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In the midst of a heatwave, Mike Redwood considers the concerning state of climate change efforts and the role the leather industry could play.
Once upon a time – and 800,000 years is a long time – the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated between 180 parts per million (ppm) and 280 ppm. Carbon dioxide is mostly emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, and it stays in the atmosphere for centuries.
After the industrial revolution, with the burning of enormous amounts of coal to make iron and steel and other things, we hit 290 ppm (at the end of the 19th century) and it has been relentlessly rising since.
When I was born in the mid-1940s, it had reached 310 ppm, but recognition of a problem took until the 1970s and, even then, little was done and, by 2000, it had got to 370ppm. Preliminary data released by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) on July 11, 2022, showed it has now reached 420.99 ppm.
Currently, Western European newspapers are publishing maps showing wildfires burning out of control all over the continent. Forests are being destroyed as well as houses, communities and wildlife habitats. Quite apart from the numbers of people and animals that are dying directly.
This warmer air is melting glaciers and removing a historically reliable source of water for drinking and irrigation from large parts of the world. It holds more moisture and creates more severe storms that bring torrential rain and floods. In recent days, there have been deadly floods in China (Sichuan and Gansu), the U.S. (Virginia), India (Gujarat), Indonesia (Maluku Islands), Afghanistan (Central and Eastern regions) and the Philippines (in seven provinces).
As I sit in the cool of my home, it is already 38°C in the shade outside and UK temperatures will be so high over the next few days, we have been asked not to travel and to stay indoors. Yet, when our global leaders speak on the topic, it appears to be only to renege on the promises they made only last November at COP26.
Energy security worries are the excuse to trigger a return to coal rather than accelerating renewables. The U.S. Supreme Court has shackled the Environmental Protection Agency and politicians are making statements about supporting net-zero targets only if they do not damage their economies, saying promised dates for net-zero are “arbitrary” or should be delayed.
The leather industry has not been a major cause of the post-industrial rise in CO2. The industrialisation of leather making came later and lacks the impact of the production of iron, steel, fertiliser and cement. Fossil fuel producers, misguided politicians and single-issue animal rights or vegan activists like to attack livestock methane whose numbers did grow in the 20th century, levelling off and declining towards the end of the century.
In looking back at these numbers, we tend to forget how much natural livestock has been lost through human activity in the last two centuries, not least the killing of some 50 million or more buffalo in the U.S. in the 1800s, all of whom were wandering the landscape and helping the grassland sequester gigantic amounts of carbon dioxide.
Before the Industrial Revolution, methane in the atmosphere was part of the cycle of life which allowed trees and plants to grow and livestock to feed and return the gas to the atmosphere. Extracting coal, gas and oil, including fracking produces additional methane that is not wanted in this cycle, and using fossil fuel for transport, manufacturing and intensive agriculture heavy with fertiliser produces the carbon dioxide that goes directly into the atmosphere and stays indefinitely, warming our air, land and sea.
It is quite clear that we must put a more determined global effort into changing the direction of travel of the climate. We are at one degree above, and COP26 might hold us at plus 2.5 degrees, but now three or four looks more likely and will change our planet dramatically. Painting our houses and railway tracks white to help on the hot days will not be enough.
For COP26, the leather industry statement was an important intervention but now is the time to be setting ourselves some objectives and saying more about the future. I argued this in relation to the collapse of Higg MSI as a way of measuring sustainability in materials. Leather plays a small role in the world of fashion and an even smaller one in the world of climate change, but it is global and it is about time we as a united industry promoted leather as a leading material in the world of circularity, sustainability, quality employment and biophilia.
Modern forms of regenerative agriculture, use of livestock to improve and maintain biodiversity, demonstrating how leather production has reduced water and energy use, how any wastes can be turned into energy or useful products, how turning leather into articles creates good jobs, reducing societal inequality and how maintenance, repair and longevity reduces the need for wasteful demands on the planet’s resources, and the need for plastic. A coordinated stakeholder positioning, with future targets for further improvements, would be really timely.
How good it would be to say in 50 years that “once upon a time” the leather industry further united and got together with the livestock and manufacturing world in the belief that leather was such a valid and useful material that it was determined to play a leading role in helping save our society from destroying nature and itself.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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