by Jeremy Nagel
Jeremy is a fourth year Bachelor of Environmental Science student at Monash University (Australia). He has been vegan for four and a half years and enjoys sport, particularly running and cycling.
With the Copenhagen climate change summit ending with a generally accepted (if unratified) consensus that emissions cuts of at least 20% will be required by 2020 in order to avoid dangerous climate change, governments around the world are looking for ways to transition to a low carbon economy. It is often said that the best way to cushion the initial blow will be to ‘pick the low hanging fruit’ – ending blatantly unsustainable practices, for which there are readily available substitutes. Adopting energy efficiency initiatives, for example, could allow for as much of 29% of the US’s carbon emissions to be mitigated while generating a profit in the process.
It is interesting to note that a measure that could deliver emissions reductions of a similar magnitude and could arguably be simpler to implement has not even been mentioned at the large climate talks and has received scant attention in the literature. This measure is veg*nism.
According to the UNFAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow, animal husbandry contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While it would be overly simplistic to suggest that if the world’s population went vegan overnight, the spectre of global warming would creep back into its cupboard, it is nonetheless true that a plant based diet places considerably less stress on the environment.
Importantly, the type of greenhouse gases that are attributed to animal husbandry pose a greater threat than those that exit the smoke stacks of a coal power station. Livestock is responsible for the bulk of the methane and nitrous oxide emissions to the atmosphere and these two gases are many times more potent than the benchmark CO2 (25 and 298 times respectively). In order to reduce the atmospheric concentrations of these two gases, it is therefore impossible to ignore the ‘cow in the room’.
Further adding impetus to the call to concentrate on livestock as a way of decreasing the world’s carbon footprint is the fact that methane and nitrous oxide are removed far more quickly from the atmosphere than is carbon dioxide. This means that actions taken now to reduce livestock emissions will lower the intensity of the greenhouse effect in the near term. The same is not true for other strategies such as transitioning to non-fossil fuel powered vehicles. The CO2 emitted by petrol driven vehicles will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, leading to a ‘climate commitment’ of warming that will occur even if humanity were to cease emitting greenhouse gases immediately.
Much scientific research is currently going into the search for methods to reduce the ‘gassiness’ of ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep. While there have been some preliminary successes, it is unlikely that these approaches could ever make consuming animal products a green option. Even if greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated, livestock would still represent one of the worst environmental problems in existence. For example, improperly treated excrement from cattle and pigs has been linked to massive harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. and the commonly cited statistic of the huge amount of water required to produce one kg of beef (17,000L – ) must ring alarm bells in a civilisation faced with an impending shortage of fresh water.
It is for this reason, that the single most effective thing an individual can do to shrink their ecological footprint is to drastically reduce the consumption of animal products.
Submission to the Victorian State Government’s Summit Paper ‘A climate of opportunity’:
‘Is there anything that I can do? Yes, modify your diet!’
1. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “Energy Efficiency: The First Fuel for a Clean Energy Future-Resources for Meeting Maryland’s Electricity Needs,” 2008. http://aceee.org/pubs/e082.htm.
2. UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, H., P. Gerber, T. D. Wassenaar, V. Castel, and C. de Haan. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. FAO, 2006.
3. IPCC, FAR. “Working Group 1 Report ‘The Physical Science Basis’.” Historical Overview of Climate Change Science (2007): 105.
4. Anderson, D. M, P. M Glibert, and J. A.M Burkholder. “Harmful algal blooms and eutrophication: nutrient sources, composition, and consequences.” Estuaries and Coasts 25, no. 4 (2002): 704–726.
5. Hoekstra, A. Y, and A. K Chapagain. “Water footprints of nations: water use by people as a function of their consumption pattern.” Water Resources Management 21, no. 1 (2007): 35–48.