Abandoning meat is now the latest advice for saving the planet: A new study suggests that that a “huge reduction in meat-eating” is “ ‘essential’ to avoid climate breakdown,” as The Guardian put it.
This follows claims from the Humane Society that “your diet could save the planet” and the German Green Party’s proposal for a national weekly vegetarian day. Even the UN’s former top climate official believes “the best solution would be for us all to become vegetarians.”
The science clearly shows that meat production — especially beef — emits methane and requires CO₂-heavy inputs. But when we dig deeper, it turns out such claims are massively overhyped.
Only 4.3 percent reduction
I’ve been a vegetarian for four decades because I don’t want to kill animals. If much of climate change could be prevented by more people following suit, it’s an idea that should be discussed.
Doing so means setting aside our distaste with the idea of politicians or the UN dictating what people eat, and ignoring the sticky fact that 1.45 billion of the world’s vegetarians are actually the poorest people on Earth who would like nothing more than to eat meat.
Almost all articles on this topic suggest going vegetarian could achieve emission cuts of 50 percent or more. But these figures are never a reduction of total emissions, just those emitted from food. This is an important distinction because four-fifths of emissions are being ignored. The real impact is five-times less.
Anyway, a systematic peer-review of studies shows vegetarian diets likely reduce an individual’s emissions by the equivalent of 540kg (1,190 lbs.) of CO2. For the average person in the industrialized world, that’s the equivalent of cutting emissions by just 4.3 percent.
Trivializing climate change
Vegetarian diets are also slightly cheaper, and saved money will be spent on goods and services that emit more CO2. A new Swedish study shows a vegetarian diet is 10 percent cheaper, freeing up about 2 percent of an individual’s budget. The extra money would likely be spent proportionally on existing purchases. This boosts one’s carbon emissions by about 2 percent. So eating carrots instead of steak means you effectively cut your emissions by about 2 percent. This won’t save the planet.
Climate change is both trivialized and hampered by unrealistic senses of magnitude, and by silly suggestions that your or my actions can transform the planet.
Broadcaster David Attenborough was once asked what he would do to fight climate change. He promised to unplug his phone charger. If he does this consistently, he is reducing his emissions by less than half of one one-thousandth of the average Brit’s emissions.
Cultivated meat not electric cars
Similarly, neither subsidized solar panels nor wind turbines near shopping malls provide a meaningful solution to global warming. The International Energy Agency estimates that globally we get less than 1 percent of our energy needs from solar and wind, and even in 2040, doing everything promised in the Paris Treaty, we’ll get just 3.6 percent. Over the next quarter century, solar and wind will not be a major part of the picture.
Nor does buying an electric car change things by much. The IEA estimates that, optimistically, we’ll go from around 2 million electric cars today to 300 million in 2040. This will reduce global emissions by less than 1 percent because these cars will still get half their electricity from fossil fuels, and because oil will become cheaper and used more elsewhere, as demand from cars falls.
We have become so invested in the mistaken premise that the individual can take meaningful action against climate change that we are doing far too little to clamor collectively for the effective investment needed for global warming to be tackled.
Global research and development into green energy needs to be massively increased, to bring forward the day when alternatives can outcompete fossil fuels.
Some needed breakthroughs are not even in energy. It turns out that diet could actually end up playing an important role in the fight against global warming, but only through technology. Artificial meat could generate up to 96 percent less greenhouse gas than conventionally produced meat and would allow everyone, including the world’s poorest, to eat what they want. Unlike the call for mass vegetarianism, it is an idea that could actually be transformative.