Sadly, vegans can’t save Earth

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

BODY LANGUAGE

Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations official responsible for the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, has a startling vision for restaurants of the future: anyone who wants a steak should be banished.

“How about restaurants in 10 to 15 years start treating carnivores the same way that smokers are treated?” Figueres suggested during a recent conference. “If they want to eat meat, they can do it outside the restaurant.”

Your hamburger is being blamed for climate change. Meat production — especially raising cattle — emits methane and requires carbon dioxide-intensive inputs.
In the language of recent reporting, a “huge reduction in meat-eating is essential” to avoid “climate breakdown”.

I have been a vegetarian my entire adult life because I don’t want to kill animals, so I can empathise with the interest in promoting less meat in our diets. But when you look beyond the headlines, those arguing for banishing meat-eaters from restaurants and calling on everyone to change their diets are often cherry-picking the data and ignoring basic facts.

There are many articles in the popular press that suggest that eliminating meat consumption could cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 50% or more. That’s massive. And massively misleading.

The 50% reduction in emissions is achieved by going a lot further than vegetarianism. It requires going vegan, which means not eating or using any animal products: milk, eggs, honey, meat, poultry, seafood, fur, leather, wool, gelatin and much more. 

Still, the media suggest that going vegetarian can achieve a reduction of 20% to 35% in an individual’s personal emissions. But these are not a person’s entire emissions — they are those emitted just from food. Four-fifths of emissions are ignored.

READ MORE: Cutting out meat and dairy and slashes your carbon footprint

If we turn to the academic literature on emission cuts from going vegetarian, a systematic survey of peer-reviewed studies shows that a non-meat diet will probably reduce an individual’s emissions by the equivalent of 540kg of carbon dioxide. For the average person in the industrialised world, that means cutting emissions by just 4.3%.

But this still overstates the effect, because it ignores the economic phenomenon known as the “rebound effect”. Vegetarian diets are slightly cheaper, and saved money will be spent on other goods and services that cause greenhouse-gas emissions. In the United States, vegetarians save about 7% and in the United Kingdom 15%. 

A Swedish study shows a vegetarian diet is 10% cheaper, freeing up about 2% of an individual’s total budget. That extra spending will cause more carbon dioxide emissions, which the study concludes will cancel out half the saved emissions.

In a developed country, the reality is that going entirely vegetarian for the rest of your life means reducing your emissions by about 2%.

This is a well-established result, but it still surprises many people who believe that becoming vegetarian should achieve more. When I first highlighted these figures, two British researchers attacked my approach and even claimed that I must be cherry-picking. But the figure is the best estimate of a meta-study, not the result of choosing a single study with the highest or lowest effect.

In contrast, to bolster their counter argument that vegetarianism has a much higher effect, the academics chose to rely on only two studies that had two of the highest estimates. 

Then they disregarded the one showing a lower effect and rounded up the figure given by the other. They even ignored the rebound effect, which halves the real-world effect, although the literature clearly says “when evaluating the environmental consequences of vegetarianism the rebound effect of the savings should be taken into account”. Fiddling with numbers to fit our preconceptions doesn’t fool the planet.

Instead of going completely vegetarian, you could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by the same amount by spending $6 a year using the European emissions trading system — while eating anything you want.

An emissions cut of a few percentage points is nothing to sneer at, but it won’t “save the planet”. The inconvenient truth is that few individual actions can transform climate change.

One action that could make a difference is campaigning for far more spending on global investment in green-energy research and development (R&D). This technology needs to be massively developed if we are to bring forward the day when alternatives can out compete fossil fuels.

More R&D is also needed to reduce the carbon effect of farming, and to develop and produce at scale artificial meat, which could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 96%, relative to conventionally produced meat.

Like much campaigning, Figueres’s plan for meat-eaters is disturbing, because it suggests she is focused on banning behaviour she doesn’t like, based on flimsy evidence and over-the-top newspaper reporting.

It is self-obsessed to talk about banishing steak eaters from restaurants when 1.45-billion people are vegetarian because of poverty, yet want desperately to be able to afford meat.

As a vegetarian for ethical reasons, I will be the first to say that there are many good reasons to eat less meat. Sadly, making a huge difference to the climate isn’t one of them. — © Project Syndicate

Bjørn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School

Bjørn Lomborg

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