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What about your carbon pawprint?

People around the world are worrying about their carbon footprint. But what about their furry friends' carbon pawprints? Consider the numbers: there are currently around 1 billion pet cats and dogs worldwide…

We want our pets to be happy, but how much luxury do they need? nezitic[x]/flickr

People around the world are worrying about their carbon footprint. But what about their furry friends' carbon pawprints?

Consider the numbers: there are currently around 1 billion pet cats and dogs worldwide (not to mention hundreds of millions of stray ones), and pet ownership rates are vastly higher in western countries. About 40% of US households own at least one dog, compared with about 6% of Chinese homes.

However, the gap is closing fast, as the number of pets and the demand for food and other goodies in developing countries spiral. In India, dog ownership is growing annually at double digit rates, while in Vietnam and Thailand, the number of dog owners increased by around 50% between 2004 and 2007.

The ecological consequences of pets are significant when you consider the land needed to produce the energy and resources required for a large dog are equivalent to that of a four-wheel drive Land Rover; a medium dog is equivalent­ to a VW Golf. Or so say Brenda and Robert Vale, authors of the provocatively titled Time to Eat the Dog. Among many reason­able observations they note that we face real problems “when everyone starts to have a big car, big house, big family and a big dog”. They also note that many pets in the west have larger ecological­ footprints than humans in some developing countries.

The rising affluence of pets is becoming a problem. Joe Nicora

So, while the rising population of pets is significant enough, the rising affluence of pets is also important. The range of products and services hitting the market and encouraging pet owners to humanise their pets is staggering. There are dog houses with reverse-cycle air conditioning, some with flat screen TVs, and there are DVDs specifically catering to the tastes of different animals. From pet treadmills to electric blankets, a spiralling number of online stores and big box pet warehouses are selling aspirational pets an energy-intensive good life.

As pet owners decide that “what’s good for me is good for my pet”, they are creating a large, powerful and emissions-laden industry. In the United States alone, pet care is currently a $50 billion industry, having almost doubled in a decade. It is a microcosm­ of the same problem occurring with humans as developing countries become more affluent.

At the heart of the decadence is the trend towards “luxury” pet food, and the biggest beneficiaries are the four corporations that dominate the booming pet care industry and control 80% of its largest component – the global pet food market.

With pet faeces reportedly making up 4% of waste to landfill in some cities, clearly a great deal of pet food is being made. The food itself requires hundreds of millions of tonnes of meat and grain, as well as vast amounts of energy, most of it drawn from fossil fuels. It then has to be tinned, bagged and transported to all points of the planet.

Who are the companies encouraging us to humanise our pets with their luxury pet food? Surprising as it sounds, think chocolate, toothpaste and cleaning­ products: the largest pet food manufacturers are Nestlé, Mars, Procter & Gamble and Colgate. Each of these companies would like us to believe that their booming pet care businesses are climate-friendly, but it’s mostly spin behind the earnest-sounding pitches.

Let’s look at one of these companies: Mars – which makes Pedigree and Whiskas. Their stated mission is to “make a difference for people and the planet through our performance”, which indicates a strong emphasis on saving the environment.

Huge amounts of energy and resources go into feeding our pets. N0fX/Flickr

There are well-promoted but isolated examples of the company using green power to make its pet food, such as wind turbines in Yorkshire adjacent to a Mars pet care factory. Mars says it has the “first sustainable pet food manufacturing facility in the world”. The company points to emissions cuts due to a host of energy efficiency, recycling and packaging improvements, and its website features pictures of solar panels being installed at Mars Chocolate headquarters in New Jersey.

The company says its operations generate around 15 million tonnes of greenhouse pollution, about 4% less than in 2007.

It has much grander plans for the future: a “Sustainable in a Generation (SiG) program”. The company says it is “committed to achieving zero fossil fuel energy use and zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2040”. The distant timeline may be squint-inducing, but it sounds impressive enough – until you read the fine print.

The commitment applies only to the company’s direct emissions. Most of the Mars carbon footprint lies elsewhere: supply chain emissions make up 87%. The company admits that “sourcing our raw materials leads to greater impacts than our factories and offices” – something many companies­ skate over – and it plans to “develop similarly robust pro­grams for each element of our value chain”. Until it does, however, we are left with a company nonsensically determined to cut its emissions to zero so long as the emissions tied up in producing its rice, beef, meat, dairy, corn, wheat and the rest of the supply chain are excluded.

What is crystal clear is that Mars, Nestlé and the other “Big Pet Care” corporations are expanding into developing countries at a rapid rate, and enthusiastically pushing “luxury” pet food brands intended to “humanize” pets.

