Lose Weight, Save the Planet?

Okay, anyone who understands energy and global warming issues knows that eating down the food chain and eating locally are two great ways to reduce your carbon footprint.  This post, however, is not about this.

According to work done by Paul Higgins (American Meteological Society (AMS) Climate Policy), tackling obesity and global warming opportunities go beyond going vegan.

Doctors recommend walking/biking 30 minutes a day and eating less red meat.

That’s how Americans can simultaneously save the planet and their health, say doctors and climate scientists.

According to Paul,

 if all Americans between 10 and 74 walked just half an hour a day instead of driving, they would cut the annual U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, by 64 million tons.

Okay, I don’t know about you, but 64 million tons does start to sound like a real number. (Okay, for perspective, from the DOE:

This report estimates that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2003 (including nonfuel uses of fossil fuels) totaled 5,800 million metric tons (MMTCO2). To put U.S. emissions in a global perspective, total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions for the world in 2003 are estimated at 25,033 MMTCO2, making U.S. emissions about 23 percent of the world total.

Thus, this walking would represent a little more than a one percent cut in emissions. 

But we, as did Paul, should start to think through the secondary implications. Let’s start with his logic:

Use of the automobile for personal transportation confers considerable individual benefits, such as the ability to travel quickly, easily and independently over long distances.

Yes, there are legitimate reasons for loving our cars.

However, car travel also cause substantial societal costs in the form of air pollution, climate change, habitat degradation, political instability, and economic insecurity.

Yes, wow, there are all these costs. Note, all of the benefits we feel quite directly. These costs, these “substantial societal costs”, are all indirect, all costs to the commons.

In addition, reliance on the automabile contributes to a sedentary lifestyle.

Yet, again, an indirect cost, even if to the individual (and, well, indirectly to the society).  When driving your car (if you have one), do you ever think about how many calories are remaining on your hips rather than being burned off due to sitting in that car?

As for the United States,

currently consumes 27% of global oil production, produces 25% of global carbon emissions, and 65% of adults are overweight or obese.

Well, Paul links these together not just in a sentence.

Straightforward calculations demonstrate that widespread subsitution of driving with distances travelled during recommended daily exercise could reduce the USA’s oil consumption by up to 38%.

Yes, riding your bike to do something each day would create an opportunity for tremendous reductions in our energy use.

This savings far exceeds the amount of oil recoverable from the Artic National Wildlife Refugee, suggesting that exercise can reduce foreign oil dependence …

And weight loss (with associated health benefits):

At the same time, an average individual who substitutes this amount of exercise for transprotation would burn 12.2 and 26.0 kg off per year for walking and cycling.

Thus, we can cut our umbilical cord to overseas oil sources while, at the same time, cutting the size of the stomachs it is attached to.


But, let us see how Higgins takes this even further.

A reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of about 35% is possible if the revenue saved through decreased health spending on obesity is redirected toward carbon abatement.

Okay, let’s think about this.  We are calling for, at least, 80% CO2 emissions reductions by 2050.  Higgins’ calculations suggest that we can get almost halfway there by walking and biking every day, supplanting just a little of our car use.  (And, well, note that Higgins doesn’ t count in the resources that won’t be going for underused exercise equipment and gym-club memberships.)

exercise-based transportation may constitute a favourable alternative to the energy and diet plans that are currently being implemented in the USA and may offer better development choices for developing countries.

Want to look buff for the summer season?  Care about the planet?  The choice is clear:  put your butt on a bike.

A Public Health and Energy Agenda?

According to the AP,

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering public promotion of the “co-benefits” of fighting global warming and obesity-related illnesses through everyday exercise, like walking to school or work, said Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

“A simple intervention like walking to school is a climate change intervention, an obesity intervention, a diabetes intervention, a safety intervention,” Frumkin told The Associated Press. “That’s the sweet spot.”

And, well, do you realize that they are missing something here, another payoff:  a savings payoff. Don’t they realize that gasoline costs money?

There are people who look to be getting excited about this:

“This may present the greatest public health opportunity that we’ve had in a century,” said University of Wisconsin health sciences professor Dr. Jonathan Patz, president of the International Association for Ecology and Health.

The key is getting people out of the car …

But, it isn’t the car miles.

“The real bang for the buck in reducing greenhouse gas emissions was from the avoided health expenses of a sedentary lifestyle,” said Higgins.

Eat down the food change 

And, well, if we want to truly multiply this impact, we look to our diets as well.

A diet shift away from heavy meat consumption would also go far, he said, because it takes much more energy and land to produce meat than fruits, vegetables and grains.

Recent studies support that argument. Last year the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the meat sector of the global economy is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Much of that is indirect, including the fertilizer needed to grow massive amounts of feed for livestock, energy use in the whole growing process, methane released from fertilizer and animal manure, and transportation of the cattle and meat products.

The average American man eats 1.6 times as much meat as the government recommends

Will it happen?

Generally, I find discussion of carbon diets to somewhat absurd.  How many people go on and go off diets, never able to fully shed those pounds, always looking for a new route to a new, slimmer them?  What we want is long-term, changed behavior.

As for fighting obesity and global warming by walking and cycling, don’t expect people to do it easily, said Kristie Ebi. She’s a Virginia public health consultant and one of the lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Citing the decades-long effort to curb smoking, she said, “It turns out changing people’s habits is very hard.”

Bit by bit, step by step, bicycle by bicycle revolution.

But, perhaps Ahhnold can have an even greater role in fighting global warming connecting exercise and diet, quite visibly, to the common understanding of our way to help create a better tomorrow.


One response to “Lose Weight, Save the Planet?

  1. Pingback: The Weight of the World » Celsias

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