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UK milk wastage = 20,000 cars = actually completely unimportant

For goodness' sake, can't headline writers count?

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A scientific paper written with the aim of highlighting nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions has resulted in a crop of foolish headlines pointing out that the UK's waste of milk creates an environmental burden equivalent to having another 20,000 cars on the roads.

To anyone with even a basic grasp on numbers - someone aware, let us say, of a rough number for the UK population (just over 62 million) it would be plain off the cuff that there are already tens of millions of cars and other vehicles on the roads in old Blighty (in fact 31,362,716 cars and 4,269,641 commercial vehicles as of 20111).

That vaguely numerate person would then say: "Hold on, if there are already more than 35 million vehicles on the roads, who on Earth cares about another 20,000? That's totally insignificant, it's what - ," <clickety click>, "like adding another car for every 2,000 vehicles that are already there. And cars are only a proportion of the national greenhouse-gas burden to begin with.

"Blimey, in fact the number of cars on the British roads increased by more than 100,000 from 2010 to 2011 - and by even more the year before that ... nope, milk down the drain is just not a noticeable climate issue."

The milk waste = 20,000 cars line comes from this paper published in Nature Climate Change. It's not too surprising to find that the lead author is Dr Dave Reay, the first ever senior lecturer in carbon management at Edinburgh university.

Reay, whose PhD and early training were actually in marine biology, nowadays spends his days exhorting the citizens of the developed world to avoid activities which, in his view, involve the emission of significant amounts of greenhouse gases - he is well known for previously suggesting that people should drink instant coffee instead of the proper stuff (actually he was trying to tell us to wash less, but as in this case a silly headline was plucked from amid his messages).

What Dr Reay and his colleagues are actually suggesting here is the old eco-activism line that people should become more vegetarian, as meat and dairy products are deemed to be more carbon-intensive than a hearty diet of veg.

"Eating less meat and wasting less food can play a big part in helping to keep a lid on greenhouse gas emissions as the world's population increases," asserts Reay.

The idea has been around for a while: it was given some extra legs in 2006 when the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation issued a report (subsequently endorsed and publicised by Sir Paul McCartney and the IPCC) suggesting that livestock are responsible for no less than 18 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions - more, indeed, than transport.

That figure, like various other UN climate numbers in recent times, was subsequently exposed as bunk: it had been concocted by deliberately driving down the transport number and deliberately inflating the livestock one. It was subsequently shown that in developed nations, transportation produces 26 per cent of the emissions and livestock just 3 per cent. In other words, should you be concerned about greenhouse gases from the developed world, you should pretty much ignore people's diet and focus on their travel habits.

And indeed, if anybody had done some very basic mental arithmetic on reading the cars-vs-milk-down-the-drain headlines, they would realise exactly that.

But it's not the message that Reay and the various journalists were trying to send. ®

1Motor Industry Facts annual report (PDF) from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

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