Friday, January 3, 2020

Another Decade Bites the Dust

We’ve finally reached that fabled year of 2020. This has seemed a far distant marker for so long, often serving as a benchmark for reaching ambitious targets or achieving technological advances. Yet, it simply marks another one of Earth’s orbits around the sun. As such, expecting earth-shattering changes to suddenly manifest seems a bit unreasonable. That said, the issues we’ve explored in this blog have indeed evolved over that time. I wanted to take a quick look at a few big topics of interest in 2019, and reflect a bit on what is still a challenge and where we’ve made progress since 2010.

A smoky sunset in Southeast Queensland
Deforestation, biodiversity loss, and fires, oh my!
My Munchable Musings was largely founded on the concerns over connections between deforestation, biodiversity loss, and food production systems. And while I’ve written a fair bit about drivers of forest loss (e.g. oil palm) and conservation of biological diversity, fire has not featured prominently on the blog in the past. But this year, forest fires across the world have made headlines, repeatedly. The Huffington Post even called 2019 the Year the World Burned, citing massive fires in Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and Lebanon. Global Forest Fire Watch estimated that in 2018, around 3.6 million hectares of tropical forest was lost to fire, an area the size of Belgium (though, note, that this year over 4 million hectares of forest have also burned in Australia alone). 

The implication of these losses are not just the immediate effects on habitat, species, property, and air quality: burning vegetation releases carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and elevating fire weather conditions; humid forest fragmentation and loss influences local precipitation and can possibly cause a shift to more arid ecosystems like savanna; and forest habitats often take decades to recover, leaving wildlife without a home for the intervening years. If you want a rundown on the year for tropical forests, Mongabay has put together a pretty comprehensive retrospective post on the topic. Although fire has been a common part of many of these landscapes, a combination of poor policy decisions, destructive land use practices, and climate-change-induced higher temperatures and drier conditions have pushed fire from a concern to a catastrophe in the last decade.

Climate marchers start young!
Climate strikes and climate emergency
On a related yet separate note, climate change has also steam-rolled its way into the public consciousness this year. Changes in climate - including increased global average temperatures, more intense extreme weather events, and shifts in rainfall timing and intensity - have been projected, refined, and communicated with increasing urgency over the last few decades. Ten years ago, the Cancun Agreements were established at the 16th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference, which set the groundwork for financing of climate projects in developing nations and highlighted adaptation. And while the world may have briefly rejoiced at the end of 2015, when the most ambitious agreement was made in Paris, international climate policy has merely limped along (not to mention a slightly disappointing UNFCCC this year). In the past year, however, we’ve seen a massive rise in public outcry over climate inaction, catalysed by none other than a Swedish high-school girl.

While I still worry that, on the whole, we are doing too little too late, I feel inspired and more optimistic by the fact that climate strikes spear-headed by youth have grown rapidly in the last year. The last two Fridays of September marked massive climate marches across the globe, trying to elevate the issue to the emergency it deserves. It was also such a contrast to the levels of energy and urgency at the first climate change rally I went to back in 2013. There were 35,000 people marching through the streets in Washington, DC. On 27 September, in Montreal, half a million people took to the streets. So despite some critical political incompetence, I think there is hope that the tables are turning and change can happen quickly. 

How to feed the world
The first two topics in this post mostly focus on problems, but this last one could be considered solutions-oriented: plant-based diets. Now, understandably, this blog has sat in the vegan camp for the last decade, but I have discussed meat and the impacts of livestock on the planet at length before. The crux of the issue is that raising livestock (especially those bovine belchers…) contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emissions through land clearing for pasture and feed production, and natural ruminant gut processes. Mid-decade, we started to see a growing number of researchers calling for a reduction in meat in people’s diets or even complete global transitions to vegetarianism in response to environmental and health concerns. But I think the biggest development in the last year or so, is the rise of mainstream fake meat products and the stir they’ve caused on the global stage.

We are well passed the age of Garden Burgers and Tofurkey deli slices that characterised my teen and university years as a vegetarian. With the development of more passable meat substitutes, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, fast-food chains and even meat giants like Tyson have embraced the trend and rolled out plant-based options. The Economist chalked up some of this proliferation to a shift in lifestyle and the associated high demand for vegan products among Millennials; however, the total vegetarian and vegan population remains woefully low (less than 5%). Despite strict meat-free diets remaining firmly in the minority, there has been conspicuous speculation about the consequences of the world going vegan (not all of which are positive - e.g. negative impacts on developing countries). But that’s what is a bit confusing to me; this is not an all-or-nothing affair nor does it seem likely that the entire world is trending toward plant-based. But better meat-free options mean that people have choices, which make it easier to reduce consumption if not necessarily eliminate it. And for high-meat-consuming developed countries, like the USA and those in Europe, this is what really matters.

Hopefully, that brought this post back to a positive note. Since I’ve been completely remiss about blogging this past year, I don't have much to rehash from a year of posting. But, since I just submitted my PhD thesis, keep an eye out for more musings in 2020!

Catch up on the last ten years… 



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