Climate Reality and the Politically Impossible

This close to meeting the 1.5C climate target

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science & Insight, a newsletter on what we all Need-to-Know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with an often funny personal story and some useful ideas. All in a 5 to 10 minute read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning. It’s free. No ads. No spam.

Hello Friends,

In my 20+ years covering climate change I’ve witnessed the terms “politically realistic” and “political will” bouncing off each other a zillion times. Translation: ‘'We must be politically realistic and can’t do much to reduce carbon emissions’; ‘All we need is political will to slash emissions and save the climate’. Today I look at how those two terms are finally coming together, offering real hope. First, let’s take a brief trip back to the 2009 climate circus known as Copenhagen COP 15.

Political reality vs physical reality — who wins?

Germany’s leading climate scientist looked defeated. He stood motionless with a far-off gaze as thousands of delegates from 190 countries at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference bustled around him with world-altering purpose. 

We’d never met but I knew this was Hans Joachim (John) Schellnhuber, who was also the science advisor to the German government. We were in the first week of the 2009 United Nations climate treaty negotiations known as COP 15 in Copenhagen. The city was labelled “Hopenhagen” by marketing gurus with unbridled optimism that the two-week long conference would save the world from climate change. 

During those two cold, wet, and occasionally snowy weeks in mid-December the city was transformed into a climate activist’s wet dream. More than 45,000 people from all over the planet flooded into the city to talk about climate change. Every bit of ad space in the city from buses to walls of building were plastered with climate messages. Bright video screens, in and out of doors, featured climate change commercials. Climate-themed outdoor art and information displays on every corner, along with nightly outdoor concerts. Every hotel or public building with space to hold more than 10 people was booked for some sort of climate event, piles of books and reports were launched, all manner of businesses held meetings, hosted invitation-only cocktail parties and dinners. 

There were at least three parallel climate conferences: the Children's Climate Forum; Klimaforum09 — the People's Climate Summit; and a very alternative/appropriate one inside a big circus tent in the squatter district of Christiana. These parallel conferences held hundreds of seminars, workshops, information sessions in addition to the many official COP 15 side events, presentations, and press conferences. It was a thunderous climate-information waterfall 24 hours a day for two weeks and I very nearly drowned. 

Reality bites “Hopenhagen”

But with 10 days still to go, there was John Schellnhuber, the climate scientist who had the ear of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, looking like he’d lost hope in “Hopenhagen”.

I introduced myself, and asked how he thought negotiations were going. He said he’d just been in a briefing with US President Barack Obama’s senior staff. There’d been an intense discussion about how much and how fast carbon emissions needed to be cut to keep global warming well below 2 degrees C. He told them there was only so much carbon budget left before 2 degrees C was unavoidable. The Obama officials told him to be politically realistic.   

"Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it's completely useless," he told me with exasperation. 

The Copenhagen climate talks ended in a backroom deal driven by the U.S that enraged many countries and was little more than a political declaration to do something about climate change.

Physical reality makes a personal visit

The day after the conference ended, I had a personal visit from physical reality. It was a bright sun-filled day and I was back in the colourful squatter district of Christiana in a cafe/daycare centre finishing up my third double expresso coffee when physical reality made itself known. I fell asleep at the table. Groggily, I made my way back to my rented room and slept for 18 hours. 

There was a big recession in 2008-2009, and governments found billions if not trillions of dollars to bail out banks and other financial institutions. They also promised to invest in a green economic recovery to help fight climate change. While emission declined slightly for the first time ever in 2009, the economic recovery did little to curb carbon emissions in 2010 (with a record six percent increase) nor in the years that followed.

And physical reality made itself known over the last decade in the form of rising temperatures and extreme weather events that has cost the world hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In the US the annual costs in recent years has averaged US $157 billion. With record wildfires in the western US the costs will be even higher in 2020.

Here’s our first Need-to-Know: Talking about greening an economy doesn’t make an economy green.

How green are economic recovery investments this time?

So here we are in 2020 with another big recession triggering a decline in emissions and with many governments promising green economic recoveries. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent but exactly how green are those dollars? Not very according to an analysis by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific body that tracks government climate action.

