No-one wants to talk about it but stopping extreme climate change will mean eating less meat

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn made headlines in a new way – expressing interest in becoming vegan, after being a vegetarian for decades. Although he later denied he was considering the switch, the episode provided a glimpse of a conversation that few people want to have – but which we can’t keep putting off if we are to avoid extreme climate change.

Campaigners have been trying to persuade the public to eat less meat for years. It’s more than four decades since Peter Singer’s consciousness-awakening book Animal Liberation was published. The Vegetarian Society has been going four times as long. Over those years, there have been countless exposés of cruelties in factory farms and of the damage that farming can do to the local environment, and doctors increasingly warn of the risks of eating too much meat.

But if the aim of all this was to reduce meat consumption, those efforts have failed. Vegetarianism might now seem part of mainstream culture rather than an eccentricity, but there’s little sign that more people are quitting meat. Nor is there evidence that many people are reducing the amount they eat – data suggests individuals around the world are eating steadily more of it. Even in the US, where meat consumption per person fell during the Great Recession, consumption is now rising again. It looks like economics was the driving force, not ethics.

The world won’t prevent extreme climate change if it doesn’t deal with this. Meat and dairy production is responsible for around a seventh of all of human greenhouse gas emissions. If this continues, livestock emissions alone will exhaust the world’s ‘carbon budget’, the amount the world can release before committing to the dangerous warming threshold of two degrees celsius, within around 100 years – even if every other source of emissions is cleaned up. And, with farming emissions set to grow 30% by 2050, meat and dairy may burn through the budget even faster.

There are solutions to this. There’s been a shift in tastes, with chicken becoming more popular and beef becoming less so. This has cut emissions – beef warms the planet about four times as much as chicken. But the switch has been so slow that population growth means the total amount of beef eaten is still rising. And, though cleaner than beef, chicken is still several times more polluting than vegetarian alternatives.

Technology might help. Meat substitutes like the vegan Impossible Burger, which release a fraction of the emissions of beef, could make a switch more palatable. As a recent convert to being mostly vegetarian I’ve found that even the limited range of meat substitutes now available help me cut down on meat, as vaping does for smokers (though I’m still far from convinced by cheese substitutes: they’re fine in cooking but on a cracker are about as appealing as their plastic packaging).

But technology won’t fix the problem on its own. Even if vegan alternatives keep getting better, most people will need more motivation to switch. As long as the substitutes are neither tastier nor cheaper, many people will wonder why they should stop eating cheeseburgers.

This could be one of the hardest problems the world will have to face as it tries to avert extreme climate change. Other possible ways of cutting emissions – like switching from coal to clean power, or ditching inefficient fridges – bring obvious benefits and are supported by most people. But it will be much harder to persuade nearly everyone to cut down on something they enjoy for the sake of the climate, when arguments about health, animal welfare and the local environment have failed.

My bookThe Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, sets out some of the ways that more people could be persuaded to do so.

The surprised response to Corbyn’s comment demonstrates how far public debate still has to come. If this is one of the world’s hardest problems, it’s also one of the most ignored – few people outside the green movement are prepared to admit that consuming less meat and dairy is necessary. All Corbyn did was saying he’s considering changing his own diet. Imagine the outrage if he’d suggested that others should do the same or mooted taxes on high-carbon foods.

But we can’t put off confronting the consequence of our diets for much longer. Cutting emissions is only getting harder, as targets get tighter and easier measures are ticked off. Soon we will have to look at our plates and admit it won’t be possible to prevent extreme climate change as long as we keep filling them with cheese and meat.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

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