Carnivorism and climate change

TANYA THOMAS | Updated on January 22, 2018



Ah! Don’t tell me we’ve got to stop eating meat! It’s an unhappy truth, and now there’s research to prove it.

Can’t we just ignore that bit of research?

Not when the Paris summit on climate change is so close. Countries are laying out plans to reduce their carbon emissions from industry and making transport systems greener, so every polluting industry is under the scanner. And that includes meat.

But meat can’t be that bad for the climate, can it?

A new research study by Chatham House, a think tank based in the UK, says reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius. What’s worse, they say, is that while ordinary people know fossil fuels are polluting, they have no idea how much global meat consumption contributes to wrecking the planet’s climate.

Give me an example

The livestock sector, the report says, produces annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that amount to just under 15 per cent of the global total, and equivalent to tailpipe emissions from all the world’s vehicles. The researchers also forecast that meat production will increase 76 per cent – if it progresses at its current pace – by mid-century. Meat consumption in the developed world has peaked, while the developing world is catching up through a ‘protein transition’.

But how exactly does meat contribute to climate change?

Globally, the report says, food systems are responsible for up to 30 per cent of all human-driven greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For instance, “the production of animals and of crops for feed alone accounts for nearly a third of global deforestation and associated carbon dioxide emissions”. This is a primary source of methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most potent GHGs. Additionally, methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are released along the length of the supply chain. This starts with the production of crops and the conversion of new land necessary to meet growing demand for animal feed, “through the heating and cooling of farm buildings and the processing of animal products, to emissions from the digestive processes and manure of the animals themselves, and the transport of products to the consumer.”

But don’t we need animal protein for a healthy diet?

The researchers did some number-crunching to find that even the most emission-intensive option of staying vegetarian is better for the climate than eating meat. . For example, soybeans account for a minimal volume of GHG emissions relative to beef, while offering a more efficient source of protein.

Don’t we need meat for a balanced diet?

We do, but meat consumption has already reached levels where it has become unhealthy, increasing the risks of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Among industrialised countries, the research found, the average person consumes around twice as much as experts deem healthy. In the US, the multiple is nearly three times at 250g per person per day. In India, we consume less than 10g of meat per day.

So do we all need to turn vegetarian?

We definitely need to reduce meat consumption. Governments have so far stayed mum about this because they believe their voters wouldn’t like any interference into their dietary preferences. But the researchers believe it’s about time the world gets to know exactly how harmful the meat patty in their burger is.

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Published on November 25, 2015
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