Climate Change, Meat Eating and the Environment

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Climate Change, Meat Eating and the Environment

By Noam Mohr from EarthSave, interviewed by Claudette Vaughan on

Abolitionist: Why is so much of the advice about how to cut greenhouse emissions grossly misleading?

Noam: Environmental organizations have focused their efforts almost exclusively on one greenhouse gas—carbon dioxide—because this gas makes up the vast majority of our emissions. The problem is that other gases, produced in much smaller quantities, are far more powerful at warming the earth. Methane is 23 times as powerful, and nitrous oxide is 297 times as powerful. When you take this into account, carbon dioxide is only responsible for about half of the warming we’ve seen.

Even more importantly, the sources of carbon dioxide—the cars and power plants burning fossil fuels—also emit aerosols, the tiny particles that make up smog, which cool the atmosphere by reflecting sunlight. When you look at the magnitude of the cooling effect, you find that it roughly cancels out the warming effect of carbon dioxide. That means that these sources have made little contribution to the global warming problem we’ve been observing, and cuts in these sources will make little difference in the short term.

This doesn’t mean that it’s ok to burn fossil fuels. Cuts in carbon dioxide are still absolutely critical, because we can’t keep emitting more and more smog to mask the effect of carbon dioxide. Aerosols only stay in the atmosphere for a very short time, while carbon dioxide continues heating the earth for a century. If we don’t target carbon dioxide now, it will catch up with us.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that sources of other gases are the primary driver of global warming today and in the near future, and with the planet approaching the point of irreversible climate damage, addressing these other sources should be our top priority. The biggest source globally of both methane and nitrous oxide—which cause more global warming than all other non-CO2 gases put together—is animal agriculture. These gases are produced by these animals’ special digestive processes, and by their manure. This means we can make a big difference against the greatest environmental crisis ever to face humanity simply by leaving animal products off our plate.

It’s important to note too that even if we ignore the effect of aerosols, animal agriculture is also a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a very energy intensive industry, requiring more than 11 times as much fossil fuels to create a calorie of protein than plant agriculture does. On top of that, it is a major cause of the burning of forests, releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide that had been absorbed by the trees. At least 70 percent of formerly forested Amazon rainforest is now used for livestock, and even more is used to raise livestock feed. Even without considering the cooling effect of aerosols, the UN has pointed out that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions – more than all the cars, trucks, planes, and trains of the world put together. While environmental groups tout the advantages of switching your car from a hybrid Prius, few people are aware that, according to a University of Chicago study, you’d save far more greenhouse emissions by switching to a vegan diet.

Abolitionist: Is there a conspiracy to hide the fact that meat production and consumption is one of the major causes of greenhouse gas emissions around the world?

Noam: Environmental groups are only just beginning to recognise this fact, and they are reluctant to acknowledge it, both because they fear it will take the focus away from their longstanding campaigns targeting fossil fuels, and because most environmentalists eat meat and are reluctant to condemn something they themselves do. However, with so much at stake, it is a serious mistake not to let people know of such a powerful step they can take towards addressing this grave threat. It’s especially urgent considering that meat consumption is projected to double by 2050, so if we think the problem is bad now, just think how bad it will become if we don’t start addressing it today.

Most people feel so helpless to do anything about the problem, and unless they are buying a car or major appliance, they are mostly left only to choose energy-efficient light bulbs. It is immensely empowering to know that you can make a big difference at every meal. There is no reason that efforts to promote plant-based diets need distract from efforts to address carbon dioxide emissions, which are equally important. We need to address this crisis with every tool at our disposal.

It’s also worth remembering that the problem isn’t just meat production. For example, dairy cows produce more methane than beef cattle.

Abolitionist: What are the stats for dairy cows producing methane Noam?

Noam: In 2005, the average US dairy cow emitted 168 kg of methane, while the average US beef cow emitted 45 kg. Of course, there are many more beef cows that dairy cows, so totals for the US are 3.9 Tg from beef cattle and 2.2 Tg from dairy cows.

Abolitionist: What are the advantages of vegetarianism over CO2 Reduction?

Noam: First, cuts in animal products are a form of CO2 reduction, since animal agriculture is responsible for about a tenth of global CO2 emissions.

Second, cuts in methane give big results that come much more quickly. Even if we were to invent zero-emission cars and power plants tomorrow, it would be extremely expensive to build them all and take decades for them to replace all the old ones. By contrast, the turnover rate for farm animals is usually less than two years, and we don’t have to wait for any new inventions to achieve even 100% reductions with little negative economic impact. Plus, carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for a century, while methane cycles out in just a decade, so reductions in animal agriculture quickly translate into a healthier earth.

Third, cuts in animal agriculture are good for addressing a host of environmental problems. The UN has blamed this sector as “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” It’s a main cause of water pollution, deforestation, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, and so on. It’s hard to conceive of the vastness of this industry when you look at a single chicken, but in fact it uses 30 percent of the earth’s landmass, and accounts for 20 percent of the earth’s land animal biomass. This is one of the world’s most polluting industries, so reductions are beneficial not just for the climate crisis, but for the environment across the board.

Abolitionist: How much better would it be to go vegan?

Noam: A whole lot better. A University of Chicago study found that, even without considering the effect of aerosols or additional emission from raising animal feed, switching from the average American diet to a vegan diet would save 50% more greenhouse gas emissions than switching from the average American car to a hybrid Prius. Getting rid of animal agriculture would mean getting rid of the biggest source of observed global warming. It is probably the most powerful thing we can do as individuals to address this crisis.

