Coconuts Versus The Climate

As an eater of a primarily vegan diet, and with COP26 in the news, I thought it was time to address a challenge that is occasionally thrown down in my direction:

Does the impact of imported vegan alternatives outweigh the environmental benefits of not eating meat?

There many, many angles on this question and I’ll only consider a couple in any detail: food miles and water.

I’m more or less ignoring the significant effects of land use change (chopping down old growth forests to plant oil palm trees is really bad) as well as the use of pesticides and fertilisers (which does nasty things to ecosystems). But there we go. I can’t do everything.

Bear in mind, while reading this piece, the following comment from Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

Kiwis, lambs and apples

‘Coconuts!’ someone shouted at me last week. ‘Coconuts only grow in the tropics and have to be transported thousands of miles to get to your selfish vegan plate!’

I’m paraphrasing, but it does sound logical that exotic coconut oil (mmm) would have a higher carbon footprint than European alternatives like olive oil.

But it’s not necessarily true, as I’ll demonstrate with a story about lambs and apples.

A famous 2007 study found that lamb from New Zealand had a quarter of the carbon footprint of Welsh lamb, despite travelling 17,840km around the world to our shop shelves.

Obviously, lamb is of little interest to a vegan or even a vegetarian – but the study also found that British apples had carbon emissions almost 50 percent higher than their Kiwi counterparts.

This is so counter-intuitive that, to be honest, it hurts my brain.

An apple a day…

Digging deeper into the data, it turns out that the Kiwi advantage only holds if British eaters want apples all year round. (Which I suspect we do.)

The study authors report that the carbon cost of transporting apples around the world after harvest in the southern hemisphere is almost identical to the carbon cost of putting apples into cold storage for six months after the British harvest.

As well as seeing their local advantage wiped out, the British apples not only suffered from higher pesticide and fertiliser use, but a fuel efficiency per tonne that’s almost four times as profligate as apples from New Zealand.

This means that, even when British apples are in season, the difference in carbon footprint between apples from the two hemispheres is negligible. Astonishing.

Food miles might be an easy metric to measure a food’s environmental impact, but it’s not a very useful one. Local doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet.

(It’s worth saying that the cited report is 14 years old and was published by a New Zealand university. You may also, of course, have considerations beyond environmental impact.)

But what if we’re talking about produce that doesn’t require storage in massive fridges for six months of the year? Surely then we’d be better off eating locally, wouldn’t we?

To answer that question, we’ll go back to our oily death match between the coconut and the olive.

Coconuts versus the climate

According to a 2014 study led by Peter Scarborough at Oxford University, the production of coconut oil creates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of olive oil — and this data takes into account transportation from the tropics.

How can this be true?

Coconuts might come from far away, but – like lambs and apples – they’re transported here by sea, not by air.

That’s an important point because sea freight is so fuel efficient that the last hundred miles, by lorry from port to supermarket, can make up the largest contribution to a commodity’s transportation carbon emissions.

The good news is that almost all of our food is transported to Britain by sea. This is why, on average, transportation counts for only 11 percent of our food’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Great. That explains why coconut oil doesn’t come with a hefty carbon pricetag – but it doesn’t explain why olive oil is so bad.

What-a, wat-a, water surprise!

Olive groves, unlike coconut plantations, are incredibly thirsty places and all that water comes with a high carbon pricetag. Boom. That’s why olive oil is so bad compared to coconut oil.

But it’s not just the carbon cost of irrigation that’s makes a high water footprint bad for the environment.

Here in Britain, beef and milk are the main foodie contributors to our water footprint.

You might think that that’s not such a big deal – after all, we don’t seem to have much of a problem with our freshwater supply. I myself can bear soggy witness to another ample delivery only this morning.

But having healthy rainfall doesn’t mean that high beef and dairy consumption don’t cause problems with our water supply.

Pesticides, fertilisers, sewage, farmyard slurry and even waste products like dairy whey all easily find their way into our rivers, causing eutrophication – dangerously high levels of nutrients – that depletes the water of oxygen, suffocating fish and creating a dead zone inhospitable to life.

Fooled by paddy fields

On the other hand, some countries do have a real problem with their supply of freshwater and the effects of climate change are only going to make this worse, leading to desertification if we’re not careful.

