Friday, December 6, 2019

Canada’s oil and gas sector and climate mitigation – Part 1: The problem

The following is from a two-part guest blog I wrote for the McLeod Group. See the original here.

The 2019 federal election revealed an underlying contradiction between Canada’s climate change mitigation policy and its energy development strategy. On one hand, voters rewarded the Trudeau government’s efforts to take bold action on climate change. On the other hand, the Prairie provinces demonstrated deep discontent with what they saw as a federal government bent on stifling the energy sector.

Despite trying to find a balance between economic and environmental interests, the Trudeau government’s balancing efforts during its first term – particularly its decision to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline and put a price on carbon – only aggravated both sides. Environmentalists believed that the pipeline concession was a death blow to a viable climate plan, while proponents of the oil and gas sector argued that the “carbon tax” would increase the cost of everything and fail to reduce emissions.

Canada thus faces an extremely difficult challenge ahead in reconciling these competing interests. It wants to do well by the world in terms of contributing to climate change mitigation. And yet it also wants to accrue some economic benefit from being in the fortunate position of sitting atop the world’s third-largest oil reserves (169 billion barrels, 10% of the world’s oil).

The Canadian government also wants to achieve reconciliation with First Nations communities. While some of these communities see commercial opportunities in oil and gas development, others vehemently oppose the sector. Moreover, it wants to unify a country which is deeply divided along provincial lines, with Québec and B.C. effectively blocking Alberta oil from reaching the East and West coasts, respectively.

So, what is to be done? I do not claim to have all the answers. But if the Trudeau government sticks with the same approach as before, it is destined to fail.

The previous approach was kneecapped by its unnuanced interpretation of the relationship between the economy and the environment. The Trudeau government’s mantra became “the environment and the economy go hand in hand!”. This adage was rammed down Canadians’ throats at every turn.

The problem is that this is not always true. What’s good for the economy is not always good for the environment, and vice versa. While it is possible to lessen the environmental footprint of growth (in fact, for every dollar of GDP growth today, Canada only emits 65% as much CO2 as it did in 1990), there are nevertheless limits to this trend. In some spaces this type of win-win relationship between economy and environment is simply unattainable.

Attempts to reconcile climate action and growth is a lost cause in the oil and gas sector in particular. Even if it were possible to achieve carbon-neutral production (a nearly impossible target in the case of Alberta bitumen), there is the additional challenge of decarbonizing the transport of oil and gas to market.

Pipelines currently emit the equivalent of 7.1 million tons of CO2 in Canada, more than all emissions from domestic aviation. We would also have to neutralize leaks, known as fugitive emissions, which amount to astonishing 54 million tons of CO2, or 7.5% of Canada’s total emissions. In addition, we would then need to decarbonize oil and gas consumption within the end-use sectors such as transport and heating, which account for 28% and 11% of Canada’s emissions, respectively. Oil and gas extraction alone accounts for nearly 15% of Canada’s total, and these emissions are expected to increase in the coming years. In short, any form of support for oil and gas – be it regulatory approval of a pipeline, or a fossil fuel subsidy – poses a direct challenge to climate action.

By the same token, most aggressive climate mitigation policies – such as putting a price on carbon or investing in renewable energy – pose a threat to the viability of the oil and gas sector. In this particular instance, what’s good for the economy is not good for the environment.

However, that is not to say that there’s no possible win-win scenario, even in the Prairies. In fact, numerous opportunities await, with four obvious areas of opportunity: a) renewable energy; b) regenerative agriculture; c) oil well reclamation; and d) alternative fuels.

The renewable energy opportunities in Alberta and Saskatchewan are exceptional. The potential for wind power, solar energy, and geothermal are orders of magnitude greater than presently installed capacity of those energy technologies. They could be expanded with the aim of generating tens of thousands of green jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity over the next decade.

The Prairie provinces are also agricultural powerhouses. While agriculture presently emits about 8.4% of Canada’s greenhouse gases, the switch to regenerative practices like no-till crop production or grassland conservation grazing have potential to sequester enormous amounts of CO2. That would offset some of those emissions, all while producing high-value food commodities and generating other ecosystem benefits, relating to biodiversity, soil quality and watershed management.

