Climate change - two books, one message

09 Sep 2020

Climate change – two books, one message

Harold Hutchinson | Head of Research

Occasionally, I come across a ‘must-read’ book. Rarely do I come across two simultaneously. Yet that is what happened this summer. 

The first is written by Professor Sarah Bridle entitled Food and Climate Change – without the hot air. The second is authored by the prolific Professor Dieter Helm, called Net Zero – how we stop causing climate change.

From different standpoints, they share a common theme – carbon consumption is at the heart of climate change dynamics, as opposed to the normal focus on carbon production.

Bridle, an astrophysicist by training, does not promote a particular diet. Her book is an exercise in hard numbers around our eating and drinking habits, in a context where nearly 25% of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions can be attributed to the global food supply chain. That may seem a large number, but you have to remember the impact of clearing land, growing crops, manufacturing, packaging, transport, cooking, and food waste within that figure.  

You will be relieved to know that transporting a spoonful of tea leaves halfway across the world by boat is likely to involve emissions that are just one-quarter of those associated with boiling the water for a morning cuppa. Black coffee causes more GHG emissions than tea because of the embedded fertilizer and processing costs. While you can just about get away with a splash of milk, I am afraid latte is not good at all.

What about a glass of beer or wine in the evening? A rule of thumb is that the emissions for a medium-sized glass of wine are about half those for a can or bottle of beer, although it does depend a lot on transport and packaging issues. So, you can have two glasses of wine per bottle of beer! Beyond that, as you empty the bin at night you might be depressed to know that the single biggest contributor in the average UK person’s daily contribution to CO2 emissions from the food chain is simply food waste. Shame on us.

Nearly 25% of GHG emissions can be attributed to the global food supply chain. This includes the impact of clearing land, growing crops, manufacturing, packaging, transport, cooking and food waste. Sadly, the single biggest contributor to the average UK person's daily contribution to GHG emissions from this chain is simply food waste.

The book set my mind thinking about the importance of carbon consumption in our everyday lives. No sooner had I finished it than I moved on to Helm’s masterpiece, a devastating critique of the current global institutional response to climate change, which has achieved little to nothing over the last 30 years, losing us valuable time we do not have to address the threat.

Helm does not mince his words. When referring to the Committee on Climate Change's recent report Net Zero, which states: "By reducing emissions produced in the UK to zero, we also end our contribution to rising global temperatures", Helm labels it as "misleading". He correctly aims his fire at the idea, by reducing the UK’s GHG emissions to ‘net zero’, as enshrined in current legislation, we also end our contribution to rising global temperatures.

Not so – unless every other country we trade with gets to net zero, or we stop importing carbon-intensive goods. Recent UK history is largely about exporting our carbon footprint, not reducing it. Hence Helm’s plea for a net zero carbon consumption target, not one based on carbon production.

Helm’s book actually goes much further. He shows how supportive Nature can be in helping us take carbon out of the atmosphere, through judicious investment in our soils and trees. Investment, in this context, largely means being patient, nothing more. Nature, if protected, will self-enhance and do the job for free. In addition, a stewardship approach to Nature has all sorts of side benefits, most notably on our health. It really is a win:win.

The summary – climate change is about our consumption patterns, and how we support Nature. That is perhaps the most inconvenient truth of all – it is about you and me.

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The blog does not aim to give investment advice, but is designed to afford relevant longer-term context to investors, encouraging a broad perspective where uncertainty is high and a spirit of learning is important. The views expressed are those of the author, not those of Investec.