CARBON STEW

Published: Oilweek
By: Gordon Jaremko

POLICY

CARBON STEW
Dining habits cook up greenhouse gas storm

On the air-pollution scale, consumers have a counterpart to the oilsands, only bigger—much bigger. Call it the skeleton in the kitchen. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) exposes the startling results of rich eating and drinking habits in a report titled The Role of Fossil Fuels in the U.S. Food System and the American Diet.

     “Use of fossil fuels to produce the foods and beverages consumed by Americans in 2007 accounted for 13.6 per cent of economy-wide CO2 emissions from fossil fuels,” says the 90-page document.
     “Domestic fossil fuel use linked to U.S. food consumption produced 817 million of the nearly six billion metric tons of CO2 emissions economy-wide,” it says.
      The role of everyday American grub in the exhaust blamed for global climate change is 12 times the current annual oilsands contribution of 70 million tonnes and exceeds the Canadian total from all sources of 730 million tonnes.
     “The consumption of fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy by the U.S. food system was on par, in 2002, with the entire national energy budget for India and exceeded the combined energy budgets of all African nations,” reads the report.
      The report, released this winter, summarizes the results of an epic research effort that developed a mammoth scorecard titled the Food Environment Data System (FEDS). No Canadian counterpart has surfaced, but the U.S. results are food for thought north of the border.
     California, with a similar population and standard of living to Canada, blows 70 million tonnes/year into the FEDS accounts of annual U.S. dietary contributions to greenhouse gas emissions—a tie with Alberta’s oilsands exhaust.
     The American ledger covers all aspects of food and beverages, from crop and livestock production through to processing, packaging, transportation, storage, retail and use. The immense information archive enables comparisons of regions down to the scale of counties and between types of consumption, such as homecooked or restaurant meals.
     Of the 817-million-tonne U.S. total yearly emissions tab for eating and drinking, 332 million came from burning coal, 282 million from natural gas and 202 million from oil products. Thermal power generation for electrical equipment accounts for 57 per cent of food-related energy use.
     FEDS also enables an educated guess at the consequences of policy and lifestyle changes. “Both the measurement of social costs from fossil fuel use and the appropriate mechanism for internalizing this cost in energy markets are the two great challenges facing the United States and other nations seeking to reduce their carbon emissions,” says the USDA.
     FEDS calculations raise doubts about the environmental usefulness of carbon taxes. Uncertain data points to a need for much further research into the effectiveness of financial action as an environmental reform tool, say the researchers.
     Levies ranging from US$6/tonne to US$123/tonne of emissions would only raise meal costs by 0.2 to five per cent. The average increase would be a marginal 1.7 per cent, which would not likely make a big difference to greenhouse gas output.
    Changing consumer taste would have larger effects.
    A moderate behaviour turn to a model “realistic healthy diet”—less meat, fats and sweets and more legumes, nuts and seeds—would cut energy use for food by three per cent. “This reduction is equivalent to the annual gasoline consumption of 3.7 million U.S. vehicles,” says the report.
    It would take an extreme switch to an “energy efficient diet”—a pescatarian or semi-vegetarian menu that drops steak and chicken altogether and piles on beans, nuts, fish and eggs—to achieve greenhouse gas cuts on the grand scale preached by eco-evangelists. This Spartanstyle diet would cut food-driven carbon emissions by 74 per cent, equivalent to scrapping 90 million vehicles or 35 per cent of American cars.
    FEDS inspires little comment or publicity from environmental factions. The silence is predictable. The U.S. research thinks about the unthinkable: serious lifestyle changes implied by eco-cleanup ideas as opposed to moves on energy corporations that the political left and Hollywood demonized long before global warming soared to the top of reformer agendas.
    The Alberta oilsands industry has no such luck of limiting its debate over its future to neutral specialists. About half of potential production growth will be lost unless thermal extraction plants curb their appetite for natural gas, shows the latest annual supply cost review from the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI).
    Barring a clean up by new technology still in experimental stages, the northern bitumen belt will hit the 100-million-tonne carbon emissions cap set by the Alberta government in 2026, CERI forecasts.
    The institute calculates that improving project economics in the increasingly efficient industry will enable oilsands output to reach 5.5 million bbls/d in 2036, up by three million from the current 2.5 million. But the emissions lid stops growth using current methods at about four million bbls/d, up only 1.5 million.
    For CERI and oilsands operations, the big question is whether the bitumen belt’s energy appetite can change more easily than the North American diet.

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