After decades of oil and gas development, Western Canada has a significant problem on its hands, with 139,000 inactive or abandoned oil wells requiring clean-up. Alberta’s share of the clean-up will cost $260 billion. As Regan Boychuk and Avi Lewis recently pointed out, this could be interpreted as a $260 billion opportunity. One of the obvious benefits is that the same jobs which were created by the drilling industry could be sustained by substantial investments in the reclamation industry. Since reclamation involves restoring topsoil and re-establishing vegetation, these projects would also support additional carbon sequestration.

Finally, alternative fuels offer tremendous promise in the Western provinces as well, particularly since they are linked to existing sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fossil fuels. There are a number of different kinds of low-carbon alternative fuels.

Biofuels are in theory carbon-neutral because they are made using crop by-products or other materials, such as forestry residues and waste from the agri-food sector. They thus return CO2 to the atmosphere in a cyclical manner when burned – as opposed to burning fossil fuels, which just pumps additional CO2 in the atmosphere.

Hydrogen is another proposed alternative fuel for the transport sector. There is presently a carbon-neutral trucking pilot project in Alberta underway. It is fuelled entirely by hydrogen, which only emits water when burned.

The most common source of hydrogen is fossil fuel (of which there is no shortage in Western Canada!). One recent scientific effort has found a way to extract hydrogen from oil deposits underground, leaving the carbon dioxide underground as well. This is also useful for a third kind of alternative fuel known as electrofuels. They combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide sucked out of the air to produce synthetic hydrocarbons that mimic fossil fuels, but are carbon-neutral.

In many ways, these four opportunities are already being explored. The renewable energy sector is red hot in the Prairies. The expansion of no-till agriculture across the Prairie provinces, which started decades ago, has increased yields, reduced fertilizer and fuel costs and continues to support the drawdown of CO2. This year, there were more decommissioned wells than drilled wells in Alberta. One report on bioenergy found that between 2007 and 2014, bioenergy projects in Alberta produced a savings equivalent to 11 million tons of CO2 and gave rise to a $2 billion dollar industry supporting thousands of jobs.

But there’s a catch. These climate mitigation and economic development opportunities will only be truly maximized if they receive the requisite levels of support from the rest of Canada.

The federal government in particular has an essential role to play. Instead of extending olive branches in the form of pipelines, the feds should get out of the oil business and focus their efforts on achieving a genuine, just transition led by the innovative people of the Prairies. Instead of merely paying lip service to incentives for clean energy through tax breaks, Canada ought to fork over major investment dollars – in research, development and, in particular, support for new infrastructures required for this transition. Instead of centring its economic development strategy on getting Alberta oil to tidewater, the Trudeau government ought to recognize the vulnerabilities lurking behind high-cost synthetic bitumen in a very volatile world market. Finally, the government should support indigenous leadership in climate change mitigation, particularly by fully implementing the 94 calls to action laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The post-2014 downturn in Alberta has exacerbated sentiments of Western alienation. The resurgence of secure, well-paying jobs in the region could help reduce these tensions. The Trudeau government must recognize the opportunity before it. It needs to tackle economic development, national unity and climate change all at once. There’s not enough time left to keep making the same mistakes as before.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

How to deal with news stories claiming the end of civilization is nigh...

I've had yet another conversation with a student feeling worried, anxious and confused about yet another report pointing out the dire threat of climate change. This headline (or variants of it) has been making the rounds today: "Climate change could end human civilization by 2050: report". 

What are we to make of this information, and such extraordinary headlines - which suggest that we could literally be dead in 30 years!? Here's my attempt an an answer for students:

1) Before reading the rest of this... if you are feeling anxious just take a moment to look around your current context and breathe, and take a moment to appreciate what a wonderful world this is and what a wonderful life you have. If you're reading this then the walls are NOT coming down around you at the present moment. You're not facing an imminent threat (as in, your life is not in danger at this moment). You have access to all your needs for survival (food, shelter, water, companionship, etc.), and likely many amenities too. Quite frankly, by virtue of just being able to read this it is likely the case that your life is - relatively speaking - pretty darn fantastic. So just take a moment to appreciate that before trying to process this type of news...

