Climate Headlines Mar 11, 2021 — Two Stories for Hope
A snackable text version of the Climate Headlines Clubhouse Club
It’s been an exciting week on Climate Headlines Clubhouse, with our community slowly but surely growing and our biggest ‘room’ yet yesterday with 55 or so people joining to hear and share news and updates on climate.
I’ve changed the name of this newsletter away from ‘Daily,’ but will aim to send out aggregated links and commentary as often as possible — around 2 - 3x per week.
🌏 CLIMATE SCIENCE
1. Climate change might *not* actually desertify the world
In a new study just published in Nature Climate Change, researchers have found that climate change may not interact with land surface areas in exactly the way we have been told by previous research.
Instead, this new research predicts meaningfully less expansion of drylands than has been previously predicted — mainly due to some of the assumptions that previous models relied upon.
What are drylands?
Drylands are basically regions with limited water and scarce vegetation, such as deserts, grasslands, savannah and shrublands. They currently cover around 41% of Earth’s surface.
A ‘Russia’s worth’ of drylands within the century?
Previous research predicted a 6% expansion of drylands over the century, which seems small but is a meaningful amount. If drylands are 41% of the Earth’s surface, then 6% growth on that amount of coverage would be equivalent to going from 78.7 million square miles to 83.5 million square miles, for a total increase of 4.8 million square miles. For scale, the entire United States covers about 3.8 million square miles while our bigger neighbor to the north covers 3.9 million square miles and Russia, the world’s largest country by surface area, covers about 6.6 million square miles.
The thought of hot drylands expanding by another Canada or Russia is appalling. But it may not be an accurate prediction.
New year, new metrics
Previous models of drylands expansion relied on a metric called Aridity Index (AI), which measures atmospheric conditions near the ground. But this new study, published by researchers at Harvard University, uses a new metric called Ecohydrological Index (EI). Instead of measuring the air (atmospheric conditions), EI is a more comprehensive measure that accounts for vegetation amounts, water stress levels of that vegetation, and the link between plant behavior and atmospheric CO2 (for example, we know that plants often grow more when there’s more CO2).
Why it matters
This may seem like an esoteric headline to highlight, but I wanted to showcase a couple of takeaways:
We are getting smarter about climate science all the time. Sometimes we’ll realize that certain things won’t be as bad as projected, as with this drylands expansion situation. Other times, we’ll realize that things will be way, way worse than previously modeled, as with Arctic warming. Thus, we need to keep our eyes on the headlines :)
Climate effects are the opposite of monolithic. According to this new EI-based research, drylands won’t expand as much as expected in sub-Saharan Africa — in fact, they may even shrink very modestly… so Africa is getting less dry even as it gets hotter. However, at the same time, drylands will expand in other areas like the Mediterranean basin, though not by as much as we used to think.
Changes in any system themselves have an impact on feedback loops that then change the system, making predictions a moving target. In the case of drylands and AI vs EI, EI is taking into account changing plant behavior — specifically how water-efficient plants become in response to higher levels of CO2 in the air around them, and how that water efficiency itself in turn affects the humidity of that air. Kind of cool and kind of a headache!
A final note: the category of “drylands” is obviously somewhat problematic, including ecosystems as disparate as deserts and shrublands. Thus, we should keep in mind that deserts could expand even as other types of drylands shrink, while keeping the overall total of “drylands” more or less the same.
No projected global drylands expansion under greenhouse warming — Nature Climate Change
🌏 CLIMATE COMPANIES
2. A plant-based China?
Earlier this week, The Guardian published a feature on the growing Chinese market for plant-based proteins. While many people (especially my parents and aunties / uncles) remain skeptical, they may not be the demographic. We notoriously tend to over-extrapolate our personal experiences and underestimate experiences we don’t know firsthand — even when the aggregated data is staring us in the face.
China now has a small handful of plant-based meat companies launching not only new products, but new experiences, in a competition for share of what’s projected to be a growing market for plant-based proteins that are perceived to be healthier and more sustainable.
China has had creative vegan offerings for (literally) thousands of years in the form of Buddhist temples and the restaurants attached to them, but now it also has newcomers:
OmniFoods, launched in Hong Kong in 2018, runs a multi-brand vegan shop and restaurant in Shanghai and got placement for its flagship product OmniPork in McDonald’s in Hong Kong and in Aldi, White Castle and Starbucks in Mainland China. OmniPork expanded to the UK in January of this year, and is planning to launch in 11 or 12 additional markets in 2021.
Z-Rou is a Shanghai-based company whose products are stocked in the cafeteria’s of China’s top international schools, hospitals and businesses. The Guardian article has a great description of the company’s approach: Its CEO, Franklin Yao, is targeting opinion leaders and middle-class consumers who can afford to make conscious choices. “They would even be willing to pay more as they know they’re getting a healthier product that’s helping ensure the future of the planet their children are inheriting. That’s priceless.”
Zhenmeat is a smaller player that makes plant-based beef, pork and crayfish, and has been out in market for a fundraise.
Starfield is a maker of seaweed-based mince substitutes that’s already been served in the nation’s leading restaurant chains.
Next Gen Foods is a startup based in Singapore that just raised a healthy $10M seed round led by Temasek. Although that company’s offering is only available in SG for now, we can expect them to go after the rest of Greater China soon.
There are also a number of longstanding Chinese brands that have been making less trendy, but equally plant-based, proteins for old school vegans (aka, the Buddhists).
Finally, Beyond Meat and Impossible have also been vying to get into the China market by riding the rails of large chains like Burger King and Starbucks that already have widespread marketing and mindshare ‘infrastructure’ across China.
Why it matters
Chinese government backing? In 2016, the Chinese government launched a campaign to encourage citizens to cut meat consumption that fell flat despite cameos by Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, and the Chinese government has set a target of cutting domestic meat consumption by 50% by 2030 — that’s a lot. Might we see some sort of government backing to support these emerging companies?
Supply chain leverage. Companies like OmniPork plan to significantly cut supply chain and production costs by onshoring production and manufacturing to China. This could be a huge competitive advantage to Chinese plant-based meat companies over US-based competitors.
It’s the China market. China’s market for plant-based meat was estimated to be at $910 million in 2018, before many of the brands listed above had launched or made significant distribution inroads. For scale, the US plant-based meat market for that same year was $684 million. Since then, the US market has exploded with Beyond Meat’s massive IPO in 2019, and even as many skeptics adopt a “my beef or my life!” approach, just as many other folks are quietly emptying grocery freezers of Beyond and Impossible products. What will we see in China?
A personal story
I have family members that live in Chongqing, a large but un-famous industrial city in Southwestern China. When I went to visit in 2015, my cousin took me to eat at a trendy new plant-based restaurant that had just opened. The decor was a beautiful modern ‘Zen’ and the food was classic Sichuan dishes, but creatively vegan. It was delicious, but I was sure it wouldn’t last — the restaurant was located in a somewhat out-of-the-way shopping complex that didn’t seem to have a lot of foot traffic, and there weren’t may diners.
You can imagine my surprise when, on my most recent visit in the fall of 2019, that same restaurant was not only still there but had expanded and opened another branch. I ate there twice in one week, and both times it was filled with young, affluent, mobile-native flexitarians, probably none of them diehard vegans, but happily and apolitically enjoying a 100% plant-based, 110% spicy Sichuanese meal.