John Humphrys - The True Cost of Food and Fuel

May 13, 2022, 3:48 PM GMT+0

When troubles come they come not in single spies but in battalions. That’s what Shakespeare (almost) wrote in Hamlet in the distant past. As so often with the great man, he might have been describing the present. It’s hard to choose what we should be worrying about most. The state of the economy and the virtual certainty that it will get a lot worse before it starts to get better? The cost of living crisis with endless reports of people going hungry? The crisis in Northern Ireland and the possibility of a serious breakdown in relations with the EU over it or even the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement? Above all the war in Ukraine. It’s true that nothing can rival the horror of the war leading to a nuclear exchange. That way lies Armageddon. But a report published this week by the United Nations, which has aroused surprisingly little interest, suggests that we are perfectly capable of destroying vast chunks of our planet with or without nuclear warfare. Did it arouse your interest and are we as worried about it as we should be?

The report states baldly that human activities are damaging and degrading the lands of the Earth to the point where up to 40% of global terrain has been devalued. For ‘devalued’ read degraded to such an extent that the soil is effectively dying, if not already dead. The report is not the work of some pressure group desperate for a few headlines to draw attention to their cause. It has taken five years of intensive research by many of the most respected scientists in the world reporting their findings to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Their report examines in detail how the world manages land resources such as soil and water. It reveals that our global food systems are the guiltiest of culprits when it comes to land degradation. Modern agricultural activities and the global food demand account for 80% of deforestation, 70%, of freshwater use, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions and is also the leading cause of biodiversity loss worldwide.

By any standards, those are terrifying statistics but what do they mean in terms of hard cash? The figure produced by the UNCCD is, for most of, quite literally unimaginable. In dollar terms the depletion of our natural resources is estimated at $44 trillion. That is the equivalent of about half the world’s annual economic output.

The executive secretary of the UNCCD, Ibrahim Thiaw, puts it like this: ‘We cannot continue to just take land for granted. We cannot just continue to think that there is enough land out there, that there’s enough water and forest and wetlands to destroy, to respond to our insatiable greed, so to speak, for food and fibre and animal feed.’

Degraded land results from a variety of factors, but they all have the same underlying justification. We need to keep producing more and more food at the cheapest price possible, regardless of its impact on the environment. If that means sacrificing rain forest... so be it. The greatest of them all – the Brazilian forest – is routinely described as the lungs of the planet. But not for much longer. Modern satellite records show that the area being cleared is almost doubling year on year. Even the former head of Brazil’s forest service describes the future of the great forest as ‘bleak’. Last year Brazil accounted for about 40 per cent of forest cover loss in the tropics. Greenpeace has described what Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is doing to the forest as environmental sabotage.

And it’s not only the destruction of the world’s forests to blame for the apocalyptic picture painted by the United Nations report. Vast expanses of grassland, which had been used for grazing animals, have been converted into croplands to grow cereals which are then fed to intensively reared animals. The environmental cost is horrendous. For every ton of grain harvested the land must be saturated with chemical fertilisers and chemical pesticides and insecticides. The manufacturing process pours vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and the chemicals ultimately destroy the trillions of tiny organisms needed to keep the soil fertile. As the land becomes less fertile, it is depleted of natural resources and vegetation, and can no longer support the rich biodiversity which had thrived there for millennia. And with the rapid growth of modern agriculture, there’s been a sharp increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions, two greenhouse gases that are even more potent than carbon.

The UN report notes that 70% of the world’s agricultural land is controlled by only 1% of farms, which are overwhelmingly huge agribusinesses. At the same time subsidies worth $700 billion are injected into the sector every year. Only 15% has a positive impact on natural capital or biodiversity.

As the UN notes, humanity is at a crossroads. The number of droughts has increased over the past generation by almost a third. More than 3 billion people are already living with the impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought. The majority of them are small-scale farmers, women and young people living in poor rural communities. If things continue as they are a further 16 million square kilometres of land will be degraded by 2050. That’s an area the size of South America. The report warns that “business as usual is not an option”, and calls for urgent action in changing how we manage the world’s land environments.

The picture is not entirely bleak. Degraded land can be restored by planting trees and making some relatively simple changes to farming methods. They include terracing land, leaving some land fallow, harvesting rainwater and storing it to prevent soil being eroded. The problem is that two thirds of the most destructive farming practises have been carried out by powerful land-owning companies in violation of the national laws.

And it’s not only the criminal abuse of the world’s land that threatens our very existence. The Guardian newspaper has just published its own investigation into the activities of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies. It says that they are ‘quietly planning’ scores of what are called “carbon bombs”: oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts.

In the words of the Guardian: ‘The exclusive data shows these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating. Their huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions, which scientists say is vital. The oil and gas industry is extremely volatile but extraordinarily profitable, particularly when prices are high, as they are at present. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron have made almost $2 trillion in profits in the past three decades, while recent price rises led BP’s boss to describe the company as a “cash machine”.’

‘The lure of colossal pay-outs in the years to come appears to be irresistible to the oil companies, despite the world’s climate scientists stating in February that further delay in cutting fossil fuel use would mean missing our last chance ‘to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all’. As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned world leaders in April: ‘Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us.’

The Guardian’s data shows nearly 200 carbon bomb projects are in planning, or have already started pumping. Each will result in at least 1bn tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over their lifetimes, equivalent to about 18 years of current global emissions.

The world’s leading energy economist Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), has warned against investing in large new oil and gas developments. He said they would have little impact on the current energy crisis and soaring fuel prices but spell devastation to the planet. Countries must seek to replace Russian oil and gas in the near term, he warned, without damaging their long-term prospects. And he added: ‘Some countries may look at new fossil fuels but they should remember it takes many years to start production. Such projects are not the solution to our urgent energy security needs and they will lock in fossil fuel use. And he warned. ‘If the world is to succeed in moving to net zero, these projects may fail to recover their upfront development costs.’

Mr Birol concedes that soaring global energy prices have led governments to seek new sources of fossil fuels but the most suitable projects are those with short lead times and quick payback periods, such as expanding production from existing fields. Using existing sources more efficiently would also help reduce emissions. Unlike in previous oil shocks such as those of the 1970s, he said, the world now has cheap alternatives available in the form of solar and wind power, which has plummeted in price and this should prompt governments and companies to push harder for renewable energy: ‘I believe we have the chance to make this a historic turning point to a cleaner and more secure energy system....The world does not need to choose between solving the energy crisis and climate crisis, we can do both.”

The UN secretary general António Guterres has also weighed into the debate and called for an end to new fossil fuel projects. Climate change, he said, posed ‘an existential threat to us all – to the whole world. Main emitters must drastically cut emissions, starting now. This means accelerating the end of our fossil fuel addiction and speeding up the deployment of clean renewable energy.’

Greg Muttitt, an energy expert at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said: “Governments and companies often suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance: while recognising the urgency and severity of the climate threat, they still keep developing new oil, gas and coalfields and mines that will worsen the problem. The policy answer is a simple one: when in a hole, you need to stop digging.’

Do you share these concerns or do you accept that we are facing an energy crisis and we must do whatever is necessary to keep the lights on and petrol in the pumps? And do you accept the UN’s report that says as much as 40% of the planet’s land is being degraded to such an extent that the soil is effectively dying? Or do you believe that with the price of food rising around the world we must do everything possible to produce more of it?

Let me know what you think.

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