I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

It was the coconut cheese that did it. For most of January I’d believed that being vegan was no sacrifice – if anything it meant I was trying foods I wouldn’t normally think to eat. Some of them were very good. Jackfruit can be cooked into something like a sticky pulled pork that makes a superb burrito. But as I slathered pickle to mask the taste of the coconut-based fake wensleydale, it was inescapable that I would prefer to be eating the real thing.

Why had I bothered with Veganuary? It’s true I don’t want animals to suffer, want to prevent the toxic waste that comes from some farms, and hate the way so much land is used for raising animals, rather than for homes or wildlife. But none of that was enough for me to make the change. I did Veganuary for just one reason, and that was the climate change effect of meat and dairy production.

The world’s promise to avoid dangerous climate change is soon going to crash into its taste for meat and milk. By the time my seven-month-old is 40, the world should have become carbon neutral. Some parts of that switch seem hard but possible. The radical growth of solar and wind power and the arrival of electric cars that are better than petrol ones at least show how those sectors could eliminate emissions.

Food is different. Livestock farming is responsible for 14.5% of global emissions and it’s hard to see how those emissions go away unless a lot of people consume a lot less meat and milk. As more people move out of poverty, the world’s demand for animal products looks set to increase, when emissions should be going in the other direction.

That seemed a good reason for me to try being vegan for a month. It seemed obvious that, if I believe the world should cut emissions fast, I should deal with my own emissions. Climate change is an ethical problem, so it would be unethical for me to worsen it if I can reasonably avoid doing so, however small my individual contribution. I wouldn’t throw a plastic bottle into the vast ocean, so why should I be relaxed about releasing planet-warming gases?

But, midway through Veganuary, an evangelical free-marketeer – who is as worried about climate change as I am – told me I was completely wrong. He argued that my voluntary restraint would have no effect. Not even a tiny, insignificant effect. None at all.

His argument was that my voluntary restraint would reduce the price of the dairy I was avoiding, so others would consume it instead. If you bought a pint of milk last month because it was on special offer, perhaps you’ve got me to thank for it. Even if hundreds of millions become vegan, there are many more around the world who want to eat more dairy and would welcome to chance to buy it. Voluntary restraint is pointless (if the market’s working properly).

To quote Tim Minchin, “Hmm, that’s a good point, let me think for a bit. Oh wait, my mistake, that’s absolute bullshit”.

Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but here’s why the free-marketeer is wrong, and voluntary restraint is essential for the world to avoid dangerous climate change

There are two ways food emissions might fall:

  1. Billions of people decide to stop eating high-emitting foods.
  2. Governments apply taxes or laws or incentives that force farmers to come up with cleaner ways of producing the same foods or cleaner alternative foods.

Our free-marketeer believes only the second option can work, and I happen to agree with him. But he’s wrong to think this doesn’t involve voluntary restraint. (The only way I can see 1 succeeding is if breakthroughs in low-carbon foods are so astonishing that consumers prefer them to food from animals; given the ridiculous low cost of meat it’s hard to see artificial foods being able to win on price).

Imagine Michael Gove announced next week that he’s introducing a carbon tax and it’ll eventually be high enough that meat and dairy consumption will fall 90% unless the industry effectively eliminates its emissions. There would be outrage. There’s no way it would pass. (and now, for a laugh, imagine a left-wing party that didn’t have the support of most of the media doing the same)

The only way food emissions will fall is if there’s public support for the switch. That’s only going to happen if the problem and the solution are first normalised. Emissions from agriculture are far too high and have to fall, which means far more people will have to eat a low-carbon diet – and that low-carbon diet has to be much more appealing than it is now.

This is why it’s right – maybe essential – for people like me to eat less meat and dairy. We’re showing that cutting emissions is something that people do, which starts conversations about what dealing with climate change will actually look like, which will make it seem less bizarre when the time comes for a government to try to reduce emissions from food.

We’re also creating incentives for the food industry to come up with better alternatives to meat, which eases the way for others to follow. In short, someone has to try the coconut wensleydale, so that no-one else has to.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.



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