2)  The situation is indeed urgent, but the future is not already determined. Try not to get your focus diverted by sensationalist headlines... the actual report itself isn't actually saying much new when you boil it down: It's saying IF we don't tackle climate change the consequences will be extremely dire. But we actually have already known that for a while, right? The important thing to note is that this is not inevitable. We CAN avoid that fate, but we have to change our BEHAVIOUR. One way to think of reports like these is that they are like 'interventions' for a friend who's an addict. It's not that they WILL die from their addiction, but rather that if the situation doesn't change things could get very, very bad. So... change!

3) Sometimes it feels like changing our personal behaviour is the only thing we can do, and there are lots of good reasons to change our personal behaviour and consumption. But ultimately the most effective changes are at the COLLECTIVE SCALE. In other words, instead of JUST cutting down on, say, single-use plastics, join a campaign or sign a petition or write a political letter about it. Ultimately we need the COLLECTIVE to change behaviour, not just individuals, and the best way to bring those changes about are through political change or regulation or laws or policies or programs, etc., that target entire communities of people. And if you feel the governments of the day aren't addressing the situation adequately, join a political movement to express your concern along with others.

4) Try not to DWELL on the shitty stories. Instead try to focus on good news stories. There are amazing things happening - even in terms of climate mitigation. For instance, another story came our today which was eclipsed by that report: Finland - a developed Northern country - has announced a plan to be carbon-neutral by 2035. That's remarkable, and it serves an example we can point to. The Clean Energy Canada weekly newsletter is full of stories like this. Subscribe so it ends up in your inbox each week.

5) Channel your concern into action of some sort. This is kind of a repeat of point 3 above.. but it's so important. It will also help you feel better and give meaning. ACT, with others, in a POSITIVE way. There's a bazillion things you can do. From attending/organizing a rally to planning trees to writing a song, or calling your MP to express your frustration, whatever... just try to CHANNEL your concern into action (and again, not JUST more sustainable consumption).

6) Don't let yourself slip into despair. In fact, remind yourself that as one of the world's privileged individuals you have a RESPONSIBILITY to NOT become a climate defeatist. And for those times when you're having trouble, talk. Talk to your friends, your family, your colleagues, your professors, your psychologist, whoever! Just don't sink into a world of despair, and especially not on your own. Talk it out... and seek professional help if you're having trouble with this (there's nothing wrong with getting medical support for this).

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Flying under the climate radar!

Here is a post originally written for A/J magazine (here), but revised and posted on the CIPS blog more recently (here):

Monday, 13 July 2018 was a day for the record books. On that day the Swedish company FlightRadar24 tracked 205,468 flights occurring around the world, making it aviation’s busiest day in history. It would be a herculean task to determine the total carbon footprint of all those flights put together, but a basic back-of-envelope calculation yields some jaw-dropping figures. Consider that even a one-way short-haul flight in Canada (such as the average 1-hour trip between Ottawa and Toronto) generates about 4718 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) — about as much as a typical passenger vehicle does in a whole year.[1]

