What is the Climate Emergency?
Earlier this month, Ireland became the second country to declare a climate emergency, following the UK government’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This goal, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 report, will be necessary to limit warming to the critical threshold of 1.5°C, urging governments that immediate action is needed to avert disaster. Recognising climate change as the greatest challenge humanity now faces, EU leaders are placing climate action at the top of the agenda for the next five years.
Do we need to change our diet?
What does diet have to do with climate change? Many climate scientists, politicians and activists have admitted, sometimes grudgingly, that reducing or eliminating our consumption of meat and dairy can have a massive impact on our warming planet. Such a simple dietary shift – a decision made three times daily – may in fact do much more to reduce carbon emissions than any other lifestyle change like driving electric cars or avoiding air travel. Like any lifestyle change, going vegan alone will not save the planet, and of course changes in policy are desperately needed to augment the wave of individual action. Nevertheless, as individuals, going vegan – or at least avoiding meat and dairy – is probably the single most impactful way we can reduce environmental damage.
In May 2018, researchers from the University of Oxford released a ground-breaking study, comprehensively laying bare the true environmental cost of animal agriculture. The authors, Poole and Nemecek, insist that going vegan could reduce global farmland use by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – while still growing enough food to feed the Earth’s population. “Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential”, they conclude. As well as dramatically reducing global land use, such a transition could reduce food’s greenhouse gas emissions by 6.6 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent (a 49% reduction); reduce acidification by ~50% and eutrophication by ~49%. These are dramatic statistics.
“If cows were a country”, says Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, “they would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases”. Like slaughterhouses, greenhouse gases are invisible. This makes it easy for us to pretend that they don’t exist. We don’t perceive them with our eyes, but we are seeing their effects. Farming of animals accounts for 16.5 percent of global carbon emissions – the second contributor after the entire transportation system – yet much less talked about. The animal sector is responsible for a third of all anthropogenic methane (arising from human activity) and two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions – both are potent greenhouse gases which trap more heat, and so cause more warming, compared to carbon dioxide. However, the myopic view that environmental issues relate solely to greenhouse gas emissions must be corrected. In this regard, the impact of animal agriculture extends far beyond greenhouse gases, contributing enormously to global acidification, eutrophication, land and water shortages and vast ocean dead zones from agricultural pollution. It uses about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Although meat and dairy provides just 18% of calories, farming of animals for meat and dairy currently uses 83% of farmland, and accounts for 60% of agricultures greenhouse gas emissions. This is an increasingly imbalanced and inefficient system. Put simply, much more plant foods need to be grown to feed animals, therefore requiring much more land and water use to produce a calorie of meat or milk to ultimately feed a human, while much less resources are needed to directly feed the calories from vegetables and grains to the human. It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef; 1000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. They used to tell us, to save the planet, not to let the faucet run while you’re brushing your teeth; to take a shower instead of a bath. They never told us that agriculture was responsible for 80-90% of water consumption, as they blindly loaded its product onto our plates. Every day, humans throughout the world consume on average 5.2 billion gallons of water and 21 billion pounds of food, while livestock consume 45 billion gallons of water and 135 billion pounds of food. We act as though this makes sense.
With a growing population and an increasing demand for meat and milk, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, leading to habitat destruction and species extinction. On May 6th 2019, a paper appeared in the journal Nature, threateningly entitled: “Humans are driving one million species to extinction.” Reporting disturbing findings from the UN’s Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Intergovernmental (IPBES), the report highlights that agricultural activity has had the largest impact on ecosystems. The current rate of species extinction is already tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past ten million years, and is expected to increase as temperatures rise and farming continues – business as usual. I like to think that no human being would knowingly contribute to the destruction of a species, but we have, and I fear our own species may be destined to a similar dismal fate.
There is no longer room for ambiguity. The weight of the science is irrefutable, yet for years humans have clung to familiarity, while a few “extremists” crawled towards reform. Today, world leaders are in agreement – this is the greatest crisis the human race now faces, and without transformative economic, social and political reform, the human race may be its own Grim Reaper. We act as though eating animals is a requirement; a but it is not. We simply choose to do so. We are quick to make other small changes in our lives to save the planet, but our plates have not changed much. Emissions from animal agriculture are projected to increase by 80% by 2050 – but we want to reach net zero carbon by then. This needs to stop.
Perhaps never before has the truth been so plainly, and so stirringly put, than by 16 year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg: ” If the emissions have to stop” she says, “then we must stop the emissions”, but “no one is acting as if we were in a crisis. Even most climate scientists or green politicians keep on flying around the world, eating meat and dairy.”
Collectively, human beings can be astonishingly powerful – indeed powerful enough to change the climate itself. It would be absurd to argue then that we are not capable of a simple lifestyle change – to choose bean over beef; to choose soy or oat over dairy milk. In 2019, friendlier alternatives to every animal product are available in most “normal” European supermarkets. We are all very capable of making this change, and I would argue that we have a responsibility to do so. We have a responsibility to do all in our power to repair the disaster which our species has so callously imparted on this planet. Our children and grandchildren, and the millions of other species with whom we share our lands and seas, have done nothing to deserve an uninhabitable Earth. The window of opportunity for change will never be as open as it is right now.