Worried about climate change? So why aren't you vegan?

| 1st July 2015
Meat is all very well for lions, like this one in the Masai Mara, Kenya. But can the planet take billions of humans eating it too? Photo: Stuart Richards via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
Meat is all very well for lions, like this one in the Masai Mara, Kenya. But can the planet take billions of humans eating it too? Photo: Stuart Richards via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
You might be forgiven for thinking that climate change is all about fossil fuels, writes Chris Lang. But with livestock farming causing around a sixth of global emissions, there's one quick, cheap way to cut our carbon footprints: go vegetarian, or better still, vegan. So what's taking us so long?
How should climate activists communicate the importance of eating less meat? How come more people who are concerned about climate change aren't vegan? And, come to think of it, what took me so long?

This week I decided to go vegan. The decision came after many years of being a (sometimes meat-eating) vegetarian, or a (sometimes vegetarian) meat-eater.

There are many reasons behind my decision. I recently read Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals, which I picked up almost by accident. Having read it, I can't justify eating animals on moral grounds, given the current way animals are farmed.

Then there's the impact of cattle ranching on the Amazon, with vast areas of forest destroyed. And the deforestation caused by soy plantations, grown to provide animal feed. And the impact of ruminant livestock on the climate from their methane-heavy farts and belchings.

In 2014, Professor Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, told the Guardian: "The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat."

I do try to reduce my carbon footprint. If I had a car to abandon, I would - but I don't own one. Instead I cycle or take public transport most of the time. I've taken one short-haul flight in the last two years. I buy organic vegetables.

And every now and then, I hand over money to one of the most unpleasant, polluting and environmentally disastrous industries on the planet: the meat industry. Or at least I did. Until Monday, I poured milk on my cornflakes every morning.

Last year Peter Scarborough and colleagues from the University of Oxford collected data on the real diets of more than 50,000 people in UK, including vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters. They analysed the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each diet.

In a paper published in Climate Change, they reported that an average high meat diet has 2.5 times as many greenhouse gas emissions than an average vegan diet. Over a year, the saving in emissions is the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

What proportion of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the livestock sector?

In 2006, the FAO produced a report on the climate impacts of livestock. Titled 'Livestock's long shadow', the report estimated that the livestock sector accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Seven years later, the FAO produced another report, 'Tackling climate change through livestock'. This time, FAO reports that the livestock sector represents 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

On its website, the FAO states that "The two figures cannot be accurately compared, as reference periods and sources differ". FAO experts told the Guardian that the new figure was based on "a revised modelling framework and updated data, using new guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

In a 2009 article for World Watch magazine, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimate that livestock accounts for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Predictably, on its website PETA uses the 51% figure.

Regardless of the exact figure it's safe to say, as the FAO does in its 2013 report, that "the livestock sector plays an important role in climate change."

Reduce emissions from livestock, or reduce meat and dairy consumption?

The FAO argues that a 30% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is possible in the lifestock sector by a range of methods, including increasing efficiency, improving manure management practices, sequestering carbon in grassland, and sourcing low emission intensity inputs.

The FAO notes the need for collective, concerted and global action:

"Recent years have seen interesting and promising initiatives by both the public and private sectors to address sustainability issues. Complementary multi-stakeholder action is required to design and implement cost-effective and equitable mitigation strategies, and to set up the necessary supporting policy and institutional frameworks."

But neither the word 'vegetarian' nor the word 'vegan' appear anywhere in the FAO's 139-page long report. (Neither does the word 'cruelty' make an appearance, although 'welfare' appears four times.) Instead, the FAO argues that world population will increase to 9.6 billion by 2050 and that,

"Driven by strong demand from an emerging global middle class, diets will become richer and increasingly diversified, and growth in animal-source foods will be particularly strong; the demand for meat and milk in 2050 is projected to grow by 73 and 58 percent, respectively, from their levels in 2010."

As well as working to reduce emissions from the meat and dairy industry, wouldn't it make sense to reduce consumption of meat? That's what a 2010 UNEP report suggested:

"A substantial reduction of impacts [from agriculture] would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products."

Of course, I'm not arguing for reductions in emissions from livestock so that we can continue to burn fossil fuels. To address climate change we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, as well as reducing emissions from cow farts, and deforestation.

Dietary change is essential

Last year, Chatham House published a report looking at global public opinion on meat and dairy consumption. The report points out that "consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change", and that "shifting global demand for meat and dairy produce is central to achieving climate goals."

The problem, as Rob Bailey, the report's lead author, told the Guardian, is that,

"A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people's lives and tell them what to eat."

Which is a good point. In September 2013, the German Green politician Renate Künast proposed the idea of one day a week vegetarian food in canteens. It became one of the most debated proposals from any party during the German election campaign, getting as much airtime as Syria and the eurozone combined.

The Greens were accused of pushing for an "ecological dictatorship". Rainer Brüderle, from the Free Democrats Party (FDP), then-junior coalition partners, said:

"People are smart enough to decide on their own when they eat meat and vegetables and when they don't. Constantly telling people what they do is not my understanding of freedom and liberty."

But in its report, Chatham House argues that "dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed two degrees Celsius."

So how should climate activists communicate the importance of eating less meat? How come more people who are concerned about climate change aren't vegan?

And, come to think of it, what took me so long?



Chris Lang runs REDD Monitor, which aims to facilitate discussion about the concept of reducing deforestation and forest degradation as a way of addressing climate change.

This article was originally published on REDD Monitor.


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