Food needs to be local, low carbon

– by Michael Mobbs –

Sydney City Council has joined many other councils and government agencies in making false claims about cutting greenhouse pollution. Sprinkled through its policies, plans, mission statements, visions and awakenings is a consistently erroneous claim that it’s cutting almost all climate pollution or is the first carbon neutral bunch of civic fathers in the land.

Here’s the latest example:

“Centralised energy from Australia’s coal power electricity generation is currently responsible for 80 per cent of the City of Sydney’s greenhouse gas emissions.”  Sydney City Council: Tender number 0949 for Decentralised Energy Master Plan Part B – Renewable Energy, undated, published in July 09.

Sirs and Mesdames, that’s wrong, or, as the trade practices legislation puts it, “false and misleading”.

Burr has ignored this rubbish for the last few years but enough is enough; this porkiness needs to be unspun.

What is the correct figure for the greenhouse gas pollution in Sydney and other cities?

Australia’s greenhouse pollution is listed in the National Greenhouse Accounts as:

All energy:                          stationary (such as power stations)          291.7 Megatonnes
Transport                                                                                                     78.8 Mt (includes food)
Fugitive (such as from coal mines)                                                          37.7 Mt
Industrial processes                                                                                    30.3  Mt (includes food)
Waste                                                                                                              14.6 Mt (includes food)
Land clearing                                                                                                56.0 Mt (includes food)

Total                                                                                                                597.2 Mt

Sydney Council, along with many others setting climate pollution “visions”, is focusing only on stationary energy; at 291 megatonnes of the total 597, its only 49 per cent; not 80 per cent.

Food, however, is over 150 Mt (some of each of: transport + industrial processes + waste + land clearing).

The council has no vision and no policy to stop greenhouse pollution from food.  Yet it is easier and cheaper to fix than coal fired electricity. Other councils have fallen into this statistical quagmire.

Perhaps the best analysis of the greenhouse pollution caused by growing, transporting and wasting food is RMIT’s VEIL Report last year, which found food causes at least 23 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse pollution:

“Food production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Biological emissions from
agriculture were directly responsible for 16.8 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, and 12.9 per cent of Victoria’s. When emissions from energy, transport and waste are included, it has been estimated that at least 23 per cent of Australian emissions come from the food system.”  (1)

Worryingly the VEIL report has seriously damaged the credibility of all those consultants guzzling away in the climate change counting house, whose stats have been shown to wrongly attribute climate pollution to the wrong industries or sectors.

VEIL revealed that: “Victoria has a substantial food-processing sector, but the emissions from this sector are generally attributed (in data sources such as ABS) to ‘industry’ rather than ‘food’, as is agricultural chemical production. Food related transport emissions are also accounted for elsewhere (under transport). The greenhouse emissions generated through raw material consumption for food packaging are also a potentially significant contribution – in Europe it is estimated that 25 per cent of raw material production in 2001 was used as food packaging. ” (1)VEIL p25


Now, let’s make this simple. Off with the vision speak.

Australia, and Sydney, is massively increasing the amount of food it imports.

ABS data showed that in the four years between 2002-03 to 2006-07 meat imports more than doubled; dairy imports climbed 25 per cent; fruit and vegetable imports surged more than a third; and wine imports more than doubled. VEIL p14.

Every time an Australian councillor, council worker, business or resident eats food bought from a chain store, café, or take-away that city dweller is causing climate change pollution. Each time that councillor and other city dweller hops in a car to buy food, or puts out waste for a garbage truck to take wasted food away, then the dweller causes climate change pollution. That pollution is not being counted by Sydney and other councils whose strategies are confined to electricity and coal fired pollution.

And our eating habits show a clear trend towards much of our food being imported, causing growing, high levels of climate pollution, none of which is counted at all.


Yes, there’s an international protocol among these Kyoto blind mice where none of the greenhouse pollution from international air travel or shipping is counted. (Australian National Greenhouse Accounts, May 2009, p9)  Pretty handy when you’re a “global city” wanting to be a world leader in cutting greenhouse pollution; you just don’t count some of it.

Pity, Earth, we can’t get around to you just yet, we’ve got some visioning to get done first.

Why are councils choosing to deal with coal fired electricity and to set no goals for the big polluters – food and agriculture?

Who knows what goes on in their minds, with all the visions they have it’s got to be a confused space in there.  (At least when Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon”, we knew we had a real game on.  Can you imagine if he’d said, “We have a vision to go to the moon”; not much traction there.)

Burry speculation produced three reasons for the growing spate of visions to cut all or 80 per cent of greenhouse pollution.

Firstly, a figure like 80 per cent sounds as though you’re fair dinkum and will work hard so it’s a good number.

Secondly, perhaps their consultants are failing to tell them about all their pollution and they just don’t know the truth about it.

Thirdly, because it’s easier to measure than climate pollution from food.

Now we get electricity bills which say how much climate pollution we’ve caused by using it.

But when you put petrol in your car, diesel in your council garbage truck, or food in your shopping trolley you don’t get a statement of how much climate pollution you’re causing with your purchase.

Finally, perhaps their consultants are so used to whacking developers about the head they have no concept or experience of looking somewhere else for something or someone to control.

This could be it.

Most council consultants have no interest in food, no knowledge of the food distribution and garbage sector and are hooked into buildings, houses and the same ole same ole stuff that is the mantra of the planners, architects, engineers and the sustainability tragics who march in step all the time;  “energy demand, cogen, BASIX, Greenstar, blah blah blah . . .”.  They’re simply technically and culturally untrained to deal with this issue, food.

So what’s Burr going to do about this bodgie-ness?

Well, drawing deeply on our unending generosity (and a desire to up readership, mate) we will importune the folk charged with applying the trade practices legislation without fear or favour who last year gave a stern warning about false greenhouse claims in these terms:

“Vague, unsubstantiated, confusing or misleading information will reduce consumer confidence
in carbon claims thereby disadvantaging ethical traders. The Australian Competition and
Consumer Commission (ACCC) aims to prevent unscrupulous traders greenwashing’ their
advertising and exploiting consumers’ willingness to pay a premium on goods that reduce the
impact on the environment. The ACCC will vigorously pursue any claims which breach the Act. “

Wouldn’t it be beaut if the ACCC put a shot across the bow of Australia’s councils about their blinkered greenhouse pollution claims?

But wait; unless the councils are trading entities the ACCC can’t touch them.  Guess what?  They’re exempt.

Oh well, there’s something sexy about spin that deflects attention from a smouldering, stinking, senseless claim to be a greenhouse virgin or almost.

Please don’t get me wrong. I fully support all those councils, such as Sydney, which have chosen the goal of ending the use of coal fired electricity by 2030 or some other specific date (I’m unaware of any state or federal governments which have this as their goal). If each state city and its council were to stop buying coal fired power then even the largely useless state and federal governments, powered as much by hot air and coal industry donations as they are by any other energy source, might be seen for what they are: irrelevant to cutting coal fired power use.

What I don’t support is spin that tricks citizens about a life and death issue.

I expect that one day soon – when the first perfect storm of climate change tragedies paints a picture our pollies can’t dodge, perhaps in the next 10 years or so – folks who misrepresent their greenhouse pollution impacts will become subject to severe criminal penalties.

Then the mayors, pollies, consultants and spin doctors will suddenly begin to feel their spines where a shiver or two may alert them to its existence.

(1)Sustainable and Secure Food Systems for Victoria: What do we know? What do we need to know? VEIL Research Report No.1 April 2008 Authors: Kirsten Larsen, Chris Ryan and Asha Bee Abraham Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL) Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society University of Melbourne.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy.


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