Hey Bill Nye! Should Humans Go Vegan to Slow Global Warming?

Methane gases from livestock production is contributing to the acceleration of global warming. Is a plant-based diet a smart way for individuals to curb the effects of climate change?

Erin: Hey Bill.  I’m Erin and I’m from Scotland. I went vegan after I watched documentaries like Before the Flood and Cowspiracy. It presented me with lots of terrifying information such as that from the FAO which suggests that 14.5 to 18 percent of the world’s global emissions are due to animal agriculture. However, Worldwatch suggests it’s closer to 51 percent.  I was wondering if you knew why there was such a difference between these two figures and whether you think that adopting a vegan diet is the best thing we can do as individuals for the planet. 

Bill Nye: Erin, you raised a very good point. I don’t know why the two figures in those two studies, the documentary and the—was it a scientific paper?—are discrepant, but it probably has to do with trying to assay or figure out how much greenhouse gas is created by cattle or other livestock. 

And the problem, everybody, is that livestock eat plants; then bacteria in their livestock stomachs metabolize the plant material into methane, natural gas. And you can make all the jokes you want, but methane is a very strong greenhouse gas. 

The first place I’d look to find the reasons for the discrepancy between the two figures is in the amount of greenhouse gas supposed to come from a cow or a sheep or goat.

So with humans, the human population getting so big that we are raising so many farm animals, it’s very reasonable that we’re creating a tremendous amount of extra methane that wouldn’t otherwise be there in the atmosphere. And that is causing global warming and climate change to happen more rapidly than would otherwise.  

However, if humans weren’t there animals would be all over the place anyway; it’s not clear that they’d be in these concentrations though.

It could be a difficult thing to measure, but it’s also reasonable that agriculture researchers are going to produce or breed farm animals that produce less methane by changing the bacteria that are in their stomachs that metabolize plant matter. 

To get all the way down to a plant based diet might be tricky for a lot of people. However, it seems like a good idea. Check in with me in a few months, because I noticed that my diet is becoming increasingly vegetarian, and so in the next little while I may be all the way over. “Why aren’t you now Bill?” That’s a great question. I’m working it—I’m working on it. 

It’s a very interesting question and and an important one. And literally a huge one because we’re talking about the Earth’s atmosphere. Thank you Erin. 

 

Make all the jokes you want, says Bill Nye, but methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, and as Earth's population increases so too does the size of the meat industry that caters to it. Demand for meat is growing steeply in developing nations, according to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the methane emitted by livestock is undoubtedly contributing atmospheric gases and accelerating global warming. So is a plant-based diet the answer, slashing the demand placed on the meat and dairy industries? Nye finds himself choosing to eat more and more vegetarian dishes, so while he hasn't gone 'full vegan' yet, his awareness of the problem has sparked a reductionist diet. Nye also mentions that agricultural scientists may soon find themselves under public pressure to reduce methane output. One way they might do that? Changing the bacteria in livestock's stomachs so they metabolize food with less methane byproduct. So we could bio-engineer the stomachs of other animals, or we could simply reduce the amount of animal products that go into our own.


Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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