Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cap & Trade for Body Fat?

I was spinning at the gym the other day reading an article in The New York Times about a British study on body fat and climate change (see below). Obviously, my annual six-week springtime ritual to lose weight, get into better shape, and buff my beer-keg belly into six-pack abs (note to self: stop thinking in beer metaphors!) has climate implications.

As I moved to the weight machines I had an epiphany: if cap and trade is the tool of choice to reduce everyone’s global greenhouse gas emissions, why not use it to reduce everyone’s body fat? Both body fat and GHGs are rising, threatening our well-being and causing leading scientists and medical doctors to tell us to reduce them.

How would a Body Fat Cap and Trade (BFCT for short) work, I pondered during my reps of medicine ball crunches? Just like a GHGs cap-and-trade program:

• Set a scientifically established national target on aggregate body fat and then reduce the target over time, say an 80% reduction of the nation’s body fat by 2050.

• Divvy the allowable body fat credits to the various sectors of the country based on their respective share of the body fat total.

• Auction off the body fat credits so that all those possessing body fat pay money (directly or indirectly) to the government for their body fat so as to:
o Send market signals of the true societal, environmental and health costs of body fat;
o Offer incentives to reduce our body fat; and most importantly
o Raise money to fund body fat reducing programs. For example, my gym membership would be paid for…what a great result for the YMCA and me! Billions could go to body fat reducing medical research and development. Low income people with high body fat who can’t afford their body fat credits would get financial help.

• Establish a body fat trading market so those who exceed their body fat credits could get more credits from those who reduced their body fat. I’m sure a secondary market of body fat credits would develop as fitness experts and dieticians helped people reduce their body fat to get saleable credits. I certainly would stop my post-workout habit of having a Peanut Buster Parfait if I could sell my body fat credits.

• Establish body fat offset criteria so that people could get body fat credit by helping others avoid increasing their body fat.

• Establish “early loser” credits so the new program does not penalize those of us already working out.

Clearly, like in a GHGs cap-and-trade program, a body fat cap-and-trade program has to resolve a lot of difficult issues like:
1. How to deal with growth…more people means more body fat…
2. How to handle new body fat entrants?
3. How to deal with direct and indirect body fat increases?
4. What is the body fat point of regulation? Clearly it should be the individual, but that’s so direct so I bet we’d avoid that like we’re doing with GHGs from the transportation sector, so we’d have to find some ineffective, indirect body fat surrogate whose only impact would be to raise the cost of food.
5. How to fairly account for historic regional body fat differences?
6. What if a country with growing body fat doesn’t participate in the program?
7. How do we assure compliance?
8. What are the body fat enforcement mechanisms?

Certainly these are difficult issues, but if they can be resolved for a GHGs cap-and-trade program, they can be resolved for body fat.

Think about how much money the government would raise and what they could do with it? Imagine all the body fat reducing jobs that would be created; they would probably exceed the number of promised green jobs. This could unite the President’s health care reform, climate change, and budget initiatives.

Clearly, I’m not serious about this “body fat cap and trade” idea. It must stem from exercise-induced endorphins. But, the potential parallels of body fat and GHGs cap-and-trade programs are eerie. And, it was fun to think about it as I was pushing myself through the five-minute barrier on the Elliptical.

The New York Times
April 27, 2009
Green Inc. Column
Climate Research That Might Not Help

Phil Edwards, a statistician and the head of the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told me last week that he was receiving a lot of hate mail.

“I got a lot of nasty stuff from your side of the globe,” he said.

The reason for the opprobrium is this: “Population Adiposity and Climate Change.” That’s the title of a paper that Mr. Edwards and a colleague, Ian Roberts, published this month in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

For those unsure of the term “adiposity,” just think “body fat.”

Yes, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Roberts published a statistical model (not the first of its kind, Mr. Edwards was eager to point out) that examined the relationship between increasing rates of obesity and climate change.

“What a stupid correlation,” wrote one reader at our Green Inc. blog, where we took note of the research last Wednesday. “This study is yet another confirmation of our fat-phobic society.”

“I would like to see a fat tax,” wrote another. “I am sick of paying for these big medical bills because someone wants to eat everything in sight.”

And from a reader identified as Hentrain: “Tall people are also using up more of our precious resources than short people are, and men consume more calories than women. We should strive for an all-female society of tiny, thin vegetarians.”

