Eating less meat won't move climate change needle

Science also can make livestock more productive and environmentally friendly.

Dr. Nevil Speer

November 12, 2018

4 Min Read
Eating less meat won't move climate change needle

Maybe with age I’m becoming wiser, or just cynical (or perhaps a bit of both). As soon as I heard the news of the recent climate change report from the United Nations (U.N.), I immediately thought to myself, “Here we go -- meat is destroying the planet.” Unfortunately, my intuition wasn’t too far off.

To ensure we’re all up to speed, the U.N. released a report in early-October based on work of its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The panel reports, “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0oC of global warming above pre-industrial levels… Global warming is likely to reach 1.5oC between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.”

That’s significant because IPCC has designated a 1.5oC temperature rise as the threshold at which significant, catastrophic and irreversible consequences begin to set in. In other words, according to IPCC, we’re essentially two-thirds of the way toward the brink, and unless we do something drastic, we’re potentially going to walk off the edge in the next 10 to 12 years.

With that in mind, let’s go back to 2016 and consider the Paris Agreement. It was established with two basic outcomes in mind. First, there’s the more ambitious goal of preventing global warming from rising more than 1.5oC (above pre-industrial levels) -- the same critical, dangerous threshold outlined by the IPCC in October. Second, there’s more practical guidance targeting a 2.0oC rise in global temperatures.

Ironically, despite all the political hullabaloo around the Paris Agreement, the U.N. has now ostensibly declared the agreement’s most ambitious goal (1.5o C) inadequate. Even if every country signed on to the Paris Agreement, and followed through with meaningful action, according to the IPCC, global warming would still be devastating.

It’s important to note the IPCC report highlights meat production as an important contributor to global warming: “There is increasing agreement that overall emissions from food systems could be reduced by targeting the demand for meat and other livestock products…” And in line with my initial assessment, the media jumped on that bandwagon.

For example, The Guardian’s headline read like this: Huge reduction in meat-eating ‘essential’ to avoid climate breakdown. Their article goes on to explain that, “U.K. and U.S. citizens need to cut beef by 90% and milk by 60% while increasing beans and pulses between four and six times… Reducing meat consumption might be achieved by a mix of education, taxes, subsidies for plant-based foods and changes to school and workplace menus…”

Alternatively, The Hill’s headline declared, “In order to ‘feed the world’ we must stop factory farming our animals.” And then piles on by asserting: “Worldwide, animal agriculture is responsible for 90% of methane emissions and the U.S. habit of raising animals for food contributes more than half of our carbon footprint.”

Stop right there -- “raising animals for food contributes more than half of our carbon footprint?” That’s not even close to being right. The Environmental Protection Agency designates all of agriculture, collectively, as contributing only 9% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. (versus 28% for both transportation and electricity, respectively). EPA further designates livestock as representing “almost one-third of the emissions from the agriculture economic sector.” In other words, livestock are responsible for about 3% of total GHG emissions in the U.S. -- a long ways from half.

None of this is surprising. We’re still dealing with the legacy of the U.N.’s (Food & Agriculture Organization) 2006 publication, Livestock’s Long Shadow. The report positioned the livestock industry as one of the major contributors of GHG to the atmosphere -- contributing more to GHG emissions than even transportation. The U.N. has since corrected some of those errant assertions, but the damage was done; group think is hard to change -- especially when it comes to activist agendas.

Amidst the recent flurry of news reports I was reminded of an editorial several years ago in the Wall Street Journal written by Dr. Jason Lusk (now department head at Purdue University). He stated, “The next targets of the climate change enforcers will be livestock and all Americans who eat meat.” Lusk then aptly pointed out, “We may be able to reduce our impact on the environment by eating less meat, but we can also do the same by using science to make livestock more productive and environmentally friendly.”

What are we to make of all this? When it comes to reducing GHG emissions, despite the seriousness of it all, it’s hard not to make some quip about there being bigger fish to fry (or burgers to grill). Given all the science and all the evidence, eating less meat isn’t going to move the needle on climate change.

To that point, Lusk appropriately entitled his editorial, “Cheeseburgers won’t melt the polar ice caps.” So true, but unfortunately that won’t stop most people from fretting about it.

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