Sustainable Resources

Written by Student Contributor Andrew Ahn – Fayetteville-Manlius High School

As global climate change continues to concern people around the world, they have largely turned towards technologies that remove atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) for hope. However, such technologies are not proven on the large scale that we must implement them in order to initiate change. So why gamble when the future of our planet is concerned?

With the belief that the restoration of native vegetation on large tracts of land is currently the safest method of atmospheric CO2 removal, researchers from various universities collaborated in a study published in the Nature Sustainability journal, titled, “The Carbon Opportunity Cost of Animal-Sourced Food Production On Land”. The group included Matthew N. Hayek (principal author), an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Environmental Studies; Helen Harwatt, a fellow of the Harvard Law School; William J. Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University; and Nathaniel D. Mueller, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University.

Our consumption of meat and dairy requires the use of a large amount of land, but plant-based protein foods can provide the same nutrients while only using a small fraction of the land for production. A shift to these plant-based protein foods from our traditional meat would free space for CO2 absorbing ecosystems. Scientists have described the limit of global temperature rise before catastrophic climate change to be 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. CO2 is a major greenhouse gas (a gas in the Earth’s atmosphere that traps solar energy reflected off of the Earth, warming the Earth’s atmosphere/surface) contributing to global warming, and was made abundant by humans. The cumulative amount of CO2 that can be added to the atmosphere before this 1.5 degrees Celsius rise is reached is known as the carbon budget. We’ve been reliant on burning fossil fuels for too long and have currently used up >90% of the budget. The researchers found that if meat demands fell in the coming decades, however, and the excess land could be used for agriculture, up to 9-16 years’ worth of CO2 could be removed from the atmosphere. The budget would be doubled, giving countries time to find sustainable solutions.

The idea of planting more than a trillion trees is controversial, however, as it would require a substantial physical effort, potentially limit biodiversity, and potentially deplete water in dry areas. Keeping this in mind along with other possible problems, the researchers proposed a solution that mapped areas where seeds could disperse naturally and grow into biodiverse forests. In all, the space that the researchers found would be wet enough to allow forests to thrive naturally, is an area equal to the size of Australia–7 million square kilometers! With such a solution, the future of the Earth’s climate doesn’t look so bleak after all. 

Learn more about climate change in the MOST’s Earth Science Discovery Cave, and explore sustainable technology in the Energy: Powering Our Future exhibit!