It May Take a Global Vegetarian Movement to Combat Climate Change

It may be impossible to reach the U.N.’s goals without significant changes in global diet, a new study finds.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
March 31, 2014, 7 a.m.

If we really want to cut down on glob­al green­house emis­sions, we’re go­ing to have to do something about cow farts*.

That’s the con­clu­sion of a study pub­lished today in the journ­al Cli­mat­ic Change. If we have any shot of reach­ing the In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change’s glob­al-warm­ing mit­ig­a­tion goals, the world is go­ing to have to start eat­ing a lot less meat.

Thirty-sev­en per­cent of all hu­man-caused meth­ane emis­sions come from the world­wide ag­ri­cul­tur­al in­dustry. Com­pared with CO2, meth­ane is 21 times more ef­fect­ive at trap­ping heat in the earth’s at­mo­sphere, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. While trans­port­a­tion and elec­tri­city ac­count for more than half of emis­sions in the United States, the EPA re­ports that ag­ri­cul­ture com­prises 8 per­cent of all green­house-gas emis­sions. And while re­l­at­ively small, that’s a sig­ni­fic­ant con­tri­bu­tion that can’t be ig­nored — es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing how pro­gress in halt­ing emis­sions from trans­port­a­tion has so far been min­im­al.

“In or­der to have any chance to reach a 2 de­gree tar­get, fossil-fuel use has to be re­duced drastic­ally,” Fre­drik Hedenus, the study’s lead au­thor, wrote in an email. “However, what we show is that may not be suf­fi­cient, as the ag­ri­cul­tur­al emis­sions … may be too high. Thus we have to take ac­tion in both sec­tors.” Trans­port­a­tion and en­ergy are the biggest sources of green­house gases, but re­search­ers say a glob­al shift in people’s di­ets is also ne­ces­sary to con­tain cli­mate change.”We there­fore con­clude that di­et­ary changes are cru­cial for meet­ing the 2 de­gree C tar­get with high prob­ab­il­ity.”

So, how much less meat do we have to eat?

“It all de­pends how much we can and want to do in the en­ergy sec­tor,” Hedenus ex­plains. “If we do a lot there it may be suf­fi­cient with a 25 per­cent lower meat and dairy con­sump­tion than pre­dicted in 2070. If we do less, some­where around 75 per­cent less may be reas­on­able.”

If 25 per­cent to 75 per­cent less meat con­sump­tion world­wide sounds like an ab­surd long shot, it is. Glob­al meat de­mand only con­tin­ues to rise, as fueled by China and the de­vel­op­ing world. Meat con­sump­tion in the United States has ac­tu­ally de­clined in re­cent years, ex­plains Emily Adams, a re­search­er with the Earth Policy In­sti­tute. “Meat con­sump­tion peaked in the United States as a na­tion in 2007 and since then it has fallen 4 per­cent,” Adams says. “That’s not a 75 per­cent re­duc­tion like they are talk­ing about, but that’s com­ing without gov­ern­ment fi­at or ab­so­lutely in­sane food prices.”

But while meat con­sump­tion in the United States has fallen, that’s a small drop com­pared with the rising de­mand in China.

(Earth Policy In­sti­tute)

Also Monday, the IP­CC re­leased its latest pro­gress re­port on cli­mate change, find­ing that “glob­al cli­mate-change risks are high to very high with glob­al mean tem­per­at­ure in­crease of 4 de­grees C or more above prein­dus­tri­al levels … and in­clude severe and wide­spread im­pacts on unique and threatened sys­tems, sub­stan­tial spe­cies ex­tinc­tion, large risks to glob­al and re­gion­al food se­cur­ity, and the com­bin­a­tion of high tem­per­at­ure and hu­mid­ity com­prom­ising nor­mal hu­man activ­it­ies, in­clud­ing grow­ing food or work­ing out­doors in some areas for parts of the year.”

The re­ports are get­ting scar­i­er, and pa­pers like Hedenus’s un­der­score how, if we’re really go­ing to at­ten­u­ate the rate of cli­mat­ic change, we’re go­ing to need severe changes in our cul­ture. Elec­tric cars may come to re­place con­ven­tion­al ones, but they’ll still be cars. Get­ting people to change their di­ets will re­quire a glob­al change in think­ing and be­ha­vi­or.

The study’s au­thors aren’t ex­actly op­tim­ist­ic about this hard fact.

“Sub­stan­tial de­vi­ations from cur­rent di­et­ary pref­er­ences are un­likely and would prob­ably oc­cur only as a res­ult of policy in­ter­ven­tions,” they write. “However, policy-driv­en di­et­ary changes are con­ten­tious and would al­most cer­tainly emerge only after pro­ductiv­ity im­prove­ment and tech­nic­al meas­ures largely have been ex­hausted.”

*Cla­ri­fic­a­tion: Cow burps and ma­nure ac­tu­ally con­trib­ute more to green­house gas emis­sions than the flat­u­lence does.

What We're Following See More »
FIRST CHANGE IN FOUR DECADES
Congress Passes Chemical Regulations Overhaul
10 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

The House on Tuesday voted 403-12 "to pass an overhaul to the nation’s chemical safety standards for the first time in four decades. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act aims to answer years of complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the necessary authority to oversee and control the thousands of chemicals being produced and sold in the United States. It also significantly clamps down on states’ authorities, in an effort to stop a nationwide patchwork of chemical laws that industry says is difficult to deal with."

Source:
NO MORE INDEPENDENT VOTERS?
GOP Could Double Number of Early Primaries
47 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"Leaders of the Republican Party have begun internal deliberations over making fundamental changes to the way its presidential nominees are chosen, a recognition that the chaotic process that played out this year is seriously flawed and helped exacerbate tensions within the party." Among the possible changes: forbidding independent voters to cast ballots in Republican primaries, and "doubling the number of early states to eight."

Source:
LEVERAGE
Kasich Tells His Delegates to Remain Pledged to Him
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

Citing the unpredictable nature of this primary season and the possible leverage they could bring at the convention, John Kasich is hanging onto his 161 delegates. "Kasich sent personal letters Monday to Republican officials in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where he won delegates, requesting that they stay bound to him in accordance with party rules."

Source:
EFFECTIVE NEXT MONTH
House GOP Changes Rules for Spending Measures
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Speaker Paul Ryan is changing the rules of how the House will consider spending measures to try to prevent Democrats from offering surprise amendments that have recently put the GOP on defense. ... Ryan announced at a House GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning that members will now have to submit their amendments ahead of time so that they are pre-printed in the Congressional Record, according to leadership aides." The change will take effect after the Memorial Day recess.

Source:
LOST BY HALF A PERCENTAGE POINT
Sanders Wants a Recount in Kentucky
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

Bernie Sanders "signed a letter Tuesday morning requesting a full and complete check and recanvass of the election results in Kentucky ... where he trails Hillary Clinton by less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote. The Sanders campaign said it has asked the Kentucky secretary of state to have election officials review electronic voting machines and absentee ballots from last week's primary in each of the state's 120 counties.

Source:
×