Less Meat, Less Heat: The Overlooked Climate Strategy

Leat Meat, Less Heat: The Overlooked Climate Strategy

by Samuel Alexander, Nicholas Bowles, and Mark Pershin

Sometimes the best way to respond to a problem is overlooked because it is right under our noses – literally, one might say, on our dinner plates. Even when we see what is under our noses and know how best to respond, we might nevertheless choose to look away because it seems too hard or confronting.

We want to argue that both these blind spots apply to what is possibly the most important climate response strategy – eating less meat. It is both so obvious that we easily miss it and so challenging that it seems most people would prefer not to think about it.

As the COP 21 climate conference in Paris draws nearer, we would like to bring more attention to the significant role meat production and consumption plays in driving climate change – it’s more significant than the entire transport sector – and suggest that eating less meat is, without exaggeration, one of the most important things we can do.

What’s meat got to do with it?

Aussies love meat. From an Australia Day BBQ to the Christmas Day ham, meat has developed a prominent place in modern Australian society and is reinforced with marketing messages promoting cultural norms that equate meat consumption with health, mateship, and even masculinity. All up Australians consume an average of 120 kilograms of meat annually, higher than any other country in the world and three times the global average.

Nearly as impressive as our meat consumption are our greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those from the agriculture sector, where we rank 5th in the world in aggregate emissions behind only China, India, Brazil and the USA.

While few people contemplate the link between meat consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study has found that agriculture accounts for no less than 54% of our total emissions in Australia. Over 90% of those emissions relate directly to livestock, and 90% of those emissions relate to ruminant animals.

These findings put meat – especially red meat like beef and lamb – squarely in view as a key driver of climate change. Any agreement that comes out of the Paris climate conference will fail to safeguard our climate if it does not consider current and future consumption of meat.

Due to their unique physiology ruminant animals emit methane as a result of their digestive process, accounting for 38% of our livestock emissions. Ruminant animals in Australia are mostly raised on pasture, which increases methane emissions by between 38-70% compared to those raised in feedlots. (Note that there are some competing studies on the question of whether pasture or feedlot production is more carbon intensive, but this doesn’t change the argument presented here because in terms of conventional agriculture both pasture and feedlot production are very carbon intensive).

Emissions from land use constitute livestock’s other main source of emissions due largely to the inherently high land requirements of pasture-raised animals. The burning of savannahs for pasture maintenance accounts for 45% of livestock emissions, while deforestation from the expansion of pastures and the ensuing foregone CO2 sequestration accounts for 16% of emissions.

It’s not just CO₂

While curbing CO2 emissions remains fundamental to avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change, maintaining temperatures within the often quoted 2°C threshold cannot be achieved by CO2 emission reductions alone. Attention therefore turns to methane, the next most prominent greenhouse gas, and that means being honest about the huge climate impacts of meat.

Methane is distinct from CO2 in terms of its relatively short atmospheric life of 12 years, compared to 20 to 200 years for CO2. It is however a particularly potent greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential up to 105 times that of CO2. The nature of methane means that estimates of its contribution to climate change are highly influenced by the chosen timeframe with which to measure its global warming potential. The more traditional 100-year timeframe serves to dilute methane’s emissions by a factor of 8, whereas a 20-year timeframe (as adopted in the above mentioned Australian study) more accurately recognises methane’s near term climactic effects.

The short atmospheric life and relative potency of methane provides a significant opportunity to reduce atmospheric concentrations if we can stem the flow of emissions. This could have significant climactic effects in the near term. So what’s the most efficient way of reducing methane emissions?

While much research is being conducted to reduce the intensity of livestock’s methane emissions, this approach has limited utility and sustainable emissions from the sector are unlikely to be achieved by following this approach alone. This is particularly relevant given projected population increases. Another proposed strategy is to increase the use of feedlots to raise livestock as in the United States, however this practice presents a number of its own environmental challenges (as well as animal rights concerns) and thus is not recommended for Australia.

Reduce demand, reduce emissions

Reducing the ruminant animal population stands as the simplest and most cost-effective way of reducing out methane emissions and other environmental impacts. In Australia, while our human population may be manageable by global standards, can we sustainably accommodate 206 million livestock including 105 million methane-belching ruminants?

Reducing the population of ruminant animals can be best achieved through a reduction in demand for red meat. In Australia, 36% of our meat consumption is red meat, therefore this is where we can make the biggest difference.

And while different types of meat have fewer environmental and climatory impacts than red meat, the greatest gains can be achieved by from switching to plant-based proteins. This can land someone anywhere on the spectrum from flexitarianism to the adoption of a full plant-based diet. (For a carbon comparison of five diets, see here).

So how much do we collectively need to reduce red meat consumption in order to have an impact?

A reduction in methane emissions of 40% for instance would slow temperature rises by 0.5°C, and thus delay the increase in global temperatures beyond 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 15 years. This can therefore provide more time for the development of international treaties and the renewable energy sector that will inevitably be required for long-term climate stability.