The economic recovery packages can be complex, often involving putting new money into a bewildering-range of existing programs. CAT looked at 106 domestic measures in five big emitting countries: China, the European Union, India, South Korea and the USA. Only Korea and EU put money into addressing their carbon emissions. And those amounted to at best a third of expenditures. And that’s the good news. Here’s the bad:

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing more of is governments using the pandemic recovery to roll back climate legislation and bail out the fossil fuel industry, especially in the US, but also in Brazil, Mexico, Australia, South Africa, Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and other countries” said Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute, one of the CAT’s two partner organizations.

Aside from investments in health care and income support for citizens, most economic recovery investments are in business-as-usual industries that will make climate change worse. That’s one Need-to-Know

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Another Need-to-Know is that an investment of an additional 1.2 percent of global GDP a year is enough to make the transition to a net zero carbon global economy and keep climate change below 2 degrees C said Niklas Höhne at a press briefing last Wednesday. Given the amount money governments are throwing about this year, a 1.2 percent investment to protect the climate for us, our children, grandchildren and future generations ought to be doable. 

We might save the climate after all

“I’m much more hopeful today than I’ve been a very long time,” I was astonished to hear Niklas say last Wednesday.

The reason for Niklas’ new found optimism is China. Last Tuesday, September 22, China formally declared they were aiming to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. Since China accounts for 25 percent of global emissions that’s a big deal —- enough to lower future global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C — according to a Climate Action Tracker estimate. It means China intends to completely phase out all conventional use of coal, oil and gas by the middle of the century. “That was unthinkable a few years ago,” he said. 

China has a good track record of sticking to or bettering their climate commitments added Bill Hare of Climate Analytics (Australia), CAT’s other partner organization. China is far and away the world leader in renewable energy and electric vehicle production and likely plans to sell piles of their green tech to rest of the world. 

Added to this bit of very good news is the fact that the European Union (EU) also announced a more ambitious reduction target for 2030, as well as a commitment to climate neutrality by 2050. A number of other countries including Canada have made the same commitment.

Joe Biden can put world on a path to 1.5C

China and the EU account for 33 percent of global emissions. Now if Joe Biden wins the US election this November, and keeps his commitment to put America on a path to net zero emissions by 2050, then the 1.5 degree C Paris Agreement target is within firm reach said Hare. That’s an important and hopeful Need-to-Know. It’s also something considered politically impossible just a week ago. 


When three of the world’s biggest economies say they’re getting rid of fossil fuels and going green, it will change everything. This is something to be excited about and to share widely while putting aside our doubts and cynicism. There’ll be pushback and foot-dragging enough from those only concerned with their own short term interests. And by those uncomfortable with change. Countries will need to be pushed by citizens so they make good on their emissions reduction commitments. 

Five years after Copenhagen I spoke to John Schellnhuber after he participated in The People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014. It was the largest climate march ever, involving more than 400,000 people. He told me: “Only a global social movement will force nations to act.”  

John went on to say that once the business sector realizes the transition to a low-carbon world is underway, they will push governments to create policies needed for a low-carbon societies. “It’s the biggest business opportunity in history,” he said. That was exactly six years ago. 

What’s politically realistic?

In the immortal words of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Things Are Only Impossible Until They're Not.”

Until next time, stay safe.


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An Extinction Crisis Solution: Stop Doing Dumb Things

The unsettling gaze of a cassowary

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 minute or less read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning.

Hello Friends,

This is the second of a two-part look at what’s happening to our life-support safety net — Nature — and what we can do to stop poking holes in it. Part One, Blowing Holes in Our Life Support System, began with my semi-voyeuristic encounter with Lonesome George, a Galápagos giant tortoise, who was the rarest creature on the planet. Now, in Part Two, a look at the underlying causes, what can be done, and how you and I can help. But first, breakfast with a cassowary.

Breakfast with a Cassowary

I was about to enjoy a bleary-eyed breakfast when a cassowary walked in. 

Cassowaries are very large, very rare flightless birds with more than a passing resemblance to those Jurassic Park raptors. Known as “the world's most dangerous bird,” each foot has a long, sharp, raptor-like claw and can disembowel other animals, including humans, with a single kick.

