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Canine Carbon Footprints

Carbon reductionism and canine conundrums

By Sharon Ede

For most people who are dog owners, canine companions are much-loved family members who enrich our lives daily, and for years.

Imagine my dismay when a colleague of mine pointed out that the average dog has an environmental footprint bigger than human beings in many of the world’s countries.
What can someone who is concerned with sustainability and the Transition movement say to such an observation?

I was reminded of a book written by New Zealand architects Robert and Brenda Vale, Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, in which the authors calculated that owning a medium-sized dog has the same ecological impact as driving 6,213 miles a year in a Land Cruiser. It must be emphasized that the authors were not advocating a mass culling of pets, but highlighting impacts of our lives that we may not have previously considered.
It’s a dog’s life

According to the Vales’s assessments, modern, domesticated dogs consume about 361 pounds of meat and 209 pounds of cereals each per year, based on the land needed to grow pet food. Meat consumption increases the ‘footprint’ of our furry friends.
Constructing and driving the aforementioned Land Cruiser creates a corresponding demand of 0.41 hectares of land, whereas a dog’s food alone consumes double that, at 0.84 hectares.

Is a cost-benefit analysis that only counts carbon just as myopic as a conventional cost-benefit analysis that only counts dollars?

A world of constant trade offs and eco-martyrdom based on carbon alone is difficult to navigate; are dogs worse than SUVs, or do their benefits in maintaining the physical and emotional health of their human companions compensate? Are paper towels better or worse than air hand dryers? Should I buy paper or plastic? What is the carbon footprint of my curry?
Where does it all end?
Ah, the existential mysteries…

Human beings do create demand for domesticated dogs above and beyond what would occur in nature, and the number of dogs (and cats) that find their way to shelters each year is in large part a testament to our mismanagement of our furry friends.

However if we’re making decisions by ranking how apparently bad a carbon impact is, a devil’s advocate might ask, Why don’t we cull elephants instead? If all species have intrinsic worth and the right to exist, why not dogs?
In the same way that I would not want to imagine a world without elephants, I don’t want to imagine a world without dogs. Along with serving human beings in a myriad of ways such as detection and bomb sniffing dogs, police dogs, and as seeing eye and guide dogs, dogs also lower blood pressure, and provide security, love and companionship for so many.

As a dog lover who’s always had a dog in my life and knows the joy they bring, how can I reconcile this eco-hypocrisy – what about people whose passion is not dogs but cars or a new phone or computer every year?
If we want to reduce carbon, let’s start by designing out waste

Even if we are using carbon as the measure, we should be focusing on a plethora of intrinsically wasteful and stupid processes and behaviors, such as halting boomerang trade —the exporting and importing of like goods.
Here are just some examples of how we are squandering resources and precious reserves of fossil fuels:
5,000 tons of toilet paper exported from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tons back again from Germany.

22,000 tons of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tons back to Egypt
4,400 tons of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tons is then imported back
116 tons of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ goes into the UK, rumbling past 106 tons headed in the opposite direction
Ships, trucks and planes wastefully carrying often identical goods from city to city across the globe and back again.

In addition to grappling with how we could all re-engineer the minutae of our lives, or pondering sending Fido packing, perhaps its time for a bit of systemic level Soup Nazi-esqe choice-editing. If you live in Germany, no more British toilet paper for you! This would relieve the burden of constantly having to assess every new purchase for its carbon footprint and other environmental impacts, as well as other considerations such as health and nutrition impacts.
The Vales undo their own argument when they point out:
Once you see where (cats and dogs) fit in your overall balance of things – you might decide to have the cat but not also to have the two cars and the three bathrooms and be a meat eater yourself.

In which case, how is the overall impact reduced?
People will use their carbon savings —”I don’t eat meat,” “I don’t fly,” “I’m not having kids” — to “spend” on other consumption “so I can fly,” “then I will eat that steak,” “then I will have two dogs.”

Every single activity has an impact — it’s important to know what those impacts are to enable us to make good decisions, but carbon reductionism and the almost inevitable blame games and defensiveness that emerge in such discussions are not the best approach.

We need to think much more robustly, beyond carbon, about how we can envision quality of life within ecological limits.

But while we’re arguing about this and figuring it out, we can start right now with designing out wastefulness and existing nonsensical activity like boomerang trade and the hideous waste of food.

“Ruff, ruff!” My dog added that. It’s “Yeah, right on,” in canine speak. Now pass the kibble.
–Sharon Ede

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