Would you like milk with your tea?

Every blog article starts with a mug of tea.

Friends, I am addicted to tea.

I like all kinds of tea, but my favourite is a basic brew, with milk.

The ritual of settling down with a mug of hot tea is an essential pre-requisite for any kind of concentration – such as writing this article.

This the main use of milk in the household and each week my wife and I consume around 2 litres.

So per year we use roughly 100 litres of milk.

Looking online, I find this corresponds to emissions (mainly of methane) which are equivalent to 315 kg of carbon dioxide per year: almost a third of a tonne!

I think there is a lot of uncertainty in that estimate, and it probably varies from country to country. But taking it at face value, it is a truly colossal impact from a very mundane activity.

Click image for a larger version. The graph shows the global warming impact of emissions associated with production of milk and cheese in terms of the equivalent amount of CO2 emissions which would have the same impact. The data is from Our World in Data

After all the work I have had done on the house, annual heating and electrical emissions have fallen from 3.7 tonnes to about 0.7 tonnes.

So emissions from drinking tea alone have become a significant fraction (∼50%) of general household emissions!

What to do?

As far as I know, the only way to avoid these emissions, is to stop drinking milk –  or to reduce the amount I drink substantially.

The problem

The problem with this solution is that I – like millions of other people – really like having milk in my tea.

I have tried using milk alternatives derived from oats, almonds, and soya. These products look like milk and come in packaging which suggests they are in some way similar to milk.

But they do not taste even remotely like milk.

Additionally, I am emotionally attached to the idea that milk comes from cows that live on farms. For someone who is basically a city-dweller, this connection feels meaningful.

So at the start of this new year I am facing a dilemma.

What to do?

As far as I know, the only way to avoid these emissions, is to stop drinking milk –  or to reduce the amount I drink substantially.

Switching to the plant-based alternatives is just not acceptable, which leaves me with just two options:

  • Abandoning milk in my tea altogether. This is an extreme option, but one I am keeping under review.
  • Currently I am experimenting with a 50:50 mixture of milk with Oat ‘derivative’ product. It is predictably, not as nice as just milk, but it is borderline acceptable. But the emissions are still substantial.

I will let you know how it goes when I have a few more weeks under my belt.

The wider problem

The wider problem with this solution is that I haven’t even mentioned butter or cheese, other dairy-based staples of my diet.

Because of the large amount of raw milk used, each kilogram of cheese is apparently is associated with 24 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions (mostly as methane).

My wife and I eat – and enjoy prodigiously – about 0.5 kg of Davidstow Cheddar each week. This corresponds to around 25 kg per year, and emissions with the equivalent impact of 600 kg of carbon dioxide per year.

Basically the emissions associated with our cheese consumption have an impact roughly equivalent to all the electricity we use to heat and run the house for a year!

Fortunately Our World in Data does not have information about butter. I say ‘fortunately’ because I feel sure it will be bad.

The wider truth is that in regards to my house, all the changes I have made to reduce carbon dioxide emissions have been expensive, but they have not really affected my quality of life.

But it seems that emissions from some of the basics of my diet, foods I love and have eaten all my life, are apparently responsible for more annual carbon dioxide emissions than my entire house!

Reducing these emissions is going to be much tougher and feel much more like a personal sacrifice with a very direct and (at least initially) negative impact on my quality of life.

I guess nobody said it would be easy.

I am going to sit down now with a nice cup of tea to think about this…

 

 

 

 

4 Responses to “Would you like milk with your tea?”

  1. Lauren Says:

    Hi Michael, I wanted to comment on your post as it’s recently been my 1 year “veganniversary” and as an avid tea drinker, I tried out lots of milk alternatives this time last year! I settled on UHT unsweetened soya milk for tea (available for 55p/L at major supermarkets) – I find it creamy and it doesn’t have a strong flavour or a tendency to split like other milk alternatives can. But I do like coconut or hazelnut for a hot chocolate 🙂

    Various alt milks are associated with concerning environmental factors (e.g. almond for water usage and impact on bees). But whichever metric you use, all milk alternatives are better for the planet than dairy: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46654042

    Good luck in finding the right milk for you!

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Lauren

      Thank you for sharing your experience of milk alternatives.

      I am working my through a few alternatives, and trying using them to dilute regular milk, but I think I may try to just go full ‘no milk’.

      But with cheese and butter? I find it hard to believe there can be anything as delicious that I have not heard of!

      But on the other hand, no matter how much I love butter and cheese, I really do hate emitting carbon dioxide!

      Best wishes

      Michael

  2. Esther Says:

    Hello Michael
    This article: “Demonstrating GWP*: a means of reporting warming-equivalent emissions that captures the contrasting impacts of short- and long-lived climate pollutants” John Lynch et al 2020 Environ. Res. Lett. 15 044023 (https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab6d7e ) (Open Access) has an interesting discussion on the difference in warming produced by methane and by carbon dioxide that results from the relatively short life time of methane in the atmosphere (decades) compared to that of carbon dioxide (millennia). The result is that to stabilise temperature we need to cut carbon dioxide emissions to zero but stabilize methane emissions. Unfortunately, methane emissions are rising so that is not entirely comforting. (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146978/methane-emissions-continue-to-rise )
    You can hear John Lynch and Myles Allen talking about their work at https://www.faifarms.com/podcasts/ruminant-methane-gwp-global-warming/.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Esther,

      Thank you for that. I didn’t really focus on the difference between CO2 and CO2e in that article because it was already too long.

      My simplicity approach is that we need to do everything! Tackling methane emissions is smart because we get a faster payback for anything we achieve. And there are some easy ‘wins’ in terms of tackling methane leaks. But as you say, ultimately CO2 emissions have to reach zero and they are hard because our culture and technology are so entwined with burning stuff.

      I will check out those links.

      Best wishes

      Michael

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