The big female was eyeing my fruit-filled breakfast bowl. Lowering her head I got a cold stare as if I’d stolen the fruit from her children. In retrospect perhaps I, as representative of the human race, had in fact. 

My partner Renee and I had just spent the night in tented accommodation in the coastal rainforest in north Queensland, Australia. The night sounds from an array of frogs, insects, birds and other unseen creatures were wondrous. As the night wore on, the chorus got louder and more varied. Fascinating but exhausting. Hence my bleary-eyed breakfast in the open-air ecolodge. 

Cassowaries are only found in the forests of northeastern Queensland and in New Guinea. They can be 1.5 to 1.8 m (5 to 6 feet) tall and weigh up to 60 kilograms (130 pounds). In the past cassowaries had been know to use their surroundings to conceal their movements and out-flank organized groups of human predators. Considered a keystone species for their critical role in maintaining the ecological balance of the rainforest, cassowaries are sadly now an endangered species in Australia. There’s likely less than 4,000 individuals left due to loss of habitat. Lately, however the main cause of death has been getting run over by cars and trucks.

Back in the ecolodge, it was a scene out of Jurassic Park: A big, fierce raptor-like bird eyeing me hungrily. Eyeing my breakfast bowl that is. I got the impression it expected me to put the bowl on the floor. And, maybe that cassowary had a right to my breakfast. Instead, I slowly backed away, bowl in hand. She began to come towards me when the owner, carrying a large serving tray as a shield, shooed her out. 

“Unfortunately we’ve had the odd guest feed her and now she comes looking for hand outs,” the owner said unhappily. It puts the cassowary at serious risk because it might injure a guest she said.

That feeding wild animals is dangerous for them ought to be an obvious need-to-know. The more challenging need-to-know is we ought to modify our activities and ways of living so that cassowaries and other species can thrive. There’s a moral argument for that but I’m going with the pragmatic: Cassowaries and other species are part of our life support system. We need them. 

Double trouble

“The evidence is crystal clear: Nature is in trouble. Therefore we are in trouble” That’s what Sandra Díaz told me nearly 18 months ago. Diaz is an ecologist at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina, and a co-chair of a multi-year global assessment of the health of world’s ecosystems. 

Nature, in the form of ecosystems comprised of a stunning variety of animal, plant and other species, are our life support system. Nature provides our air, food, clean water, air, energy, materials and so on. Our life support system is falling apart because some species are going extinct and the abundance of remaining species are in sharp declines.

According to Ms. Diaz, there is overwhelming evidence that shows human activities are behind nature’s decline. The specific causes or drivers of decline: land conversion for agriculture and urban settlements; deforestation; overfishing; bush meat hunting; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species.

Who is driving the drivers of extinction?

We’re driving the drivers of extinction. More precisely, what we consume, what we buy, is what drives the drivers. That’s an inescapable need-to-know. This is greatly facilitated by an economic system that ignores its impacts on nature and facilitated by governments spending billions in subsidies to prop up that system.

So does this mean there too many people on the planet? When it comes to household consumption emissions, the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for more than twice the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions compared to the poorer 50% of the world in 2015. This is according to new research from the Stockholm Environment Institute, a world-leading research organization. 

In the study, the wealthy 1% were defined as households with incomes over US $100,000 a year. I’m sure many of those households would never consider themselves wealthy but they certainly are relative to the poorer half of the world — 3.6 billion people — whose household incomes are less than US $1,000 a year. 

This graph shows the shares of annual global carbon emissions in each year that are attributed to individuals in three global income groups. The global population is arranged by income vertically, and the corresponding share of annual global carbon emissions is represented horizontally. Source: Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam.

The inequity in household consumption emissions are pretty stark:

…the average per capita consumption emissions linked to the top 1% in 2015 were over 100 times greater than the average per capita consumption emissions of the poorest half of the world’s population.

Let’s look at the richest 10% — those with incomes above US $35,000. They total around 630 million people and were responsible for 49% of global carbon emissions in 2015. How much came from the 3.6 billion at the bottom? A mere 7%. 

“The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis,” said Tim Gore, Head of Climate Policy at Oxfam and co author who worked with Stockholm Environment Institute on the report.