If the Ottawa to Toronto route is representative of the global average in terms of distance travelled, aircraft type, and occupancy, then the aviation sector would have consumed the equivalent of over 2.2 million barrels of oil on that single day! By way of comparison, that’s enough energy to power nearly 105,000 North American homes for a whole year! It is so much CO2 that it would require 1.1 million acres of forest a full year to remove it all from the atmosphere.[2] That’s one big day of air travel!
Of course, it’s quite possible that many of the flights tracked were not as damaging, since the tracking software sometimes includes non-commercial small aircraft. But even if we cut that estimate in half, the energy used would still be equivalent to the amount of oil coming out of North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields every day. The point is that any way you look at it, the aviation industry is an unmitigated climate change nightmare. Studies show that global flight emissions alone account for about 2% of all anthropogenic emissions globally.[3] Yet that’s just direct aircraft emissions of CO2. Planes also emit nitrous oxides, water vapour, sulfates, and soot — which also impact the climate.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that in 1992, aviation was responsible for 3.5% of all “anthropogenic radiative forcing” (in other words, 3.5% of human-caused climate change), which was expected to climb to 5% by 2050. But that figure doesn’t even account for the sector’s broader supply chain, which would have to factor in all the energy that goes into building, maintaining, and energizing airports and runways; producing, refining, storing, and transporting jet fuel; and of course, feeding all those hundreds of thousands of daily travellers.
There are no good global estimates of emissions from the entire aviation supply chain out there. However, one study of the life-cycle emissions for the aviation sector in the US found that an equivalent of 30% of aircraft emissionsare generated through indirect categories such as jet fuel production, airport and runway construction, aircraft manufacturing, and so on. If the same is true in global terms, then the aviation sector is responsible for about 4.6% of anthropogenic radiative forcing.
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), there were more than 4 billion air passengers last year. Of course, not everyone in the world flies. In fact, most of the world (80%) has never been on an airplane. And of the remaining 20%, some travel frequently and some travel about once a year. One educated guess is that 6% of the world’s population flies in a given year (as distinct passengers) — so, about 446 million people in 2016. The aviation sector thus has a population akin to that of Indonesia and Nigeria combined, being responsible for about 4.6% of anthropogenic warming.[4]
All of this raises an important question: Why is it that while the world’s biggest oil companies and, more recently, the world’s largest livestock producers, occasionally get lambasted in the media for their willful ignorance on climate change, the world’s biggest airlines do not? While it’s true that there is a growing popular understanding that flying is a “climate negative” behaviour, there is very little sense of how significant the sector is as a contributor to anthropogenic climate change.
More worryingly is how significant it will be according to projections of growing air travel. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), air travel is expected to double over the next two decades. So how is the aviation industry avoiding being held to account for climate change? 
First, the sector benefits from the publicity received by technological innovations and efficiency gains in aviation — this gives the perception that the corporations that build and operate aircraft, and the governments that regulate them, are taking the necessary steps to tackle the problem. While the idea of electric airplanes is pretty much a non-starter for commercial aviation, there are indeed some recent efficiency and technological gains made by aircraft manufacturers and airline companies. Notably, these include the growing use of biofuels, new lightweight materials being used on airplanes, and improvements in air traffic management (all of which help reduce emissions).
Combined with the rise of “offset” products, these innovations give the false impression that aviation emissions are under control. But nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, the sector’s target of 1.5% fuel efficiency improvements per year between 2009 and 2020 are clearly being overwhelmed by the annual growth in passenger demand, which has hovered at around 6% per year. Improvements in efficiency are certainly helpful, but they are simply not keeping up with the growing pace of emissions.
The second reason relates to problems with the IPCC reporting mechanisms for aviation emissions. Because of the international nature of aviation vis-a-vis the nation-based reporting to the IPCC, countries submit figures for domestic and international aviation separately. In part, this is borne of a methodological dispute over who ought to take the emissions burden in their national greenhouse gas (GHG) reports.
For instance, should emissions for an international flight be split 50/50 between the countries of departure and arrival? What if the majority of the flight occurs over one country, or if the majority of passengers are from another — should those countries report a higher share of the flight emissions? Or, should the emissions be attributed to the country where the airplane fuelled-up?
The problem with this dual-reporting mechanism is that emissions figures often end up being downplayed. For instance, a 2012 government reportentitled Canada’s Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aviation claims that only around 5% of transport emissions (about 1% of national emissions) are due to aviation. But that figure only includes domesticaviation. A deeper dive into Canada’s National Inventory Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (hiding somewhere on page 88) shows that when international travel is included, aviation is actually responsible for 11% of transport sector emissions, or 2.7% of the country’s total emissions. In the end, the ability of aviation — like global shipping — to sneak out of national reporting has helped the sector fly under the radar at the national level, since domestically oriented policies try to identify and reduce GHG emissions from the most polluting sectors.
Finally, there’s CORSIA — the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. This is the global aviation industry’s ambitious plan for addressing climate change. According to CORSIA, the aviation sector has less than a decade to cap and reduce its flight emissions to 2020 levels, and then by 2050 it aims to bring them down an additional 50% compared to 2005 levels. While that would indeed mark a substantial reduction, the likelihood of it being achieved is extremely low. So much of CORSIA relies on what it calls a “Global Market-Based Measure” (MBM) — essentially a global-scale carbon fee that most nations would have to agree to that would go towards offsetting the projected growth in international emissions relative to 2020.
Obviously, the plan to implement a global MBM is riddled with problems. Not only does it require the international community to co-operate on the implementation of new carbon pricing (a political policy wedge in countless industrialized nations today), but it also assumes problematically that carbon offsets work in the first place. As one expert explains, “offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading, and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.”
Ultimately, like the publicity around new technologies in aviation efficiencies, CORSIA gives the impression that the problem is being addressed, when clearly it is getting worse. Even if the CORSIA plan reached its objectives of 50% of 2005 emissions by 2050, the sector would still be contributing about 857 Mt of CO2 by mid-century (about as much as Germany emits today) — meaning that the aviation sector alone would be eating up 12% of the global carbon budget for 1.5⁰ C of warming.
In the end, we are left with the classic challenge of trying to balance the benefits of global aviation (and I’ll be the first to admit there are many) with the extreme scale of damage caused by the industry. It’s hard to imagine giving up flying in this fast-paced, integrated, modern world. Perhaps a good starting point is to consider the merits of tackling growth in aviation, which ultimately means coming up with concrete ways to fly less overall.
Until the aviation industry is held to account for its contribution to climate change, the band-aid solutions of trying to minimize the impact of this booming sector will continue to allow it to fly under the radar.

