If you pay much attention to the news of climate change, extinction rates and the like, it can look quite depressing and overpowering. And you can be forgiven for throwing your arms up and saying, “The poles are melting, the oceans are dying, and there’s nothing much I can do about it.”
But that’s because most climate scientists and environmental organizations continue to skip over the one critical thing that any and all of us can do to save ourselves, the other animals and the Earth from the devastation that climate change is beginning to wreak.
The fact is there’s one simple thing that we can all do about it. And the more of us do it, the more we can turn this whole thing around while there’s still time.
The key that keeps being ignored is the huge difference we can make by moving to a plant-based diet.
Two years ago, two people from the World Bank wrote a paper saying that more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed directly to cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, horses, goats, buffalo and camels.
It's saying that if you want to stop climate change, stop eating so much meat. It really is as simple as that. The more you switch to a plant-based diet, the more of a difference you make.
The two writers, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, are not radical vegans from a fringe animal rights group; Goodland is a former World Bank Group environmental advisor, and Anhang is an environmental specialist at the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation.
These two experts reviewed a United Nations report (Livestock’s Long Shadow) which said that annual emissions from these domestic animals account for 18 percent of greenhouse gases. But Goodland and Anhang concluded that the UN’s figures were way too low, and that the true number is at least 51 percent:
Whenever the causes of climate change are discussed, fossil fuels top the list. Oil, natural gas, and especially coal are indeed major sources of human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs).
But we believe that the life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food have been vastly underestimated as a source of GHGs, and in fact account for at least half of all human-caused GHGs.
If this argument is right, it implies that replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change. In fact, this approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions and their atmospheric concentrations – and thus on the rate the climate is warming – than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.
Livestock are already well-known to contribute to GHG emissions. “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, the widely-cited 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), estimates that 7,516 million metric tons per year of CO2 equivalents (CO2e), or 18 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions, are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, horses, pigs, and poultry. That amount would easily qualify livestock for a hard look indeed in the search for ways to address climate change.
But our analysis shows that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32,564 million tons of CO2e per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions.
These figures should be a green light for anyone who wants to bequeath to their children a planet that’s not spiraling into climate disaster.
Strong claims like this require strong evidence. And the rest of their article provides detailed evidence. You can read it here.
Very simply, the world’s best chance for mitigating climate change is to eat less meat. And the need is heightened by the fact that human population is expected to grow by 35 percent by 2050. And livestock numbers will double in that time—meaning they’ll be pumping twice the amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The side benefits include a huge savings in water in an increasingly drought-stricken world, and all the health and nutritional benefits – in particular in relation to heart disease, diabetes-2 and several cancers – that are attributable directly to the food we eat.
The article touches briefly on the question of fish. And yes, we should cut way back on that, too. But Goodland and Anhang focus their calculations on the meat side of things because it’s more quantifiable in terms of greenhouse gases.
These figures should be a green light for anyone who wants to bequeath to their children a planet that’s not just spiraling into climate disaster.
After explaining the science of their conclusions, Goodland and Anhang also discuss the benefits to food companies of switching to plant-based food production. And while they’re not marketing experts, they do take a stab at how we can start making the change:
To achieve the growth discussed above will require a significant investment in marketing, especially since meat and dairy analogs (i.e. replacements) will be new to many consumers.
A successful campaign would avoid negative themes and stress positive ones. For instance, recommending that meat not be eaten one day per week suggests deprivation. Instead, the campaign should pitch the theme of eating all week long a line of food products that is tasty, easy to prepare, and includes a “superfood,” such as soy, that will enrich their lives.
When people hear appealing messages about food, they are listening particularly for words that evoke comfort, familiarity, happiness, ease, speed, low price, and popularity.
Of course, there will be significant opposition to such a change – just as there was pushback from the tobacco industry at the now-very-mainstream anti-smoking campaign. But once people recognize just how much damage the meat industry is doing to them, to their children and to the whole world, a movement that’s comparable to the anti-smoking one could begin to snowball.
What’s encouraging about all this is that it gives the lie to the belief that We the People are helpless in the face of climate change. In his recent book Our Choice, which delves deeply into the causes of climate change, Al Gore writes that little of any real consequence can be accomplished at this stage without the concerted action of governments around the world. But it’s hard to be optimistic about the likelihood of governments around the world working together when we can’t even get our own government working!
The new analysis of Goodland and Anhang goes in quite the other direction. Their focus on the food we eat shows how we can all individually make a difference. And while, certainly, it depends on a lot of us changing our habits, it gives each of us a meaningful starting point together with the potential for a snowball effect.
This could be a real “We the People” campaign that's good for our health, good for our children, good for all the animals, and good for the planet. And it would ensure that we pass on to all of them the legacy of an inhabitable planet.