While this study looked at carbon-related consumption emissions, they’re a good proxy for consumption of goods and services in general. It shows there are too many who are consuming far too much. This is not the same thing as blaming everything on overpopulation. It shows who really is driving the drivers of species decline that are unravelling our life support system. This unravelling matters because we have yet to create an artificial life support system. No one is growing food on the International Space Station.

So what can be done?

  1. Stop doing dumb things

This could be a big list. But I’m just going to look one really big dumb thing: The US $500 billion a year in public subsidies for the fossil fuel, fishing, agriculture, and transportation industries that damage our living environment. Industries that cause harm ought to be modified, phased out and replaced. Green energy is replacing fossil energy but not nearly fast enough. The smart thing would be to use that $500 billion to help all those industries go green. 

“Sure, but what can I do about that?” is something I hear all the time. My answer: Never vote for anyone who doesn’t promise to eliminate these harmful subsidies. And tell anyone who complains or worries about the weather, lack of songbirds or butterflies, plastic in the oceans etc, etc that we citizens are paying companies twice to do these things, once through our taxes and again with our purchases. 

2. Stop buying stuff, especially cheap stuff

China is the world’s top furniture and flooring maker, and particularly of low-cost products. Surprisingly China doesn’t allow logging in its forests so it is the world’s biggest importer of logs, mainly from poorer countries. This is often done illegally resulting in deforestation as I reported on for Nat Geo a couple of years ago.

Everything we buy has an ecological cost — another need-to-know. If we buy only what we truly need it would make a big difference. What households earning over $100,000 think are necessities probably aren’t when 3.6 billion live on less than $1000 a year. To be clear, poverty isn’t the solution. It’s about the bottom 50% being able to consume a little more while the wealthy consume a lot less. Combined with smart and careful transformations of destructive industries and we’re on our way to securing our life support systems. And that would be a very good thing. 

Thanks for listening.

Until next time, stay safe.


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Blowing Holes in Our Life Support System

For Lonesome George

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 minute or less read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning.

Hello Friends,

This is a two-part look at our life-support safety net — Nature. It’s not doing too well, and hasn’t been for some time. So let’s look into how we stop poking holes in our safety net. But first, let’s meet my friend George. (Yes, those are pix of George I took) 

Lonesome George was horny

Although pushing 100 years of age, the rarest creature in the world was looking for action. Or so it seemed watching Lonesome George, a Galápagos giant tortoise, chase two much smaller females around his pen at Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos. 

It was a slow-motion giant tortoise courtship and it looked like a lot effort. George had to haul his bulky, thick-shelled body off the ground and semi-drag himself around as really big tortoises do. I’m not sure what he weighed at the time but Galápagos giant tortoises can reach 420 kilograms (920 pounds). They can also live 150 years. 

Today giant tortoises are only found on the Galápagos Islands, 900 kilometers (km) west of Ecuador and the Seychelles Islands which are 1000 km off the Eastern African coast. There are several different species of Galápagos giant tortoises. Each evolved independently on various islands. George was the last of the Pinta Island species primarily because feral goats ate most of the vegetation. He was brought to the Darwin Center to protect him and hopefully mate with a closely-related female. 

When I met George he’d been at the center for 35 years and produced no off-spring. All the reports I’d read concluded George simply wasn’t interested in sex. However, he looked plenty interested when I saw him. It was the females from Isabella Island who weren’t keen. Being smaller and more mobile, they evaded George for quite some time in a slow, stop and start chase punctuated by heavy shells thunking on rocks or concrete. 

Finally he trapped one in a corner of their pen. She held still as he laboriously climbed on her back, their shells clunking and thunking. I thought George, at more than twice her size, would squash her flat but tortoise shells, and female tortoises are tough. He spent the next 15 or 20 minutes adjusting his position. Or maybe he was just resting, I couldn’t tell. 

All this action had taken quite a long time, and I was beginning to feel a little voyeuristic. Finally, George slid off the female and she scrambled away. He lay still for a time and then dragged himself over to munch on a bit of cactus. 

