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 »
WEST WING REDUX
Allison Janney Takes to the Real White House Podium
26 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE

Carolyn Kaster/AP

STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
52 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
×