The great potential for climate change mitigation through shifting diets
I attended two side events throughout week 2 at COP, regarding the climate benefits of a shift to a plant based diet. I guess as a climate-driven-vegetarian and aspiring vegan I was interested in confirming my own actions by hearing about the most current science. I certainly left feeling self-assured, and comforted by the knowledge of the dramatic potential this change in behaviour can have on the climate. As foresters, this is hugely relevant – animal agriculture is the main driver of deforestation and loss of species. The livestock sector accounts for 70% of deforestation in the Amazon and produces the same amount of emissions each year as the entire USA. Livestock production accounts for 14.5% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, and is especially methane intensive. It contributes to water and air pollution, and decreases biodiversity.
The huge potential of shifting to a plant based diet in mitigating climate change was presented scientifically and empirically, with potentially enormous results; so the panel asked us all the question: why was this the first ever side event dedicated to the topic at a COP? And why is this not considered at all in the negotiations?
The inefficiency of eating meat is clear: beef uses 70% of the world’s agricultural land to produce less than 5% of the world’s protein. Most of the plant based feed energy is lost to the animals’ metabolism. And much deforestation is to clear land simply for growing animal feed.
The case for shifting diets was emphasized by the health factor: vegetarian and vegan diets have reduced incidence of many lifestyle diseases. This provides economic incentives for Governments, due to the reduced impact on the healthcare system. It is also cost effective for the consumer: a vegan diet is 20-30% cheaper based on ingredients.
One speaker outlined the four actions available to us that have co-benefits to health and climate: Active transport, reduced meat intake (industrialized countries), spacing births and changes in energy production.
The panels were not necessarily pushing for a complete change, highlighting red meat as the most problematic. If people substituted chicken for beef, the spared land could be used to feed 120-140 million extra people. Or if the shift was made worldwide from animal to plant based diets, we could feed an extra 400 million people. This would contribute greatly to increasing food security.
To make it work the case was presented that a carbon tax on food production could be introduced. This would decrease the quantity of meat that people eat. It was suggested that beef be 40% more expensive than it currently is, based on the impact its production has on climate.
This is obviously a very sensitive topic and despite the clear reduction in greenhouse gases, especially through moving away from beef and lamb, politicians aren’t discussing it. In a sector that produces more emissions than the entire transport sector, one impassioned audience member compared beef to coal: “If you mention coal here at COP you’re lynched, but mention beef and you’re fine?!”.
Interestingly, some research highlighted that 50% of vegans are youth, and that youth are much more willing to change their diet than their older counterparts.
Considering the great potential of a plant based diet in mitigating climate change, backed up by plentiful scientific research, including evidence for issues within the meat industry, combined with health benefits, it is hard to believe there are no climate targets for the livestock sector and no countries have included diet shifts in their INDC’s (Intended National Determined Contributions).
Charlotte Ross-Harris is returning home to Australia to complete a Master of Forest Ecosystem Science at the University of Melbourne after finishing an internship with IUFRO in Vienna and an exchange semester in Freiburg, Germany.