[1] According to ICAO, the average aircraft on that route burns 1866 kg (493 gallons) of aviation fuel during the trip. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), jet fuel emits 9.57 kg of CO2 per gallon. So, the average Ottawa–Toronto flight emits 4718 kg of CO2 (4.718 Metric Tons).
[2] These conversion factors all come from the EPA’s “Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator” — using a value of 969,398 Metric Tons (Mt) of CO2(4.718 Mt x 205,468).
[3] According to the ICAO, the international component of the sector emitted 448 Mt CO2 from direct fuel consumption in 2010. The ICAO also notes that international aviation accounts for 65% of global aviation fuel consumption, meaning that another 241 Mt CO2 is emitted from domestic aviation. Together, 689 Mt CO2 is equivalent to 1.4% of global anthropogenic emissions in 2010 according to the IPCC. According to IATA, air transport accounted for 2% of anthropogenic emissions in 2017 (about 859 Mt of CO2).
[4] In reality, those two countries combined only produce about 2.3% of global emissions.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The GM Oshawa Closure and Canada's Transition to a Zero-Emissions Vehicle Fleet

This post was originally published in Policy Options/ Options Politiques, on December 3rd, 2018.

The recent closure of the GM Oshawa plant has both nothing and everything to do with climate change. Nothing, in the sense that any claim that GM was motivated by altruistic desires to curtail emissions by focusing on electric vehicles is largely hogwash: The plant closure was fundamentally a financial decision made by a mega-corporation stuck making a bid to survive in a very quickly evolving global automobile market. Everything, because at a macro-scale we can in part attribute the closure to climate change, as climate change had a fundamental role in prompting that transformation of the global automobile market.

There are many questions coming out of this unfortunate event. But a couple of the important ones are, Where does this leave Canada in terms of its preparedness to participate in the 21st century automobile sector, which is largely centred on electric and autonomous vehicles? And, what role (if any) should governments, at all levels, play to improve Canada’s industrial positioning in that sector?

Canada has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and the international community has committed to keeping the world to 1.5°C of warming from preindustrial levels. The transport sector is responsible for a considerable part of both domestic emissions (about 28 percent of the total and growing) and global emissions (about 14 percent of the total), so the transition to a zero-emissions vehicle fleet could be a significant part of the broader climate change mitigation efforts.

