Vox Repeats False Claim About Food Waste and Global Warming

On April 5, 2018, Vox.com published a video on its Twitter channel about food waste. That video includes a claim that “If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” The video goes on to conclude that reducing food waste, therefore, is “one of the easiest ways to address climate change.”

This is false.

As Politifact noted in a 2017 debunking of this claim, this originated in a poorly thought out February 5, 2017 tweet from the World Food Program. The WFP, to its credit, quickly deleted the tweet after conceding that it was a lousy comparison.

World Food Program senior spokesman Steve Taravella told us they relied on a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. That article included a chart that said, “If food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.” FAO researchers estimated that a third of all food never makes it to the kitchen table and calculated the emissions that went in to growing and transporting those wasted tons.

The problem is, agriculture is an activity, not a place. It makes sense to compare its emissions to other activities, and no sense to rank it against countries.

“It’s comparing apples to oranges,” researcher Brian Lipinski at the World Resources Institute told us. “The number for food loss and waste is comprised of numbers from individual countries, and so the data isn’t mutually exclusive. So while the comparison to countries helps to establish the scale, flat-out labeling food loss and waste as the world’s third largest emitter is missing necessary context.”

Largest Ever Annual Increase in CO2 Levels Recorded

According to a report in New Scientist,

It is not just temperature records that are falling. The average carbon dioxide level recorded at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, during February 2016 was 404.02 parts per million – 3.76 ppm higher than the average for February 2015, according to preliminary figures.

That is the biggest ever increase over a 12-month period. The previous 12-month record at Mauna Loa was 3.70 ppm, from September 1997 to September 1998.

A new record has also been set for the biggest rise over a calendar year. Global average CO2 levels (which differ slightly from the figures for Mauna Loa only) rose by 3.09 ppm in 2015. The previous record was a rise of 2.82 ppm, in 1998.

The record figures are due to the continued growth in emissions from human activity along with the ongoing El Niño phenomenon, which causes CO2 levels to shoot up because it causes in an increase in wildfires in places such as Indonesia.

Why Nothing Will Be Done to Stop Global Warming

One of the reasons I’ve always liked Stewart Brand is he has a way of cutting through a lot of nonsense and revealing salient points about issues without oversimplifying them. Over at the Long Now Blog, he has a summary — citing engineer Saul Griffith — on what would have to happen in order to make much of a dent in global climate change (emphasis added),

What would it take to level off the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm)? That level supposedly would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. There still would be massive loss of species, 100 million climate refugees, and other major stresses. The carbon dioxide level right now is 385 ppm, rising fast. Before industrialization it was 296 ppm. America’s leading climatologist, James Hanson, says we must lower the carbon dioxide level to 350 ppm if we want to keep the world we evolved in.

The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

. . .

Meanwhile for individuals, to stay at the world’s energy budget at 16 terawatts, while many of the poorest in the world might raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts, everyone now above that level would have to drop down to it. Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (no one has passed him in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.

So in summary, in order to reach the optimistic scenario where there is still massive species extinctions and hundreds of millions of climate refugees, we have to lop off 11.5 terawatts of fossil fuel generation and Westerners have to become semi-ascetics . . . and all in 25 years to have any chance of making a serious difference.

That will never happen. Just look at the United States — this is a country where people were freaking how just a few months ago because gasoline prices briefly hovered above $4/gallon. There were a few voices that said “hey, lets retool our entire society to reduce fossil fuel consumption,” but most people I suspect agreed with our soon-to-be President Barack Obama who blasted oil companies for not build more gasoline capacity,

They have been in fat city for a long time. They are not necessarily putting that money into refinery capacity, which could potentially relieve some of the bottlenecks in our gasoline supply. And so that is something we have to go after. I think we can go after the windfall profits of some of these companies.

. . .

We should also be investing in new technologies so we can replace the internal combustible engine, which has served us well, but it’s time for us to move on, because we want to get rid of fossil fuels.

That the low gas prices are an enormous disincentive for creation of alternative energy is, of course, far too politicaly sensitive to even brook. And, of course, I don’t think you’ll be hearing a President Obama urging a new American austerity to save the planet (in fact, his stimulus proposal is predicated on getting American consumption back on its pre-recession pace).

If Brand/Griffth’s vision is correct, we would be better off focusing our efforts on ameliorating the effects of global climate change rather than some half-assed attempt to forestall it. There is simply no political will, at least in the United States, for the sorts of changes that would actually be required to achieve the sort of dramatic changes that are really required.

WordPress Carbon Footprint Plugin – Ugh

WordPressSomebody just had to go and write a Carbon Footprint plugin for WordPress,

The script searches through every post and every page on your blog, counting the total number of words and images in each post. It then works out how many pages the text would take up assuming a standard of 794 words per page. This was worked out by taking the most widely used fonts, font sizes, the word processor being used and other print options. It also works out how many pages the images would take up, again based on DPI, margins and other factors. The most widely used paper is around 120gsm (grams per square meter) and standard A4 paper is 210x297mm. This means that we can approximate that there is 0.0074844g of carbon per sheet of paper which we multiply by our number of pages to give the total amount carbon saved by the blog vs it being printed out on paper.

Um, yeah, ok I guess. But what about the carbon generated by a) the computer hosting the site, b) the computers of the folks accessing the site, and c) the computer used to write the post. For example, I know I have about 6 computers (including this server) that are on 24/7 sucking up sweet electricity while they gradually kill the planet (mwahahaha).

Simply saying “oh, if you had printed all of your blog posts out it would have used X grams of carbons” is just a silly metric.

Boing! Boing!’s Confused Message on Science vs. Pseudoscience

Not to beat up on Boing! Boing!, but what the heck . . . I can’t be the only one who sometimes sees a lot of dissonance between the folks who post on Boing! Boing! For example, Cory Doctorow goes off on global warming “denialists”. Fair enough. I used to be fairly skeptical of global climate change, but I agree that the evidence at this point is so overwhelming for human-induced warming, that the only real debate now is over what, if anything, we’re going to do it about it rather than whether or not the phenomenon is real.

But a week later, David Pescovitz posts a ridiculous fund-raising plea for Loren Coleman’s International Cryptozoology Museum. Now I’m not quite sure on the one hand why Boing! Boing! would want to excoriate global warming skeptics on the hand, and then on the other turn around and help raise money for someone who spends his time on such scientific projects as The Mothman Death List.

Some of the commens in the Coleman thread made the absurd claim that since there have been “living fossils” found like the coelacanth, that cryptozoology is legitimate science. The problem, of course, is that the coelacanth and similar finds have been announced and described by working professional scientists while the cryptozoologists were wasting their time looking for Bigfoot (Pescovitz’s pet obsession) or the Loch Ness monster.

Again, I realize the folks who post at Boing! Boing! have different interests and agendas, but it is a little odd to see Doctorow post about the idiocy of pseudoscience, only to see that followed up by a post urging fund raising for pseudoscience.