To be sure, the study touched a nerve — not least, one might reckon, because so much of the Western world is getting fatter. It is no secret, for instance, that more than 30 percent of adults in the United States have a body mass index, or B.M.I., of 30 or higher — the clinical definition of obesity. In Britain, about a quarter of the population qualifies. Same for Canada.

And the burden of all this extra weight — on individual health and on the health care resources of society — is indisputable.

But in a world hard-pressed to find priorities in the battle to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a reasonable response to Mr. Roberts’s and Mr. Edwards’s mathematical exercise, however accurate, might be: so what?

It is hard, admittedly, to argue with their findings. Taking two hypothetical populations of one billion people each — one with a 3 percent obesity rate (roughly the rate in Britain during the 1970s) and the other with a 40 percent obesity rate (as Britain’s is estimated to be by 2010) — the researchers simply did some modeling.

Food production, for instance, accounts for a substantial amount of the globe’s greenhouse gases — 20 percent from animal agriculture alone (read: meat and dairy), according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Using this metric, along with established formulas for calculating the food energy needed to maintain a certain B.M.I., and a typical level of daily activity (sleep, office work, driving, and so forth) the researchers reckoned that the heavier of their two populations would require 19 percent more food energy than the slimmer one.

They also crunched some transport data, including the energy-use differential between a Ford Galaxy (assigned to their larger population) and the smaller Ford Fiesta (for the trimmer folks), as well as the added energy needed to move big bodies around in general, whether walking, driving or flying.

All told, the study concluded, the increased body size of the larger population accounted for between 0.4 and 1.0 gigatons of additional carbon dioxide equivalents per year. (For scale, global greenhouse gas emissions for 2000 were estimated to be roughly 42 giga-tons of CO2 equivalent.)

Among their conclusions: “The maintenance of a healthy B.M.I. has important environmental benefits in terms of lower GHG emissions,” they wrote, referring to greenhouse gas emissions.

It is a fairly straightforward point, and one that, according to Mr. Edwards, many of his angry correspondents were taking a little too personally.

“I just think it’s important that we all realize that we’re all gaining weight, which isn’t good for us,” said Mr. Edwards, who admitted in a phone call last week that he would consider himself overweight. “And if food production is an antecedent of climate change,” he said, “then we’re also harming the planet.”

That would seem to be true as far as it goes. But Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Washington that researches energy and climate issues, cautioned that while a global focus on carbon footprints was a good thing, “we need to keep a focus on the big stuff.”

In an e-mail message, Ms. Ekwurzel, who quibbled a bit with the methodology of Mr. Edwards’s paper, suggested that, even allowing for its conclusions, preventing obesity rates from increasing ought not be considered a priority for cutting emissions — for individuals or policy makers.

“For most Americans, the most effective way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to drive less, use more energy-efficient appliances and less electricity and reduce the amount of fossil-fuel energy intensive food you consume,” Ms. Ekwurzel said. “At the policy level, we need to concentrate on cleaner cars, cleaner fuels, smarter growth, cleaner, more efficient electricity and preventing tropical forests from being destroyed — not people’s waistlines.”

She added that, given the potential for expanded heat waves, increased smog, migrating pathogens and other ills associated with a warming planet, “It’s more important to focus on the effects global warming has on our bodies, rather than the effects that our bodies have on global warming emissions.”

For his part, Mr. Edwards said that he and his colleague never offered their analysis as a remedy for climate change — though he suggested that, under the circumstances, every little bit helps. “I’d hope that we’re not competing for ideas or solutions,” he said.

Nor, he added, should anyone interpret the paper — an academic exercise meant to highlight an interrelationship — as assigning blame to any particular individual.

“Population fatness is an environmental problem,” Mr. Edwards said, “But someone who has a B.M.I. over 30 is not somehow more to blame for global warming.”

If that was indeed the message of the paper, not everyone received it.

Wrote a commenter at Green Inc.: “The environmentally sensitive and rather rotund Al Gore should take note.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments about today’s important energy issues.

Please keep in mind that comments will be reviewed before posting. Any comments that include offensive language, personal attacks, or statements that could be interpreted as hatred or harassment will not be posted.

Thank you for helping us keep an informative, thought-provoking site.