Australia stands well positioned to take a lead on this issue given our disproportionately high meat consumption and agricultural emissions. Given the dietary transition that is taking place in developing countries, where rising income levels are leading to increased meat consumption, we also have the opportunity to reframe what it means to eat well – that is, to not only satiate our culinary preferences but to eat sustainably and mindfully with planetary resources in mind.

Reduced aggregate demand for meat would stand to benefit the environment more generally as well, with livestock acknowledged as a leading cause not only of climate change but also biodiversity loss, land degradation and the depletion of freshwater reserves

Health benefits may also materialise, with the consumption of red (and processed) meat being linked to several chronic diseases including colorectal cancer. In Australia we eat on average 82% more red meat that is recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Any reduction in meat consumption would also be a positive step for the 60 billion sentient land animals that are slaughtered each year to satiate our taste for meat. While meat consumption may be necessary in some situations for those living in extreme poverty, we in the developed world have choices no matter how deeply ingrained our dietary habits and cultural norms may seem.

Be a cultural pioneer and eat less or no meat

Climate change is one of the most prominent environmental issues we face, however it can seem that our dependence on fossil fuels reduces our ability to make meaningful contributions through individual actions. While personal action alone will never be enough to combat climate change, reducing our meat consumption may be the most meaningful lifestyle change we can make when seeking to reduce our environmental impacts.

Our argument today is simple: less meat, less heat.

10 Responses to “Less Meat, Less Heat: The Overlooked Climate Strategy”

  1. Interesting and strange that this should arrive in my inbox about an hour after a(n also) very good post by George Monbiot on the same subject:

    I have been thinking about this myself, having been veggie for 40 years. For many reasons, of which climate change/developing world starvation is one, it seems to me now that the only congruent way forward (for me) is veganism.

    Worldwide, we consume a staggering 57 billion land animals each year – that’s one thousand million; and over a trillion fish (a million million).

    Good books on this are 2 written by three lawyers, who make the case for cutting out meat consumption for very many reasons very well: ‘Eat Like You Care – an examination of the morality of eating animals’, by Gary Francione & Anna Charlton; and ‘Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger?’ by Sherry Colb.

    This has to be the way forward; for the planet, for the developing world; for our own health; for the suffering of so many animals.

    Thank you for your post. This issue SO needs to be out in the public domain.

  2. jonathan Rutherford says:

    Thanks all. I totally agree that we must be advocating for reduced meat diets. But I think its very important that we stress that lifestyle changes such as this, will only be effective in combating the wider ecological crisis (and our other myriad global problems), if they form part of a larger new-society (or ‘anti-systemic’) movement. The main (very difficult) message we should be giving to people, especially at times around i.e Paris talks, is that they (i.e the elites) simply cannot solve our global crisis ‘up there’.

    We need a new socio-cultural system – that will involve MULTIDIMENSIONAL Change – i.e a new economic system, a new political system, a new geographical system and, above all, new cultures. This new system can only be built by ordinary people at the grassroots. Yes, Yes – emphatically – it will involve lifestyle changes, including, of course, reduced meat consumption (and much else – afterall we DO need to radically simplify!). But these must be advocated IN THE CONTEXT of the building of our new settlements, systems and cultures (i.e lifestyle changes are far from enough). I worry that this article (and many like it) – mainly because it is silent on these larger difficult issues – simply reinforce the very widespread view (including among activists/greens etc) that lifestyle changes and/or reforms WITHIN the system could be adequate. We need to convince people that, actually, this is not the case..we actually do need (eventually), gulp, revolutionary change, to new systems/cultures….and we CAN start (in tiny ways) to build those in our towns/neighborhoods (or at least the awareness that they are needed).

    I know, at the end, it was stressed lifestyle changes are not enough, and there was a link to Sam’s article on de-growth. But planned ‘de-growth’so profoundly contradicts the modus operanti of capitalist-consumer society (in fact, to go well, would require a socialist political economy), could only come about AFTER the development of a powerful new society movement at the grassroots (governments, in this society, will never contemplate slowing down, let alone reversing growth!). So, again, we need to be very clear, that our lifestyle changing efforts, are just one part of the overarching new society movement we are building.

    I know Sam agrees with all this (don’t know about the others). My point is about emphasis/framing and reinforcing our overarching message…which, I fear, will get lost if we don’t stress it.

    Quick thoughts.


  3. Jody says:

    I would like to make a tshirt (organic hemp or bamboo) with the slogan at the front of this post – Fuck you Eat yourself – with the picture of the cow. And also the words Less Meat Less Heat on it also. Is this allowable? Not sure about copyright stuff.
    Would really have liked to wear it to the Climate Rally on Sunday – wish i had of seen this earlier.
    Much thanks,
    Jody Shone

  4. Lyn V says:

    Far greater than methane-production from pastured animals (let’s be careful not to “blame” the animals and start seeing the solution as being some kind of genetic manipulation of animals to curb THEIR emissions!), is the devastation wrought by industrialized factory farms where billions of poultry and animals are brutally reared, producing vast lakes of contaminated and toxic waste and fed on food produced continents away and thus needing huge quantities of fossil fuels in its production and transportation. Industrialized agriculture is one of the key drivers of greenhouse gases.
    But yes, thank you for highlighting this important issue. Go veg!