I left wondering if I’d just witnessed the restoration of the Pinta Island tortoise species. Sadly George never produced any offspring and died a few years later in 2012, the last of his species.

An information panel outside George’s pen said this:

 “Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”

No extinction fix

This is the first time I’ve written about my brief meeting with George. The fishermen who put goats on Pinta Island long ago only wanted a source of fresh meat when they made the long journey to fish there. They weren’t thinking about the fate of tortoises and were probably happy the goats soon overran the island eating everything in sight. It took decades to get rid of the goats and vegetation has recovered but there are no more Pinta Island tortoises. Nor will there ever be again. 

Since meeting George I have written lots of articles on how human activities are driving many species extinct or to the brink of extinction. Boatloads of scientific reports have documented widespread declines of life virtually everywhere. A few days ago, United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity released a major report revealing that every single government failed to meet any of their targets to put the brakes on what many call an extinction crisis. That’s today’s need-to-know.

I was in Nagoya, Japan when 193 nations set those targets ten years ago. I wasn’t optimistic and wrote:

“…the vast majority remain asleep, unaware of our utter dependence on the living things that are the one and only source of oxygen, water, food and fuel. And unaware that nature is our reality while the economy is simply a complicated game we created…

…countries of the North are like desperate bio-pirates, addicted to plundering the richer ecosystems of the South for food, raw materials and cheap labour. Increasingly, the South is resisting and seeking redress. Part of that redress, and the only way to end the escalating loss of species – an estimated 5,000 to 30,000 extinctions per year – is to transform the growth economy. 

[Read full article here]

The only reason rich, high-consumption countries like the US and Canada haven’t collapsed or completely trashed their own environment is they’re rich enough to help themselves to nature’s ecological resources and services like food, timber, minerals and other materials from the rest of the world. Clap a glass lid on top and rich countries wouldn’t last long all on their own.

The notion of a no-growth economy was a non-starter in Nagoya despite acknowledgement that the growth economy leads to deforestation, agricultural expansion, overfishing and climate change, the major causes of species decline. Instead, many countries talked about creating a green economy that reduces carbon emissions, extracts and uses less natural resources, creates less waste and reduces social disparities. 

Talking about a green economy doesn’t make an economy green

Sound familiar? Ten years on and we’re still talking about creating a green economy. That’s why countries didn’t meet their own targets. One of those targets — a no-brainer — was ending destructive subsidies by 2020. That the new UN report said governments are still paying about US$ 500 billion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel, fishing, agriculture, and transportation industries that damage our living environment. (If you earn $45,000 a year, it would take 22,000 years to amass a fortune of one billion dollars.)

When countries set that subsidy phase-out target in 2010, they added an escape clause insisting their local economic interests had priority.  

Prioritizing local economic interests has resulted in the severe alteration of more than 75 percent of Earth’s land areas and impacted 66 percent of the oceans another major study found. It concluded that one million species may be pushed to extinction in the next few years. 

The tremendous variety of living species that make up our “life-supporting safety net” provide our food, clean water, air, energy, and more said Sandra Díaz, an ecologist at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina. 

“The evidence is crystal clear: Nature is in trouble. Therefore we are in trouble,” Díaz told me last year.

Ok, that’s the depressing bit. Part Two will look at the underlying causes, what can be done to really put the brakes on i.e., stop doing dumb things, and how you and I can help. 

For George. 

Until next time, stay safe.


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From Rhino Vision to Water Vision

Learning to value and respect the hidden water that is all around us

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 to 12 minute read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning.

Hello Friends,

Water is far more valuable and useful than oil and yet water rarely gets the attention it deserves. Nor does water get our respect, or the reverence that nearly all cultures far older than ours had for it. This issue’s overarching need-to-know is understanding and awareness of our water reality. To help this happen, let’s shift perspective and go looking for Rhinos.

Rhinos or rocks? An eye-opening lesson in humility

A few years ago I was hiking through the dry bush-covered savanna in South Africa with two local wildlife guides looking for Rhino. After a couple hours of trudging in the dusty mid-morning heat the guides stopped. 

“Over there… two rhino” one of them said.

I looked where he pointed but could see nothing but brush. So we crept closer. 

“Right there. A mother and her baby,” the lead guide said

“Where?” I asked again. 