Abolitionist: When Bush was asked about climate change he said, “Yes, he likes polar bears and wants to save them too”. Do you think if he hadn’t viewed Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” we wouldn’t have even have gotten that far with him?

Noam: I don’t think the Bush administration has gone anywhere significant on addressing global warming. Certainly Al Gore’s film has raised a lot of awareness about the problem, and people are looking for ways to help, particularly in reaction to Bush’s complacency. Hopefully knowing that what’s good for your health is also good for the planet will give them the tools to do something. People need to be educated about what they can do.

Abolitionist: Why has America been devastatingly slow to move on climate change? Is it economics or is now the time is ripe to introduce the gullible masses to nuclear energy as a “solution” to climate change which is what Howard, Blair- now gone and Bush have all moved to do.

Noam: There are a lot of powerful industries who have a financial interest in our continuing to pollute. Unfortunately, it is impossible to run a serious political campaign in this country without large amounts of money, which gives these interests disproportionate access and influence. Polls consistently show that the American people, by contrast, are overwhelmingly supportive of action to address global warming.

Abolitionist: Is it too late to stop destroying the earth?

Noam: Absolutely not. No matter what we do, the gases we’ve already emitted will stay in the atmosphere and continue to warm the earth for hundreds of years. However, what we’re seeing is just the beginning. We can and must act now before the situation becomes catastrophic. During the last ice age, global temperatures were only nine degrees cooler than they are today, and ice more than a mile thick covered New York and St. Louis. Temperatures may rise by an even greater increment over the next century if we fail to act.

Abolitionist: China is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has recently announced it has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, bringing the environmental treaty one step closer to implementation, so they say. Is this to be believed when China spews an estimated 11 per cent of global carbon emission into the atmosphere and as it is regarded as a developing nation, it is not required to curb emissions?

Noam: China has taken some steps to improve its greenhouse gas emissions, such as requiring fuel economy standards higher than those in the U.S. However, as a developing nation, they do not have to meet the Kyoto emissions cutting requirements that developed nations do, because the developed nations have contributed the lion’s share of historical emissions that have built up in the atmosphere and continue to damage the planet. The great thing about cutting down on meat is that it is something just as accessible to a Chinese peasant as it is to a Wall Street stockbroker. By promoting vegetarian diets for its people, China can effect large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without worrying about stifling economic development.

Abolitionist: Compassion In World Farming’s Joyce d’Silvia spoke at a conference on the growth of factory farming in China a few years ago. She said, “For meat consumption is growing fast, not just in China with it’s 1.3 billion people and where 53% of the workforce is employed in agriculture or forestry, but throughout eastern and southern eastern Asia as well. As economies improve, she said, incomes increase and people view meat as a desirable addition to their diet. This trend is reinforced by the growth of fast food chains. Meat production per head has increased in 13 years to 2001 from 23skg per person, per year to 49 kg pp pa, eggs from 6kg to 18kg and milk from 3kg to 8kg. What can be done? Is anybody addressing this?

Noam: This is a serious issue, not just in China but around the world. The environmental community is only beginning to recognise the enormous impact of animal agriculture on global warming. We need to start by educating people, in the U.S. and abroad, so that those working on the issue will make tackling diet a priority.

Abolitionist: What of the animals themselves? Traditionally in rural China households kept one or two backyard pigs. Now the West shows China how to farm intensively to make it a bigger, more efficient “hygienic” operation thus contributing even further to greenhouse emissions. In China the transport of animals is often a rudimentary type and in small scale farming distances may not be long. As commercial farms increase, distances and refrigeration increase also. Is anybody addressing this? What are your views Noam?

Noam: The dramatic growth of highly polluting and notoriously cruel factory farming underscores the importance of this source of greenhouse gases. As bad as things are now, they are projected to get far worse as intensive animal production expands. Meat consumption has already increased fivefold in the past fifty years, with devastating results. We urgently need to change course.

Abolitionist: Can anything be done about fast food chains? For example I don’t know what the American figures are but in China their fast food industry has a turnover of $24billion dollars. The market is growing 20% annually. McDonalds has 400 restaurants in China and KFC 681. Undoubtedly this growth is contributing to increased meat consumption and intensification of farming methods. American meat giant, Smithfield Foods, has a joint venture with Dutch company, Artal Holland BV, called AFG company, based in Guangdong Province. They are now producing meat products for fast food and retail consumers. What are your views? Who is willing to take on the fast food big boys?

Noam: One of the problems with addressing global warming is that people often feel it is out of their hands. The public often passively depends on government to determine policy. After all, even though we have the technology to increase vehicle fuel economy by 40 percent without reducing vehicle size or safety, auto manufacturers are not making these models available to buyers. Taking on the oil companies, the auto companies, the fast food giants, seems like an impossible task for the ordinary citizen.

Once you realise that you make a difference with each meal, suddenly the picture changes. You do have a choice, and your choice does affect the global climate. If people cut their consumption of animal products in half, then this source of pollution would drop by half, and there’s nothing any corporation or special interest can do about it. The future is truly placed squarely in our hands… or rather, in our mouths. That’s not to say that governments are excused of any policy role targeting this major source of greenhouse gases. Governments need to start by ending the enormous subsidies for factory farms that effectively pay them to pollute. In schools and federal programs, in public education campaigns, and in tax and spending policies, they need to promote healthy, environmentally-friendly plant-based eating.

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