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
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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.

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