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Beyond natural gas

barely functional

Toward the end of my 24 consecutive hours in the walk-up line for last week’s basketball game, I was approached by a student with a clipboard and a short speech about Duke Energy’s proposed natural gas plant. She introduced herself as a representative of the Duke Climate Coalition (DCC) and asked me to sign a petition opposing the construction of the plant. After talking about it for a moment I was on board, as were many of the students waiting in line around me. As she left I found myself harboring some reservations about the petition, which I would like to publicly elaborate on as Duke’s natural gas plant continues to be a topic of campus conversation.

To be clear: I do not wish for this column to be interpreted or used as a detraction from the work of the DCC or climate activists in general. Protecting our environment while maintaining our quality of life is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our species today, and they are diving into it headfirst. This deserves great respect. Nevertheless, I find myself confused by the choices many self-described “environmentalists” make on a daily basis. We can—and should—worry about whether or not campus eateries have biodegradable packages or how much of our waste is recycled, and we should prefer clean energy to fossil fuels—but not to the neglect of other ways we may cause damage.

The principal component of natural gas is methane, the simplest hydrocarbon. Pound per pound, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but its lifetime in the atmosphere is considerably shorter. In other words, if we were to cut our methane emissions sharply in the near future we could expect to see a much quicker change in climate than if we were to cut our carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent amount. If we want to dodge the rapidly approaching 2-degrees-above-pre-Industrial levels threshold, investing more heavily in methane emissions reduction is critical. Surprisingly though, the leading source of humanity’s global methane emissions is not natural gas, but our livestock.

In the United States, methane emissions attributable to animal agriculture are roughly equal to those from natural gas use. The contribution to global warming that results from these gases is still relatively small when compared to carbon dioxide emissions. But, I would argue, unlike most sources of carbon dioxide emissions (and perhaps even natural gas use), animal agriculture, at least at its current scale, is virtually completely unnecessary if not harmful to humanity’s well-being.

Any environmentalist worth their salt knows that a diet based mostly on plants is orders of magnitude more efficient than one heavy in meat, not just in terms of methane produced, but also considering other emissions, deforestation, and land and water use. While claims that a vegan or vegetarian diet are a sort of silver bullet for health are exaggerated, studies show that they are on balance vastly healthier than a typical American’s diet, and certainly not unhealthy. It has been estimated that current worldwide food production could meet the needs of ten billion people, three billion more than our current population, and that the U.S. alone feeds enough food for 800 million people to animals each year. And while the bottom billion are starving, per capita meat consumption is projected to increase worldwide, particularly in emerging economies.

To put it mildly, we would do just fine—nutritionally and ecologically—with a vastly smaller meat and dairy industry. Furthermore, we could make the transition very quickly just by diverting some of the animal feed directly into the human food supply. On the other hand, it’s usually much harder to create and implement solutions that would produce changes of the same scope in the energy and transportation sectors. Yet it seems environmental organizations focus their efforts primarily on reducing pollution from those sources to the neglect of animal agriculture.

DCC’s campaign against the proposed plant rests chiefly on the argument that substituting one natural gas for another on a societal level will simply not do enough to reduce emissions to a sustainable level, and they are absolutely correct. But after doing the math, I estimated that the carbon dioxide emissions from the natural gas plant could be balanced out by as few as 50,000 Americans going vegan (about 0.02 percent of the nation, or 1/5 of Durham’s population). If they chose a less dramatic course of action, going vegetarian or just reducing meat consumption somewhat, they’d need more people to join in to balance the carbon budget. Of course, I’ve neglected other impacts of natural gas (most notably that of fracking, a rather destructive process used to extract most natural gas), but I’ve also neglected the habitat loss and pollution that would be averted by reducing meat consumption. In fact, I have barely scratched the surface of the environmental damage caused by our livestock with the details above.

I’m always interested by fancy mathematics, but conservation really boils down to a simple cost-benefit analysis: Avert the most environmental destruction with the least effort. My answer was to give up meat, followed by dairy and eggs. It was much easier than I expected, and I think it’s much simpler than switching to a hybrid or converting the global power grid to wind and solar.

Reducing our consumption of animal foods is the quick and easy way to protect our environment. All of the students who signed the petition last week in Krzyzewskiville obviously have no problem pressuring Duke University and Duke Energy to abandon their plans for a new natural gas plant. But will they pressure themselves to give up eating meat for the same goal? For most of them the answer is “no,” at least for the near future. This choice is puzzling to me, to say the least. Forgive the pun, but eating more plants seems to be the low-hanging fruit when it comes to saving our planet—we should pick them before it’s too late.

Eidan Jacob is a Trinity junior. His column, "barely functional"  usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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