This means we should be mindful about the water footprint of the food that we import. Vegans should watch out for olive oil, coffee and chocolate from arid countries.

Surprisingly, rice only sucks up about the same amount of water as wheat. Don’t be fooled by all those sloppy paddy fields.

Nuts typically use a lot of water, but they’re not all completely awful. Almonds and cashews should probably be avoided – especially from regions like California that are suffering from extreme drought.

Shelled nuts are a lot worse with water than unshelled nuts — but who buys unshelled nuts? Chestnuts are great.

Time for a little perspective: in terms of litres per kilocalorie, nuts aren’t much worse than chicken, better than lamb or goat meat and much better than beef.

No, you’re nuts

In fact, nuts often have a carbon negative impact on the atmosphere for the obvious-when-you-think-about-it reason that THEY’RE TREES.

Favour peanuts (AKA groundnuts) and hazelnuts over almonds and pistachios. ‘Pastes’ are more carbon intensive than their wholefood parents, but peanut ‘paste’ is still lighter on the carbon than raw almonds.

Peanuts are also lighter on the water supply. And higher in protein. If you want to slightly reduce your impression, then buy in bulk and make your own peanut butter.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that almonds are still a less water-intensive source of protein and calcium than olives, oats and rice.

Above: The carbon footprint of hazelnut, peanut, pistachio and almond products, including packaging, processing and transportation. Volpe et al (2015)

Or you could simply pick your own acorns. It’s a mast year, after all.

Yeah, but what does all this mean?

When it comes to considering carbon emissions caused by transportation, the only thing we need to worry about is whether our food is transported by air.

For someone living in the UK, a kilo of fresh asparagus from Peru has a higher carbon footprint than a kilo of chicken or pork. Yowzas.

Check your food labels, but a decent rule of thumb is to avoid fresh greens and soft fruit grown abroad.

If asparagus and raspberries are in season in Britain, then fill your boots. If they’re not: don’t eat them — or buy them in season and store them in your freezer.

In terms of your water footprint, vegans could dial down on the almond and cashews and maybe switch out the coffee and chocolate. Substitute with peanuts, tea and, er, locally foraged liberty cap psilocybe mushrooms?

I leave you by once again repeating the words of Joseph Poore, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

Abnormalising, adulting and The Corollavirus Coming to terms with car ownership in an age of carbon crisis

The last three months have been.

And gone.

The last lockdown in England neatly followed the passing of the financial year, so I thought I would look back and share a little of what happened with Dave in the final quarter of 20/21.

WARNING: STATS AHEAD!

In the last three months, I spent about 50 hours less on my mobile phone than I did the preceding quarter. I also managed to read more, meditate more, do more yoga and a lot more press ups—3,049 more, to be precise.

I spoke to almost exactly the same number of friends at a rate of 2.7 per day. But I also visited 4,000 more unique web pages and spent 90 more hours staring at my computer screen: a whole hour per day more. Urgh.

Looking back over my diary, since the turn of the year, I have played (and lost) ten games of online poker and learned how to skateboard (badly). I also started a new job with Thighs of Steel and said goodbye to Foiled on BBC Radio Wales.

I made three new friends, one I met hula-hooping in the woods, another is the youngest woman to have cycled around the world. I have reached out to twenty-one people and have received some amazing responses.

I volunteered for half a dozen marshalling sessions at my local vaccination centre and am now waiting for my second jab. I learned how to drive a golf buggy.

I’ve been really tired. I got a load of blood tests. A lot of people I speak to have been really tired too. Something’s going around; something I hope will lift with the lifting of restrictions. I feel more alert when I can see over the horizon.

I put up some bunk beds and bought a secondhand car. It’s a Toyota Corolla: see if you can guess its name…

The Corollavirus

I feel bad about the car, actually.

(Side note: I’m not saying that you should feel bad about the car just because I do. We all make deals to get through life. Your deal is your business.)

Until this year, the balance for me was always against owning a car.

They are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They pollute the air we breathe and cause direct harm to landscapes around the world. They are bulky possessions and are an eyesore on the driveway. They can, and frequently do, kill and maim.

It’s ironic, then, that the balance was tipped this year in favour of car ownership by—of all things—my new job as an outdoor instructor.

This job involves getting around fairly remote places and depends on ninety percent of instructors having vehicles to shuttle between campsite and trailhead, or pursue errant schoolkids across the countryside.