The guides looked at each other. Rhinos are pretty big. Full-sized SUV big.

I’ve hiked lots of places. I’m pretty good at spotting deer, coyotes and even the odd black bear in the bush near my home in Canada. I’d even bragged a little the night before.

The guides took me closer…and closer still while slowly unslinging their rifles for safety.

”You mean those big grey rocks?” I asked uncertain. “The ones that are moving?”

That night, while sitting around the campfire in embarrassed silence, I realized I’d only ever seen Rhinos in zoos where they stand out like a monster truck in your driveway. I’d never seen them in their natural habitat where their dusty gray skin blends into the palette of the savanna as they silently slip in and out of patches of thick grey-brown bush.

By end of another long hike the next day I was spotting Rhino almost as fast as the guides. I’d developed ‘Rhino Vision’.  

That experience of shifting perspective, learning to see or understand something in its proper context, is one of the things I hope to do with Need to Know. In this issue I’d like to help you get  ‘Water Vision’ to see the hidden water that’s all around us.  

Our world is powered by water not oil

We all know water is essential to life, and we need to drink a two litres (half gallon) a day to survive. What we also need-to-know is that our modern civilization does not run on oil. It runs on water… a hell of a lot of water.  

It may look like our planet has a lot of water since it covers 70% of the Earth’s surface. However 97% is salt water. The 3% that’s fresh water is mostly locked up in polar ice, glaciers and permafrost or in ground water that’s either salt-laden or located in inaccessible places.  If all the water on the planet could fit into a litre bottle, the accessible freshwater we can use amounts to one tiny drop. (I did the math on this for my book “Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products”.)

Three more need-to-knows about water:

  • 1. Water scarcity is far more common than we realize. Studies show that two in three people suffer from severe water scarcity for at least one month per year. In poor countries this means not enough drinking water or to grow their food. In rich countries it usually means water rationing. Scarcity is defined as consuming twice as much water then can be replenished. It means rivers and lakes drying up, ground water levels falling.

  • 2. Water scarcity isn’t just about not having enough water to drink and grow food.  It’s also not having enough water to produce energy, to provide materials for housing, water for clothes, paper, cars, electronics and everything else. The plain fact is that we need water to make anything.

  • 3. There’s an ocean-sized consumption of water consumed to grow food and make stuff. This water is called hidden or virtual water but it’s a real as the water that goes into your morning coffee. 

Let’s take a look at that cup of coffee. It takes water to grow the beans, water to process the beans, water to make the packaging, water to make the fuel to transport the beans, water to make the electricity involved in roasting the beans and so on. Arjen Hoekstra, Professor in Water Management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands has added up all that up to determine a cup of coffee consumes a whopping 140 litres (37 gal.) of water on average. That’s quite a bit more than the average bathtub.

Hoekstra coined the term “water footprint” to help understand how much water is used to make various things. 

The water footprint of a half litre bottle of cola is 175 litres, since 175 litres is consumed to make it. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • 30 to grow the corn or sugar beet to make the sugar 

  • 53 to grow the coffee beans for the caffeine. 

  • 80 for vanilla flavouring

  • 12 in manufacturing and processing 

  • 5  to make the plastic bottle

I use the word “consumed” to indicate this is water that evaporated, remains polluted or cannot be reused in a reasonable time frame. In other words, it can’t be used for anything else until some point in the future. The water cycle is essentially a closed loop and the amount of water today is roughly the same a billion years ago. (Latest science suggests enstatite chondrite meteorites are the source of the Earth’s water.)

One more food example: a medium size cheeseburger. Want to guess how much water is needed to grow feed for the cows, their drinking water, and for processing and shipping the meat? And then there’s the water needed to make the bun and slice of cheese. It’s a complicated calculation and I’m happy Arjen Hoekstra crunched all the data. 

The answer: 2,400 litres

A soy burger would only consume 250 litres. 

Cows are a very water-inefficient way of obtaining protein. Now this use of water might be sustainable if the cattle feed is made from rain-fed crops without any water pollution. But it might also be possible to grow a heck of lot of soy with the same water. Or not, if the land is only good for pasture. Farming is hyper local. 

