End Times

There’s No Free Lunch With Climate Change

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscores the hard choices we face on land use and global warming

Credit: cinoby/Getty Images

VViewed from space, the African island nation of Madagascar appears to bleed. What you’re seeing isn’t blood, though, but the result of massive deforestation — more than 90% of the country’s forests have been destroyed over the past century. Without trees to anchor the land, the red-tinged soil flows into the rivers and oceans during the rainy season. It’s a rare opportunity to see — in a single image — what humanity is doing to the planet on a global scale.

The view from the ground is even worse, though. When I visited Madagascar for a reporting trip in 2008, I witnessed vast stretches of barren, eroded scrubland, punctuated by a handful of remaining forests that have been kept intact as wildlife preserves. And there was so much life to preserve. Kept in island isolation after Madagascar separated from India 80 to 100 million years ago, countless new species arose that can only be found there: leaf-tailed geckos, Parson’s chameleons, and of course, the lemurs, the band of small primates native to the island. Lemurs are considered the most endangered group of vertebrates on Earth, and what little habitat that has been left to them is shrinking by the day.

I was thinking about Madagascar as I read the newest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which addresses climate change and land use. The statistics are sobering. Human use directly impacts more than 70% of global, ice-free land surface. As human population and food consumption increases, we slash forests and use up water in an effort to meet our needs, and increasingly, our wants. The IPCC estimates that nearly a quarter of all human greenhouse gas emissions are due to agriculture, forestry, and other land use. Not energy or pollution, but what we’re doing to the planet that is literally beneath our feet, as we use up land and water resources at what the UN calls an “unprecedented rate.”

The problem is that there’s not much evidence that human beings want to eat less meat, at least not on a global scale.

Worse is what may be to come. Climate change is already affecting food security around the world, which in turn helps drive waves of human migration. As warming continues, heat waves and droughts are expected to follow, with hundreds of millions of people affected by water stress. Higher temperatures will mean higher food prices, putting more pressure on the nearly one billion people around the world who still go to bed undernourished. And if we react to that pressure by clearing even more land to grow food, we’ll add more carbon into the atmosphere, which means more warming, which means more stress and more extinctions, and so on. Sooner or later the entire world starts looking like Madagascar — burned-out and bleeding.

So what can we do? As always, the IPCC report suggests a number of possible steps. One that is already gathering a lot of attention is a call to reduce meat consumption and make plants a bigger portion of our diet. It makes sense — cows in particular are carbon-intensive, both because of the land that must be cleared to raise them on pasture, and because they produce a large amount of the potent greenhouse gas methane as they digest their food. (Yes, cow farts are a real thing.)

The problem is that there’s not much evidence that human beings want to eat less meat, at least not on a global scale. See this graph from the excellent site Our World in Data, which tracks the rise in meat consumption over the past half-century. On a per-person basis, we ate nearly twice as much meat in 2013 as we did in 1961, even as the global population more than doubled, from 3 billion to more than 7.2 billion.

Credit: Our World in Data

As human beings get richer, one of the first things they do with that additional income is add more meat to their diet. It’s possible that as warnings from climate scientists and the evidence of global warming adds up, that may begin to change — and certainly for some individuals that has already happened, whether because of worries about climate change, health, or animal welfare. But it hasn’t happened yet — a Gallup poll last year found that the percentage of Americans identifying as vegan or vegetarian has remained steady at about 8%. The message to curb meat consumption is out there, but few seem to be heeding it.

As I note in my forthcoming book, End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, humans are generally not very good at curbing their present behavior to head off future risks, even risks as great as the one posed by climate change. Perhaps we’re self-centered — actually, we’re definitely self-centered — or perhaps we have a difficult time making the connection between something as small as our diets and something as large as the fate of humanity. Whatever the reason, after years of reporting on climate change and now writing End Times, I’ve grown skeptical that human beings will make long-term, voluntary sacrifices, even to save the world.

So if we can’t, or won’t, change what our behavior, what can we do instead? The IPCC also makes the case for so-called negative emissions — technological interventions that can actually take carbon out of the atmosphere. Climate scientists have come to accept that some form of negative emissions will be needed if the world is going to avert dangerous climate change. The question is how.

One possibility raised in the new IPCC report is bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS). BECCS involves deliberately raising huge amounts of biocrops — plants that can be burned to generate electricity. As the crops are grown, they take carbon out of the atmosphere. If they can be burned for energy and that carbon can be captured, rather than released back in the air, you get net negative carbon — hence, negative emissions.

But BECCS presents us with hard trade-offs. Land used to grow biocrops can’t be used to grow food. The IPCC report notes that deploying BECCS on a major scale could “greatly increase” the overall demand for agricultural land. We saw that last decade, when corn ethanol production in the U.S. led to a spike in food prices, as agricultural crops were displaced in favor of subsidized biocrops. If we try to clear more land to grow food to compensate for the territory lost to BECCS plantations, we’d end up putting more carbon into the atmosphere — not to mention reducing what little habitat is left for wildlife.

A more direct option would be to develop machines that could directly capture and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Such “air capture,” if it can be done economically, is the best possible solution to global warming, one that would allow us to retain a livable climate without making the difficult sacrifices we seem unwilling to make anyway.

Humans are generally not very good at curbing their present behavior to head off future risks, even risks as great as the one posed by climate change.

One drawback: we have no idea if this can be done economically. A few scientists, like Klaus Lackner at the University of Arizona, are working on it, and Bill Gates has invested in a company called Carbon Engineering that has developed an experimental plant in the Canadian province of British Columbia. But air capture is still in the earliest of stages, and even if it does work, it will come with a price — a recent study in Nature Communications estimated that air capture, if it were used to keep carbon levels below dangerous levels, might consume a quarter of the world’s energy supply by 2100.

This is the final takeaway: there is no free lunch when it comes to climate change. From doing nothing to doing everything, whatever choice we make will come with a cost. The question is whether we can pay it.

Bryan Walsh is the author of the forthcoming book, End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, from which this essay is adapted.

Journalist, author, dad. Former TIME magazine editor and foreign correspondent. Author of END TIMES, a book about existential risk and the end of the world.

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