  5. Liz Connor says:

    I have a Catch 22 solution to this, prompted by Kevin Anderson’s compelling work, e.g.

    According to him (and the Pareto Principle), we really have to change the lifestyle of only the very few wealthiest people.

    Because they’re the role models most people are following in their idea of a good life, once the wealthiest people adopt a simpler lifestyle (e.g. eating less or no meat, advocating degrowth and less inequality, flying less and consuming fewer luxury goods), everyone else will adopt a simpler lifestyle too.

    And there of course is the Catch 22. While there are a tiny few very wealthy people who seem to be adopting a more far-sighted approach, e.g. Warren Buffett[?], Bill Gates[?], there’s hardly a stampede among the wealthy to follow them even as far as they’ve gone – let alone where they’d need to go to become advocates of true sustainability.

    Having said all that, Kevin Anderson’s work is worth a closer look.

  6. Great post! While I eat less meat than the average person (mostly because I don’t know how to cook it), this definitely makes me want to reconsider meat consumption in general.
    Latest post from Sofia @ Currentlylovingsimplicity…To Give or Not to Give? Minimalism and Gifts

  7. Jonathan Rutherford says:

    Good interview here with Tony Weiss, author of the ecological hoof print.

    I reviewed the book, which I highly recommend, here

  8. Kerrin says:

    I am all for simple living and less meat but not no meat, for several reasons. But first I’ll say I only eat meat from animals that I know have had a good natural life and an instant humane death. So I don’t eat much meat. However we still do have to be well informed when presenting an argument and what concerns me is that no one here is mentioning the soil carbon sequestration made possible by animal manure. Mathematical calculations need to be done subtracting the soil fertility imbued by animal manure and it’s level of carbon sequestration of the greenery grown on that fertile land, from the methane produced by the animals. I don’t know how that sum comes out – positive or negative. But both sides of this equation have to be considered to know whether eating less meat will indeed produce less heat. Biodynamic farming is absolutely sustainable and cannot be done without cows but the cows are considered sacred in a biodynamic system. Which is not to say they are not eaten, but they are cared for in a manner befitting a sacred animal. Lastly, humans get irreversible neurological damage from alack of vitamin B12. B12 is only found in any amounts in animal products. So veganism is potentially dangerous. At the Royal Womans Hospital, lifelong vegans who are pregnant are immediately started on B12 supplements to prevent spina bifida and related conditions ( microcephaly etc) in their babies. This is not a simple issue. Climate change does need to be addressed – absolutely. But organic matter in landfill also produces massive amounts of methane gas and given the problems with veganism may be a better place to start.

  9. zachary taylor says:

    Well, I kill most of the ruminant type meat that I eat, so it isn’t treated poorly during it’s life, so I guess I am exempt from the criticism posts. However, I remember that in American history we were taught that the buffalo roamed in the millions over the plains emitting methane all the way. Same thing in Africa where the herds of critters went on for miles. Were we damaging the environment by allowing these herds to exist or were our white forefathers environmentally correct in shooting them down to a pitiful remnant. And should we by extension continue to take out all the remaining ruminant herds merrily emitting methane out there? And should we kill the horses too? How about lets just stop having so damn many people?

  10. Jonie says:

    I also don’t think the argument for eating less meat for climate change or health reasons is a simple one as people make out. As Kerrin alluded to, animals are essential in a healthy farming system – & we aren’t yet comfortable with recycling our own manure back into food production areas! – just kidding (kind of).
    This is what we need to get back into – diverse ecological systems producing food, not monocultures, of ANY type, plant or animal. Permaculture! Ask Bill Mollison or David Holmgren if they believe we should all just grow plants with no animals around.
    But it’s not just the manure from the animals we need, it’s the grazing action.
    There is tons of information out there about the very real potential of building the carbon back into the soil (our way too intensive modern farming practices has removed it from the high levels it used to have for eg. on the beautiful deep soils of the native grasslands in the US when it had large herds of bison) with Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing or cell grazing. I know, intensive grazing, it sounds backwards, but makes sense when you read all about it.

    This ‘eat less meat for climate change’ has been around quite a few years now, & I believed it with blind faith previously, but never really looked into it. I’ve always been concerned about the environment & never previous ate much meat & have been completely vegan for a short time, not actually stopping because it was that hard, for me it wasn’t. But with the more research I kept doing into diet & soil, none of these arguments make sense to me anymore.

    Yes, of course we need to change the way we raise meat animals, that’s not the question though. Whether we should eat meat from an environmental standpoint or from a health standpoint, & how we raise that meat or whether we believe it is right to even eat another fellow animal are completely different questions & shouldn’t be confused, as it often is. Don’t forget the fact that the way we farm plants has to change drastically too, because it is in no way sustainable (or regenerative!) as it is at the moment.

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