There are a few considerations to keep in mind, as Canada navigates through this multifaceted transition. First, there is an important distinction between policies oriented toward shifting production and those focused on consumption. Governments have a role to play in both, but they would require very different types of actions.

On the consumption side, there are the incentives and regulations shaping consumer behaviour. The “carrots” include policies like the handsome rebates offered by some provincial governments toward the purchase of electric vehicles; the “sticks” include putting a price on carbon (making fuel-powered cars more expensive vis-à-vis electric alternatives), and jurisdictional “bans” on internal combustion engines, as we’ve seen in Paris, Madrid and Mexico City. Of course, these bans are rather intangible in terms of actual changes to law or policy, but they are nevertheless important in that they signal to consumers, commercial enterprises and vehicle manufacturers that this change is coming down the pipe, so they should start preparing for it now.

On the production side, we have to keep in mind that the 20th-century auto-sector model (in which a handful of global automakers commanded the market and much of the supply chain associated with it) is pretty much dead now. The new landscape includes a range of new players, with Tesla, BYD, Wheego, Coda, Bison, and even Apple, Google, Uber, Lyft and Zipcar vying for various aspects of the market. These companies are tackling specific challenges like automation sensors, artificial intelligence, larger batteries, onboard telecommunications, GPS, and cybersecurity integration, in the inclusion of automobiles within the sharing economy. A recent analysis by Frost and Sullivan found 1,700 start-ups around the world vying for various shares of these new auto market subsectors.

The GM closure is a wake-up call that the old model of relying on a few large players to benevolently pursue corporate social responsibility goals and drive consumer demand for more efficient vehicles is unlikely to work.

This in itself is an indication that the 21st-century auto sector is much more complex – we’re not just talking about competition between different brands of the same product (variations on the internal combustion engine). We are now talking about competition between different visions of human transportation: ride sharing vs. car-sharing vs. personal car ownership vs. new modes of public transit vs. telecommuting vs. human-driven vehicles vs. autonomous vehicles vs. plug-in hybrid vehicles vs. fully electric vehicles, and so on. The point is, policies centred on propping up the 20th-century model (such as the 2009 auto bailout) are bound to fail in this brave new world.

The good news is that if we think about the new automobile sector as one piece in a much broader multidimensional shift to a clean energy economy, things start to look a little more promising for Canada.

This clean energy shift includes the expansion and greening of the electricity sector; the development of smart grids and third-generation charging infrastructure; major improvements in autonomous vehicle technology; and the rolling out of new emissions-free equipment in the manufacturing and extractives sectors, among other changes. This is where Canada holds promise and opportunity. Whether it’s the mining of copper (electric vehicles use about four times as much copper as internal combustion engine vehicles) and other metals and minerals required for renewable energy and lithium batteries as well as for other hi-tech products, or research and innovation in new efficient or smart technologies, there are numerous opportunities for Canadian firms to participate in various aspects of the clean energy economy.

Governments at all levels do therefore have a role to play, which is to foster the clean energy transition that the players in this new auto sector will depend on to succeed. In this regard, the federal government and some provincial governments deserve at least some credit for large-scale investments they have made in programs like the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (which included the development of a Zero-Emissions Vehicles Strategy), the tax incentives for firms using clean energy and manufacturing equipment, and other measures. Many of the incentives in the Pan-Canadian Framework support the demand side of the equation, with heaps of funding for green infrastructure (including public transport projects across the country).

