This week saw the publication of new research on the global impact of farming methods. It’s a serious, in-depth study that underlines not only the contribution of farming to climate change, but also its wider impact on water, land and air. It highlights the devastating and rapidly growing environmental cost of beef and dairy farming practices, which use up vast amounts of land and water as well as producing startling amounts of greenhouse gas.
It’s a great report, so what’s my (ahem) beef ?
The headlines have been based around the authors’ claim that giving up meat and dairy is the “single biggest way to reduce your impact on Earth“. One obvious problem is that this statement discourages too many people from doing anything. Giving up all meat and dairy is a step too far for most. However, many people would seriously consider reducing or switching their consumption, if they thought there were benefits and if it hadn’t been put in the ‘too difficult’ box by headlines like this.
Anther problem is that many vegans and vegetarians – who have already given up meat/dairy for excellent, thoughtful reasons that have little or nothing to do with climate change – will feel they are already ‘doing their bit’. Which they may be. But this thinking is what psychologists call ‘moral licence‘, and it often drives behaviour that increases greenhouse gas emissions way higher than they would otherwise be.
But is the headline true?
The headline is wrong; as unhelpfully wrong as previous research headline nuggets such as ‘have one fewer child for the planet’. I sometimes wonder if these reports are written by the oil lobby to make people despair, and maybe distract attention from the fact that 60% of all global greenhouse gas emissions are from fossil fuels. Another 14-18% of all greenhouse gas comes from deforestation, so let me put it this way: even if we destroyed every single farm animal on the planet today, and we all went vegan tomorrow, global greenhouse gas emissions would only reduce by between 14% and 18%.
That is a big cut for sure, but it clearly isn’t anywhere near enough to solve our greatest and most pressing environmental crisis. Let’s talk specifics.
Meat vs car vs flying
If I were to cut out all meat and dairy from my diet, my carbon footprint would drop by 0.6 tonnes of greenhouse gas per year, from 3.1 tonnes to around 2.5. Which is pretty good, and maybe I should do it. But giving up my car would reduce it by 0.9 tonnes a year. So the climate impacts of giving up the car is bigger than going vegan. I could do both of these things, but I like eating meat and going for a drive from time to time (see I’m doing it all wrong). I know I’m not alone in this.
I gave up flying because of climate change 12 years ago, but if I did fly, I might be tempted to take the family over to Spain for a week in the sun. It’s a relatively short flight, but it would stack 1.1 tonnes onto my personal carbon footprint. So the impact of giving up flying is also bigger than going vegan for me.
Extreme Meat-eating vs high emissions veganism
If you were to eat half a kilo of the most damaging beef every day of the year – raised on recently cleared rainforest, fed on soya, then flown in from Brazil or Argentina etc etc – that would be about 27 tonnes of greenhouse gas every year just from the meat, not even including the mustard, or probable hospital visits for heart disease and obesity. Ouch. Compare that to the safe limit of two tonnes a year. It’s clearly extreme and unsustainable.
Conversely, whilst a meat and dairy-free diet is almost always lower in its carbon footprint, this isn’t exclusively the case. I read a case study recently where two individuals only ate fruit – with a higher resulting climate change impact than the average meat diet! And if you ate only out of season, shop bought aubergine, celery, cucumber and lettuce, your diet could also easily be pumping more greenhouse gas into the air than the average carnivore.
What other options exist?
If you feel that a carefully sourced vegan or vegetarian diet is a step too far, reducing your meat/dairy intake is the financial and health gain sweet spot, which also makes a big positive difference to your carbon footprint. You could switch from beef or lamb to pork or chicken, or even fish. These are much lower carbon, as pigs and chickens only have one stomach, so emit far less methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. (Most of the methane from ruminants is actually burps, not farts, slightly disappointingly.)
Going vegetarian or vegan remains a very personal choice, embracing lots of considerations, only one of which is climate change and your impact on the environment. If you decide to give up meat and/or dairy to reduce your greenhouses gases, then you have my love and respect. But there are many other ways we need to tackle climate change too. Ultimately, the goal is simply a two tonne lifestyle. How we achieve that then becomes a matter of personal choice.
Til next time