Less Meat, Less Heat: The Overlooked Climate Strategy

Originally posted on simplicitycollective.com

Written by Nicholas Bowles, Mark Pershin, and Community Solutions Fellow, Samuel Alexander

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.