We shouldn’t exempt pets from our efforts to tackle climate change. Millenium Luxury Coaches

None of this is to suggest that pets are an emissions-intensive extravagance that must be forsaken in the fight against climate change. They are an important and very beneficial part of our lives – on average pet owners have lower blood pressure and fewer mental health issues, spend less time in hospital and ultimately live longer. But we shouldn’t exempt pets from our efforts to tackle climate change, and companies that cater to pets shouldn’t greenwash the contribution to climate change of the products, services and pet lifestyle they promote.

The American Pet Products Association’s publication of 2011 trends in the pet care industry captures the current situation beautifully. The number-one industry trend is “Reducing Your Pet’s Carbon PAW print”:

Around the world people are making conscious efforts to help our planet Earth, and the pet industry is no exception. From natural litters to toys, accessories and organic food options, Earth-friendly pet products are sprouting up everywhere.

True enough, but what are the other pet care trends cited by the Association?

Designer shampoos and fashion; hotel accommodation; electric toothbrushes and self-flushing litterboxes; automatic doors and touch-activated toys; toy gyms, spas and massagers; self-warming pet mats; not to mention faux mink coats, hipster lumberjack vests, designer plaid jackets, matching jewelled collar and leash sets…

You can just picture advertisements for these products in the pages of the Pet Airways in-flight magazine, being enjoyed en route from Beijing, Rio or Mumbai, “making the world a better place one pet at a time”.

This is an edited extract from Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams by Guy Pearse, published by Black Inc. today.

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30 Comments sorted by

  1. Stiofán Mac Suibhne

    Contrarian / Epistemologist

    Absurd article. Dog = 4WD? No wonder the masses are getting bored by climate change jibber jabber. As if, most pet food is made from left over old bits of hoof, lips & arse that would otherwise be waste. Perhaps it would fester / ferment & be even more green house gas emitting than Fido / Tibbles can of nasty old meat. You ought to apply your intellect to something more worthy.

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    1. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Stiofán Mac Suibhne

      Calculating equivalences across such diverse categories involves many assumptions. I read it with skepticism.

      However it is an attempt to grapple with the magnitude of the problem.

      If petfood were indeed made from waste alone, it might not be a problem.

      The message of the article seems to me to be a lot about the increasing numbers of people who are feeding their pets prime cuts of fish and meat, not just hooves, lips and arse.

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    2. Stiofán Mac Suibhne

      Contrarian / Epistemologist

      In reply to John Harland

      That's the point. I don't think it is a problem. Not a real one. If every dog and cat in Australia were killed would it make any difference to the trajectory of climate change? I doubt it.

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    3. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stiofán Mac Suibhne

      That's probably true Stiofån, but the same is true of most individual behaviours. But now total up the climate impact of our pet management and our travel management and our home energy management... and so forth... then yo get the whole picture.

      I realize that some people get really irritated that this interferes with our freedom to do whatever we want, uninhibited, and I can actually appreciate that irritation, but on the other hand I also know that how we behave now is going to have severe ramifications on the next human generation and all generations after that.

      Managing our pets sensibly is a very small price to pay for our grandchildren's security.

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    4. Stiofán Mac Suibhne

      Contrarian / Epistemologist

      In reply to Chris Harries

      Nonsense begets nonsense.

      If Australia were to address its reliance on brown coal for electricity generation, decarbonise the grid, improve urban design / public transport, end the Aussie addiction to big cars, adopt a sensible 21st C building code so we use less energ to heat / cool etc. THEN these mythical individuals that are feeding their companion animals luxury 'high carbon' food could be the next in line.

      The idea that smoked salmon / caviar roulade and organic waygu beef / quinoa doggy treats are somehow driving climate change is detracting from actual issues. It's counter productive. Let's take some action rather than create endless vacuous nonsense that obscures the actual issue.

      This article and discussion thread is a perfect example of the futility of chattering classes.

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  2. Benjamin Shepherd

    Researcher in the Food Security Program at the Centre for International Security Studies at University of Sydney

    I'll guarantee my dog (life expectancy c. 12-15 years) will have a lower environmental impact than your child (life expectancy c. 80 years) no matter what I feed it.

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  3. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    The ecological effects of cats in Australia really hit home recently when we were working out in the bush, and 3 feral cats came out of the bush on different days, to watch us for a moment then disappear back into the bush.

    This was almost 70 miles from the nearest town and in a semi-desert environment, but the feral cats still found food, which would have been native wildlife.