A car as a giant bag of water rolling down the street

All the water consumed to provide our food, clothing, electronics, building materials, energy, showers, and other stuff adds up to 8000 litres of water per person per day in North America. That’s twice the global average and three, or even more times the amount of water people in poorer countries consume.

Of this 8000 litres, only 300 to 400 litres of this comes out of our taps for drinking, washing, cooking or flushing. There’s water hidden every where you can see. Imagine a car as one giant bag of water rolling down the street because without that water there’d be no car. 

This is all detailed in my book Your Water Footprint including 80+ pages of infographics about how much water is needed to make various things. It won an award as best science book of the year. The book’s three main takeaways: 

  • we’re far more reliant on water than we know 

  • we use far more water than we think 

  • we could use a hell of lot less if we wanted to

The root of the problem is water is undervalued and poorly managed nearly everywhere. The good news is that we can do nearly everything using less water. 

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great, the water footprint concept can lead to far bigger reductions. For example if a family of four adopted “Meat-less Mondays” they’d save 425,000 litres a year. If they replaced beef with chicken year around they’d save 900,000 litres/year.

Switching to a vegetarian diet cuts a daily water footprint by 20 to 30%. There’s a rough correlation between things that are big water consumers and big sources of carbon emissions. A 2018 study found that 75% of the carbon footprint in the average European diet came from consuming meat and dairy products. They concluded vegetarian diet beats buying local when it comes to lowering carbon emissions.

I love eating vegetarian but it’s not always possible in my family for various reasons. Reducing our water footprint is about smart substitutions and changes rather than sacrifice and self-denial. Some more ideas you can use:

  • Cut food waste. Forty per cent of all food in North America is wasted, including the incredible amounts of water used to produce it. FYI best-before dates have nothing to do with food safety. 

  • When it comes clothes, electronics and everything else practice the 4Rs in this order: Reject, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

  • Water-wise purchasing also means asking the hard question: I do really need this?

With “water vision” we can clearly see water is more useful and valuable than oil. The good news is that it’s not hard to use much less water if we respect and value it.

Until next time, stay safe.


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Please, Let Us Not Return To Coconutarianism

The Power of Belief in Creating the World We Want

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 to 12 minute read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning.

Hello Friends,

Yes, I will explain the term ‘coconutarianism’ but in the context of climate change, our hunger for explanations and how the pandemic has a silver lining that might help us get on track. But first a true story about a Russian drinking in a bar.

How I met a Russian climate challenge

So I'm in this grotty little bar in Warsaw, Poland talking to this Russian journalist I'd just met. "This global warming is just too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not," Yuri (not his real name) shouted over the Saturday night roar of voices.

"You don't think climate change is happening?" I asked quite surprised since we were both in Warsaw to cover the annual United Nations climate change treaty negotiations.

"No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove its real," Yuri said shrugging his shoulders, not wanting to marked as a climate-denying troll amongst thousands of climate activists.

I took a long sip of my beer and said: "It's actually very simple. I can explain it to you in one minute."

At first he thought I was joking and when I repeated "in one minute" I got the journalist's 'go ahead, try and convince me' look.

"150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. And that's been confirmed over and over. It's as solid as our knowledge that the Earth is round. We also know without a doubt that burning fossil fuels emits CO2.

Measurements, not models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago -- before massive use of fossil fuels.

That's 42% more heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere today. It would be beyond astonishing if that did not heat up the planet and screw up our climate.

That's it."

Yuri, who'd been watching me closely, shifted his gaze to look out the window onto a bustling Nowy Swiat street. Finally he said: "I guess that makes sense...No one's ever explained it that way," he said trying to be polite I suspect.

I doubt Yuri changed his views that night but hoped maybe it gave him something to think about...

Here’s my Climate Change Explained in 165 Words graphic based on that story. Feel free to copy and share.

Belief and the last Coconutarian

The fundamental basis of climate change is easy enough understand but it can be difficult for some people to believe it’s happening or how serious the threat it poses. Belief can be far more powerful than understanding or knowledge or evidence. Accepting this in families and friends can be a difficult need-to-know.

