating a new company called Beyond Meat to replace livestock products with better alternatives. Just as startups Microsoft and Apple once inspired the world’s top computer businesses to replace obsolete technology with new technology, today’s startups such as Beyond Meat may be able to get today’s top food businesses to replace obsolete foods with new foods.

Arguments for this process to be undertaken have notably been made by Bill Gates, as well as by Dr. Rajendra Pachuari, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and by Dr. Robert Goodland, former lead environmental adviser at the World Bank.

Some people will predictably doubt whether large-scale switching from animal-based foods to plant-based ones can really happen by 2017 or 2020. But it surely can happen if one thinks of animal-based foods as being obsolete in our modern age of climate change.

For example, tube TVs and horse-drawn carriages were widely loved in their heydays— yet once they were perceived as obsolete, they were completely replaced within a few years by automobiles and digital TVs.

So no matter what politicians are doing, there’s still hope to reverse climate change – with our forks.

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