If Canada is going to decarbonize its economy at some point this century, then it will need to achieve a zero-emissions vehicle fleet at some point this century as well. The GM closure is a long overdue wake-up call that the old model of relying on a few large corporate players to benevolently pursue their corporate social responsibility goals and drive consumer demand for more efficient vehicles is unlikely to work, as either an economic or an environmental strategy. Governments at all levels have an important role to play in signalling future objectives for our society, incentivizing positive action on behalf of consumers and producers, and fostering an environment conducive to high-calibre research and world-class innovation; investing in green infrastructures that support the transition; adequately and fairly pricing carbon; and regulating the “bad apples.” It is indeed a sad time for Oshawa, but hope is not entirely lost; policy-makers just need to think forward as they address this challenge, rather than replicating past mistakes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Future of Sustainable Protein is… Complicated

Here is a piece variation of a piece I wrote for the Center for International Policy Studies blog, originally published in the University of Ottawa Gazette here

“The Paleoketoveganmacrofasting Diet: Stop the Madness!!!” This was the amusing title of a recent presentation by Dr. Shawn Arent, a kinesiology professor at Rutgers University. The talk was aimed at personal trainers. But for the rest of us, the title hints at the madness of all the emerging (conflicting) dietary practices (and increasingly, institutional policies) surrounding the provision of protein that appear to be gaining credence in North America. This highlights the various beliefs about what does or does not qualify as a “healthy,” “ethical,” or “sustainable” food.
If present trends are any measure, this madness is likely to continue. A wide range of forces are working in the background to profoundly reshape the global agri-food sector. The world’s population is growing at a tremendous pace, with more than 200,000 additional mouths to feed on the planet every day. Experts therefore expect a struggle in meeting the future demand for nutritious food. At the same time, hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of extreme poverty. Along with these rising incomes globally, the demand for meat — one of the traditional foods through which humans acquire protein — has grown significantly, putting additional pressure on land and resources.
A related problem pertains to the trends of degradation and/or overuse of water, soil, and forests, as conventional agricultural practices — heavily relianton fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs — strain Earth’s natural areas and biodiversity. Heightened ethical awareness about the treatment of animals in conventional agriculture is also fueling dietary and culinary change. This gives rise to everything from “organic,” “grass-fed,” “free-range,” and/or “hormone and antibiotic-free” meat to “plant-based meat,” and everything in between.
Meanwhile, advances in technology — from genetic engineering to lab-grown cultures — are redefining possibilities in food production and simultaneously destabilizing agri-food markets. Increasing (and competing) concerns about the nutritional profile of carbohydrates and fats are also reshaping dietary advice about what protein sources should be avoided or included in a healthy diet. (Plant and animal sourced proteins typically feature different nutritional profiles in terms of what macronutrients come along with them.)  On top of all this, there’s the existential threat of climate change, which is wreaking havoc on food production.
Admittedly it’s a lot to take-in, even for those who study this for a living. Yet as complex as it all may be, there is a strong case for embracing this complexity when crafting policy for the agri-food sector or institutional dietary policies. Why? While it’s certainly important to have clear and cogent policies that are easy to follow, there’s a risk that oversimplifications in policy will be unable to account for the different life circumstances and experiences of citizens, consumers, and employees in different geographical contexts.
Here’s an example: There’s been a lot of talk lately about instituting bans on meat at various public institutions and private businesses. Policy proposals of this sort have been informed by meta-data studies that compare the environmental footprints of common protein sources, such as one recent high-profile study in Science. One of this study’s co-authors was recently asked about the key “take-away” of his research. His response was that “avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” While on the surface this seems logical considering global-scale data comparisons, it’s not hard to see that this universal advice paints a monolithic picture of the typical food consumer.
The advice may indeed be accurate, but it also may be way off. It really depends on the specific context of various consumers does it not? For instance, if you’re a jet-setting frequent flyer; or if you hunt or produce most of your own food; or if you only infrequently indulge in meat and dairy (and support local sustainable producers while you’re at it); or if you derive most of your protein from intensively farmed soy; etc., etc., — then there may be more effective ways to reduce your environmental footprint. Further, there could be instances where completely banning meat and dairy would work against local sustainability objectives. Or against the dietary needs of people with chronic intestinal or nutritional issues.
The above example pertains to the environmental impact of different protein sources, but similarly sweeping claims and counterclaims have been made about the ethical and health merits of avoiding some foods over others. There’s lots of expert advice out there and it’s bound to grow both in volume and scope. But as we attempt to convert information into sustainable policy for protein provision, we ought to keep in mind the specific dynamics and local complexities that shape regional agri-food contexts. It’s just (complex) common sense!