    Wild dogs (and not necessarily not Dingoes) would also be doing damage to wildlife, and both feral cats and feral dogs must be having impact on the natural wildlife.

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  4. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    Whilst appreciating the value of pets to our own family life, Australian pet owners definitely require education on how to minimize the environmental impact of their pets.

    The average Australian family dog has a much higher climate footprint than does an average African human. Pet footprints often comprise frequent air travel, exotic life support medications, imported foods from the other side of the world, not to mention all those plastic dog poo bags that compete in number for supermarket plastic…

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    1. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Chris Harries

      Chris, your opening assertion that the "average Australian family dog has a much higher climate footprint than does an average African human" really needs some data to back it up. A wiki search lists the African population as being (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africa) just over 1 billion. If each of the 22million people in Australia had 2 pets (a pretty extreme and unresearched assumption) that still wouldn't hold a candle to the demands on the planet's carry capacity made by the Afican population. Until the planet can conbtrol the rate of human population growth, everything else is simply (an attempt at) staving off the inevitable.

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    2. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to John Phillip

      John, your post drove me to wikipedia and the calculator, which was fun: thanks! The average ecological footprint (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_ecological_footprint) of an African - averaged over every African country - is 1.46 global hectares. For an Australian, it's 6.84gha. So you're right - the TOTAL ecological footprint of Africa's population (at 1 billion people) is about ten times higher than Australia's (at 22 million people). It doesn't really address the question of an average African human versus an average Australian dog - wikipedia doesn't provide dog stats...
      But I'm not sure if comparing a continent to a country (even though that country is a continent as well) is a particularly useful comparison. Maybe it would be interesting to compare, say, North America to Africa, or Europe to Africa. But first I must edit some articles...

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    3. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Thanks to John and Editor Jane,

      Yes, of course I would not try to equate the total impact of the 1 billion African people with that of Australia's 25 million. The poorest village Africans have a footprint approximately one fiftieth of the average Australian's, whilst the wealthiest would be on a par with ours.

      But whereas the majority of Africans have never seen the inside of an airplane and have scant access to quality health care, many of our pets are frequent flyers and enjoy the best medical…

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  5. Howard Wiseman

    Professor in Physics at Griffith University

    The problem is not pets. The problem is people have growing disposable incomes. If they don't spend it on pets they will spend it on something, probably with an equally large or larger carbon footprint. The statistics in this article do not address that at all. And as Benjamin says, the impact of pet ownership is limited to the owner's lifetime. Not so children.

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    1. Howard Wiseman

      Professor in Physics at Griffith University

      In reply to John Phillip

      The solution to Climate Change is to tax greenhouse gases (and other environmental baddies) highly enough, and let people decide how to best spend their money. It is pointless to single out one human activity and criticise it. How about giving flowers as gifts? Think of the greenhouse gases involved in growing them under lights, transporting them, keeping them cool, making the plastic wraps that just get thrown away. And the flowers themselves just get thrown away after a few days anyway. Should we therefore ban flowers, or write books entitled "eat your flowers"?

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    2. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Howard Wiseman

      Howard, you are quite likely a pet owner and so am I.

      There's no need to take on guilt when we talk about behaviour change. We talk about all sorts of behaviours ... like flying in aircraft, excessively eating meat, driving when we could walk... and each of them deserves our attention.

      The aim of behaviour change education is not to make people feel bad, but to educate each other about minimising our impacts. There's lots we can do in all spheres of human behaviour, owning pets is just one…

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    3. Nick Pendergrast

      Sociology and Anthropology Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to John Phillip

      A better animal-friendly alternative to eating your dog is to feed them a vegan diet. It is very possible for dogs to thrive on a vegan diet free of animal products:

      http://veganpet.com.au/articles/?page_id=8

      According to a recent report from the World Preservation Foundation, a global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent, compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.”

      http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/11/16/agnostic-carnivores-and-global-warming-why-enviros-go-after-coal-and-not-cows/

      So shifting our dogs from a mainly animal-based diet to a plant-based vegan one is a solution to reduce the environmental impact of our dogs.

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    4. Alison Moore

      Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Nick Pendergrast

      That vegan pet food site you have linked above suggests a lot of processed packaged products for dogs, and claims that cats will die unless fed the processed muck on top of the veggies. I don't think any animal (including human) is going to be healthier eating processed food out of packets than fresh produce.

      What about cockroaches? Kitties love them :)

      I also have ethical doubts about this. There is an argument for saying that if you are not prepared to nourish a predomoninantly carnivorous animal in the manner for which it is ibiologicaly evolved then it is probably better not to make a pet of one....

