Review of Hannah Ritchie's book "Not the End of the World"

Keskiviikko 31.1.2024 klo 14.14 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Environmental headlines have recently almost invariably been doomsday prophecies. Billions of people living on the coasts will die in climate change-induced floods. Deforestation accelerates temperature increase. Insect pollinators disappear with devastating effects on vegetable food production. Fishes are soon becoming extinct in many parts of the world. Often people reading such headlines start thinking that since catastrophe is coming anyway, it doesn’t pay to try to fight environmental destruction. Instead, they think that they can live as comfortably as possible today since the end of the world is coming tomorrow anyway.

Instead of only doomsday prophecies, true environmentalists should bring forward possible solutions to environmental problems. Based on her strong knowledge of environmental data, this is what Hannah Ritchie does in her book. Or, actually she presents data indicating that many things are not changing towards ultimate doomsday. She argues that we can make choices which make sustainable life for humankind possible. Often the things to be done, based on their environmental impact, differ from what the preconceived ideas of important environmental actions are. Further, focussing on only a couple of the most important changes can make the goal of sustainability feasible.

The two things that will change virtually everything are drastically decreasing the use of fossil fuels and minimizing the use of beef. One thing I noted when reading the book was that Hannah Ritchie virtually never said that one should stop doing something completely. Instead, she advocates marked reductions in the most harmful practices. With regard to energy (heating and electricity) production, fossil-free alternatives have already become cheaper than coal and oil. Thus, global efforts can be directed towards making energy production fossil-free. If burning can be stopped, also air pollution, presently killing millions of people especially in developing countries, will diminish markedly. While electrifying car transport appears to be quite good, the use of biofuels is not advocated by Hannah Ritchie, mainly because then agricultural land is used for cars instead of food production.

Cattle ranching is using up a large part of land and most of the agricultural crops go to animal feed. Thus, if the overall beef eating decreased by three quarters, so much agricultural land would be freed up that deforestation could be stopped completely, and consequently biodiversity loss would largely disappear. This is just one example of how environmental problems and their solutions are intertwined.

It is clearly possible to get us through the population peak, probably occurring in the latter part of this century. However, personally I think that we should aim to a total human population of 3-4 billion at equilibrium. This will probably be the end result after advances in (especially women’s) education. Such lowered human population is needed, as many of the natural resources are overused, and may become limiting in 100-200 years. (Overuse of mineral resources was not included in the book.) Also, I cannot share Hannah Ritchie’s optimistic view about pesticides – they and other pollutants will pose a problem, if we cannot get the equilibrium population down. However, a transition period of 100-200 years with higher population will most likely be feasible, whereafter we can truly reach sustainable state. And as Hannah Ritchie points out, many of the solutions require governmental actions. We, as individuals, must pressurize governments and companies to carry out such actions in order for them to remain successful.  

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: climate change, biodiversity loss, fossil fuels, cattle, agriculture, energy production

Baby kangaroos can help in combatting climate change

Perjantai 19.5.2023 klo 19.30 - Mikko Nikinmaa

In addition to taking up immense land area as pasture, cattle causes the release of greenhouse gases directly. When they digest grass, they produce and burb methane, which is a strong greenhouse gas. This is because the bacteria in their fermenting stomach have methane as their end product.

Now, wouldn’t it be nice, if the methane release of cattle could be decreased? A recent study by Karekar and Ahring in Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology (Vol 47: 102526) “Reducing methane production from rumen cultures by bioaugmentation with homoacetogenic bacteria” has suggested that replacing methane-producing bacteria with acetate-producing bacteria in kangaroo babies’ faeces could completely prevent methane production, if the methane-producing bacteria were first eradicated. This finding is currently only done on rumen cultures, but if the change of bacterial consortiums can be done on commercial scale on cattle, some of the climate problems with cattle ranching would disappear. The fact that kangaroos can live with rumen  containing acetogenic bacteria indicates that they are compatible with mammalian herbivores. However, the efficiency of acetogenic bacteria may be lower than that of methanogenic ones.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: greenhouse gases, methane, cattle

Agricultural land use: unvegetated fields result in both erosion and carbon dioxide liberation

Sunnuntai 20.10.2019 klo 19.34 - Mikko Nikinmaa

The usual way of producing agricultural products: crops, potatoes, vegetables etc., is to plough and harrow the land and use artificial fertilizers. This leaves the land uncovered by plants for a long period of time, which leaves the soil vulnerable: rain and wind can remove organic material, and the fertility of soil decreases. The major reason for soil fertility is the organic material of soil, which recovers after cultivation, if the land remains covered with plants for a long period of time. However, the present agricultural practises do not allow adequate time for soil recovery, even though in principle the land fertility is a renewable resource. The land erosion results in decreased food production to increasing human population, and the need to clear forest to food production.

The decreased land fertility is not the only problem. The plant/grass-covered soil contains  huge amount of organic carbon, which is liberated as carbon dioxide when the soil is ploughed and harrowed, and the soil is without vegetation. The most pronounced carbo dioxide liberation occurs, when bog/marsh soil is dried. This increases respiration, i.e. carbon dioxide production, of soil (micro)organisms. This is particularly worrisome in Finland, as marshes have been dried to farmland, and as peat is extracted for energy production. Both cause disproportionate liberation of greenhouse gases, in fact, energy production using peat is climatewise worse than using coal.

This actually brings about the fact that if cattle is reared so that the animals feed out on grassland, the climate effect of cattle-based  products is much smaller than if the animals do not feed out on grass.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: climate change, agriculture, cattle, food production, peat