(Side note: Even somewhere as suburban as Bracknell Forest counts as ‘fairly remote’—the quickest route by public transport from where I live takes 3 hours 47 minutes and involves two buses and three trains—plus an overnight stay if I want to get there for an 8am start. For comparison, from flat to forest, the drive takes less than 90 minutes by car.)

Depressingly, in this particular job, promoting the unpolluted wonders of nature is only possible with possession of a polluting car.

‘Possession’, really, Dave? Yeah. I borrowed my parents’ car for the expeditions I led last year—saving me from the burden of ownership, but fruitlessly adding a couple of train journeys to the carbon footprint of my work.

Abnormalisation

As a secondhand petrol car owner, I want to be the best secondhand petrol car owner imaginable.

I don’t want to normalise my car ownership. I don’t want to forget that every time I use a car I am striking a deal: my personal convenience (including valuable things like time, opportunity and money) on one side and the environment we share on the other.

(Side note: You might think I’m being unnecessarily severe on myself. As someone who doesn’t fly and who eats little to no dairy or meat, my carbon footprint is lower than the average EU citizen’s. But I can’t dodge the fact that my carbon footprint is rising at a time when everyone else’s is falling. Not a good look.)

To that end, I’m recording each of my car journeys, noting details like mileage and carbon emissions, and reviewing them every week, in the same way that I monitor my finances, my conversations with friends and the number of press ups I complete. These numbers tell me, unequivocally, whether I am the person I like to think I am.

So far, over the course of seven car journeys and 763 miles, I have racked up a 165kg carbon debt compared to taking the same journeys by public transport. (Yes, I exclude from the public transport carbon estimate those journeys I would never have made had I not owned a car.)

But what the heck is 165kg of carbon? Let’s make this real: it’s the average annual carbon sequestration of six or seven mature trees. Six or seven trees. I can picture them. In fact, I have pictured them:

Seven mature trees, West Cliff

(Side note: I’ve been surprised that public transport isn’t as expensive as I’d always assumed. The petrol cost of driving has so far hovered around 75-85 percent of the train fares I could have bought. Of course: that is still scandalous, but it’s not as extreme as I thought.)

Adulting

Perhaps one definition of adulthood is taking responsibility for tough decisions and living with the consequential reality.

As a lapsed historian, I’m well aware that, in my part of the world, my generation has had it easy with tough decisions up to now. Go back a generation or twelve and adults like us were expected to make properly tough decisions:

  • Hey honey, wanna try for another kiddo and risk killing you in childbirth?
  • I’m rather parched from a long day slopping out chamberpots for my lord and master, but I’m also not totally convinced that this Medieval water supply is safe.
  • In Napoleonic warfare, it’s very much blunderbuss or be blunderbussed and—I do declare!—this handsome young French soldier is raising his weapon…

(Side note: I feel like the pandemic has been an exercise in tough decisions: at what point is the risk of transmitting the disease to others outweighed by our personal desire for toilet roll? Many of us haven’t had much practice with such properly tough decisions and the heaviness of day-to-day life has taken its toll.)

But what excites me about adulthood is what comes immediately before we take our tough decision: our imagination. Every tough decision is an act of imagination. Right before we decide, we visualise based our past experience (and usually a huge dollop of misguided optimism). What might our future be like under Scenarios A, B and C?

Owning a car enables a future where I can work as an outdoor leader and help introduce others to the natural world I cherish. But it’s not the only future I can imagine. It’s just Scenario A. Imagining Scenarios B and C are the exciting part.

The onus is on me to imagine a carbon-free scenario for my outdoor work, to take responsibility for making that future a reality—and to acknowledge with grace the incongruous unease I feel during this intermediate transition.

This has been quite a serious article so I’d like to end with some optimistic news.

Between 2005 and 2019, the United Kingdom reduced its territorial emissions by 37 percent, while increasing its GDP by 21 percent.

From Absolute Decoupling of Economic Growth and Emissions in 32 Countries on Breakthrough.org.

You can argue about whether this counts as ‘decoupling’—where are China and India on that chart?—but you can’t argue that it looks optimistic.

p.s.: If you enjoyed seeing the UK performing well on a chart for once, then you’ll also enjoy the latest Greenness of Stimulus Index.