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    5. Nick Pendergrast

      Sociology and Anthropology Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to Alison Moore

      I can't speak to vegan cats as I have no experience with this, however, I have looked after a few very happy and healthy vegan dogs who love their food - so what are the 'ethical doubts' in that case?

      Dogs are scavengers rather than carnivores but either way, it is very easy to give dogs vegan food so they are healthy and enjoy their food, while also lowering the impact they have on the environment and the other animals who we share this environment with. So I again, I don't see the 'ethical doubts'.

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    6. Alison Moore

      Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Nick Pendergrast

      I chose my words carefully. I don't feel that I am knowledgeable enough about canine physiology to have a strong opinion of the matter of their diet. But it worries that others who also have litlle such knowledge are less constrained...

      Dogs are opportunistic eaters, certainly, and i don't doubt that if fed nothing but vegetables, they will eat them and not die. I would be prepared to accept that they could even live optimally on such a diet, but I haven't seen any evidence of that presented at all. There is a valuable distinction to be made, for all organisms, between a diet on which the organism can survive, and an optimal diet for that organism's wellbeing and longevity.

      From what i do know about mammal physiology generally, I am not sure it is correct to say they are scavengers and not carnivores. These terms are not mutally exclusive. Everything about canine evolutionary development suggests meat-eating and pack hunting...

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    7. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alison Moore

      If being environmental means having to make a dog become a vegan I would choose not to have a dog, for the sake of the dog. A vegan dog is a bit like a celibate human. If we can't do what nature evolved us to do then we tend to go a bit dotty, like so many celibate priests do.

      Ask any vet and they will tell you that gnawing on bones is essential for dental health of dogs, and that's just one example. So long as humans eat meat there are bones to spare and scraps of low grade meat. But, as the…

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    8. Nick Pendergrast

      Sociology and Anthropology Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to Alison Moore

      There's a difference between eating 'only vegetables' and eating a vegan diet. Vegan Pet is a complete food that has everything they need. It was developed with years of research. Evolutionary development doesn't have much to do with what dogs should or could be eating now.

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    9. Nick Pendergrast

      Sociology and Anthropology Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to Chris Harries

      There's nothing natural about domesticated a dog in the first place, so I don't think arguments about 'what nature intended' really stack up. If dogs love their vegan food, they are certainly not going to go "dotty" like celibate priests.

      'Ask any vet and they will tell you that gnawing on bones is essential for dental health of dogs'

      I brush my dogs teeth.

      'So long as humans eat meat there are bones to spare and scraps of low grade meat.'

      Yes, I guess a discussion about vegan dogs is not going to make much sense to people who aren't vegan themselves.

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  6. Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop

    logged in via email @worldpreservationfoundation.org

    Interesting article Guy - examining the unintended consequences of our habits is enlightening.

    We have other extraordinary blind spots as well. For each Australian, 25 animals are also bred each year for meat, milk and eggs. For a family of four, that's a menagerie of 100 animals filling the back yard - each year!

    Some of these are exported, and most are chooks, but we have more cattle than people, and three times as many sheep (and lambs) as people. So a family of four has 6 cattle, 12…

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  7. Lorna Jarrett

    PhD, science educator and science advocate

    I've spent most of the long weekend (and most weekends, come to that) gritting my teeth over the yelping, yapping, barking and full-on symphonic howling of half a dozen dogs left behind, bored and lonely, in backyards within 50m of my house.

    You could ask why their owners decided to get them, when they clearly spend so little time interacting with them. Maybe they are just another commodity, another box to tick on the "lifestyle" checklist.

    Maybe, along with swapping car-ownership for car-share, we could swap dog-ownership for dog-share. I bet there is at least one lonely retired person or bored child per neglected dog. Of course, that would require people behaving as if they were part of a community...

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    1. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Lorna, your idea of pet sharing between households is a very sensible one that more home owners should consider because it can work extremely well.

      Dogs, in particular, will easily adapt to living in more than one household, and will happily be part of more than one family.

      One huge benefit to the dog owner is that such an arrangement makes it much easier to go on holiday or spend log periods away from the home, without expensive kenneling, because the other household can always take their turn during those times.

      Such arrangements can also surprisingly help to strengthen extended family and community ties.

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    2. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Chris Harries

      Cats need no encouragement. By default they share themseves amongst households.

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  8. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Companion animals perform some of the socio-emotional roles of human beings. This may apply particularly to those fed luxury foods and otherwise cherished.

    If they are doing the work of human beings, should we begrudge them what we consider reasonable for human beings?

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