Should We All Become Vegans to Stave Off Climate Change?

A new report adds to the growing body of evidence that our appetite for meat is causing chaos for the environment.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 4, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If you have even an iota of an environmental conscience, the issue of global warming no doubt crosses your mind every time you, say, fill up your gas tank or get on an airplane. But what about when you order a cheeseburger?

Even as worldwide demand for meat continues to grow, our collective carnivorousness is clobbering our climate—and most governments appear to be too chicken to do much about it.

That’s the takeaway from a new report released by Chatham House, an international think tank based in the U.K. Livestock production accounts for a substantial amount of our greenhouse gas emissions—14.5 percent, to be precise—which is more than what’s produced by all sources of transportation combined.

Climate scientists widely agree that to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, we have to keep the rise in average global temperatures below two degrees Celsius. Yet as the Chatham House report states, recent analyses have shown it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to stay below that threshold “without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption.”

Indeed, as the Environmental Working Group chronicled in its own study of the issue a few years ago, global meat production tripled between 1971 and 2010, while the population grew at a comparatively slower pace. “At this rate, production will double by 2050 to approximately 1.2 trillion pounds of meat per year,” the EWG report states, “requiring more water, land, fuel, pesticides and fertilizer and causing significant damage to the planet and global health.”

Two other studies published this year (one out of the U.K. and one from Sweden) suggest that if current farming trends such as the runaway production of meat continue, emissions from the agricultural sector will gobble up the world’s entire carbon budget by 2050.

Yet, almost no one seems to be talking about it.

“Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little,” Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author, tells the Guardian.

Despite national and international efforts to curb emissions from other major sources of greenhouse gas pollution, such as power plants and transportation, there have been almost no serious attempts to cut such emissions from agriculture. Just three countries—Brazil, France, and Bulgaria—have established quantitative targets to reduce livestock-related emissions.

Getting people to associate that juicy rib eye with climate change may seem like a tall order, but a concerted campaign to educate the public about just how bad meat (especially beef) is for the climate would seem relatively easy compared with, say, overhauling our power supply.

But while many national governments appear willing to at least try to tackle other sources of greenhouse gas pollution, they seem wary of possibly coming off like tsk-tsking nannies meddling in people’s decisions about what they eat. “A number of factors, not least the fear of a backlash, have made governments and environmental groups reluctant to pursue policies or campaign to shift consumer behavior,” notes the Chatham House report.

Yet in the first international survey on the issue, commissioned for the report, it appears the global public might well be receptive to such a message—if only they knew their meat-eating was causing a big problem.

The online survey included respondents from 12 countries, ranging from rapidly developing nations such as Brazil, China, and India to established economies including the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. Generally, people were far less likely to identify livestock production as a significant contributor to global warming than other sources, even as an average 83 percent agreed that human activities contribute to climate change (U.S. respondents were the least likely to agree).

Notably, participants who were aware of the climate impact of meat consumption were more than twice as likely to report that they had taken action to reduce the amount of meat they ate or were likely to do so.

The Chatham House report comes less than a month after researchers at the University of Minnesota released their own study looking at the impact of global diet trends on both public health and climate change. This latest report gives a nod to the public health consequences as well, noting that “diets high in animal products are associated with increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer” while letting us know that if we all shifted to eating, on average, just three ounces of meat a day—the amount recommended by the Harvard healthy diet—we could avoid 2.15 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions.

That combined focus on personal health and the health of our climate may be important in convincing the public to cut back on meat, particularly in developing countries, where meat consumption is expected to rise the most but also, hearteningly (and embarrassingly for Americans), where the public appears more receptive to rethinking what they eat, according to the Chatham House survey.

If you need one more takeaway stat to make the case, consider this from the report: “A study for the U.K. suggested that dietary GHG emissions in meat-eaters are approximately twice as high as those in vegans.”