In the 1920’s an assistant pharmacist named August Englehardt living in Bavaria championed a nature-based lifestyle beyond vegetarianism and veganism. Englehardt believed for various reasons that people should live solely on what he considered the most sacred of plants: the coconut. This lifestyle didn’t work out too well as Setfano Mancuso documents in his delightful book “The Incredible Journey of Plants”.

Living completely off coconuts in Bavaria was a non-starter, so Englehardt bought and moved to a coconut plantation on an island in what is part of Papua New Guinea today. Energetically promoting his ideas and providing free passage from Germany to the island, Englehardt soon had a small colony of coconutarians. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the colonists started dying of malnutrition and infections. Alone, Englehardt persisted in his belief until he too succumbed to malnutrition.

Englehardt’s colonists were never more than 30 people. And, given a free trip to the tropics away from Germany’s often dreary weather, proves that a large majority of people don’t believe everything they hear. Of course, unlike today, in the 1920s only a few people would have been exposed to coconutarian beliefs.

Hunger for convenient and comfortable explanations

“Why?” is my three-year-old granddaughter’s favourite word. Mine too. As humans we’re always seeking explanations for what’s happening around us. Why things are the way there are? Why our life is the way it is? Sometimes we figure it out on our own but more often we accept someone else’s convenient and comfortable explanation. This is especially true when our lives feel chaotic and out of our control.

"We have never been as fragile as we are, we never needed as much humility, unity and solidarity as now," said UN chief Antonio Guterres the other day reflecting on the situation humanity finds itself in.

World powers must pull together and retool their economies for a green future or humanity is "doomed" Guterres said in an interview with members of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of journalists and news outlets committed to increased climate coverage. (FYI I’m a member)

“Doomed” is an unfortunate word choice by the Secretary-General. There’s a growing number of people who are climate doomers, who believe it’s too late to stop catastrophic climate change so why bother doing anything. And yet in the first few months of the pandemic global CO2 emissions declined substantially with various sector shut downs. That decline was more than what the pathway to 1.5C required. (Global temperature rise of no more than 1.5C is what all countries have agreed to aim for.)

A year ago few people would have thought this possible, never mind actually happen.

Since lock-downs have largely ended, emissions have increased. By year’s end global emissions will likely be only a little less than 2019, and well off the pathway to 1.5C. However a need-to-know from this unprecedented year is that we now have concrete evidence carbon emissions can be drastically cut if we choose to do it.

That choice needs to be retooling economies for a green future rather than slipping into a global economic collapse.

We’ve long known about the need to cut carbon emissions. In the interview Guterres recited for the umpteenth time what rich countries that emit more than 70% of world’s carbon need to do:

  • pollution and not people should be taxed

  • nations need to end fossil fuel subsidies,

  • launch massive investments in renewables

  • commit to carbon neutrality -- net zero emissions -- by 2050

‘Business as usual is not an option’ is a phase I’ve heard and cited too many times in the last two decades. Now we’ve experienced it for the first time. It wasn’t/isn’t a great experience but we can learn much from it. And now that we’re experienced it, believing huge reductions in carbon emissions can be made, and made quickly, is easier than ever before.

Belief works best when it’s in partnership with evidence. It may take time, sometimes quite long, before evidence reveals a belief to be false or inappropriate given the circumstances. Englehardt ignored the ample evidence of his own eyes that living off coconuts was unhealthy. It’s equally evident our modern civilization is also unhealthy for the planet that sustains us. And since that means our current ways of living are unhealthy for us, a non-coconutarian would shift to a healthier diet. I don’t want things to go back to normal. Neither does the head of the UN:

"I don't want to go back to a world where biodiversity is being put into question, to a world where fossil fuels receive more subsidies than renewables, or to a world in which we see inequalities making societies with less and less cohesion and creating instability, creating anger, creating frustration,” Guterres said.

"I think we need to have a different world, a different normal and we have an opportunity to do so.”

What can we do to help bring about these changes?

For starters let’s stop giving coconutarians leadership positions in business and in government. There’s a surprising number who have very unhealthy beliefs and strenuously ignore or deny any evidence that challenges those beliefs.

That’s last need-to-know for this issue. Until next time, stay safe.


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