How Environmentalists are Overlooking Vegetarianism as the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change in Our Lifetimes
by Noam Mohr
The environmental community rightly recognizes global warming as one of the gravest threats to the planet. Global temperatures are already higher than they’ve ever been in at least the past millennium, and the increase is accelerating even faster than scientists had predicted. The expected consequences include coastal flooding, increases in extreme weather, spreading disease, and mass extinctions.
Unfortunately, the environmental community has focused its efforts almost exclusively on abating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Domestic legislative efforts concentrate on raising fuel economy standards, capping CO2 emissions from power plants, and investing in alternative energy sources. Recommendations to consumers also focus on CO2: buy fuel-efficient cars and appliances, and minimize their use.
This is a serious miscalculation. Data published by Dr. James Hansen and others show that CO2 emissions are not the main cause of observed atmospheric warming. Though this may sound like the work of global warming skeptics, it isn’t: Hansen is Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies who has been called “a grandfather of the global warming theory.”
The focus solely on CO2 is fueled in part by misconceptions. It’s true that human activity produces vastly more CO2 than all other greenhouse gases put together. However, this does not mean it is responsible for most of the earth’s warming. Many other greenhouse gases trap heat far more powerfully than CO2, some of them tens of thousands of times more powerfully. When taking into account various gases’ global warming potential—defined as the amount of actual warming a gas will produce over the next one hundred years—it turns out that gases other than CO2 make up most of the global warming problem.
If we wish to curb global warming over the coming half century, we must look at strategies to address non-CO2 emissions. The strategy with the most impact is vegetarianism.
By far the most important non-CO2 greenhouse gas is methane, and the number one source of methane worldwide is animal agriculture.
Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-CO2 greenhouse gases put together. Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. While atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen by about 31% since pre-industrial times, methane concentrations have more than doubled. Whereas human sources of CO2 amount to just 3% of natural emissions, human sources produce one and a half times as much methane as all natural sources. In fact, the effect of our methane emissions may be compounded as methane-induced warming in turn stimulates microbial decay of organic matter in wetlands—the primary natural source of methane.
Animal agriculture produces more than 100 million tons of methane a year. And this source is on the rise: global meat consumption has increased fivefold in the past fifty years, and shows little sign of abating. About 85% of this methane is produced in the digestive processes of livestock, and while a single cow releases a relatively small amount of methane, the collective effect on the environment of the hundreds of millions of livestock animals worldwide is enormous. An additional 15% of animal agricultural methane emissions are released from the massive “lagoons” used to store untreated farm animal waste, and already a target of environmentalists’ for their role as the number one source of water pollution in the U.S.
The conclusion is simple: arguably the best way to reduce global warming in our lifetimes is to reduce or eliminate our consumption of animal products. Simply by going vegetarian, we can eliminate one of the major sources of emissions of methane, the greenhouse gas responsible for almost half of the global warming impacting the planet today.
In addition to having the advantage of immediately reducing global warming, a shift away from methane-emitting food sources is much easier than cutting carbon dioxide.
First, there is no limit to reductions in this source of greenhouse gas that can be achieved through vegetarian diet. In principle, even 100% reduction could be achieved with little negative impact. In contrast, similar cuts in carbon dioxide are impossible without devastating effects on the economy.
Second, shifts in diet lower greenhouse gas emissions much more quickly than shifts away from the fossil fuel burning technologies that emit carbon dioxide. The turnover rate for most ruminant farm animals is one or two years, so that decreases in meat consumption would result in almost immediate drops in methane emissions. The turnover rate for cars and power plants, on the other hand, can be decades. Even if cheap, zero-emission fuel sources were available today, they would take many years to build and slowly replace the massive infrastructure our economy depends upon today.
Similarly, unlike carbon dioxide which can remain in the air for more than a century, methane cycles out of the atmosphere in just eight years, so that lower methane emissions quickly translate to cooling of the earth.
Third, efforts to cut carbon dioxide involve fighting powerful and wealthy business interests like the auto and oil industries. Environmental groups have been lobbying for years to make fuel-efficient SUVs available or phase out power plants that don’t meet modern environmental standards without success. At the same time, vegetarian foods are readily available, and cuts in agricultural methane emissions are achievable at every meal.
Also, polls show that concern about global warming is widespread, and environmental activists often feel helpless to do anything about it. Unless they happen to be buying a car or major appliance, most people wanting to make a difference are given little to do aside from writing their legislators and turning off their lights. Reducing or eliminating meat consumption is something concerned citizens can do every day to help the planet.
Finally, it is worth noting that reductions in this source of greenhouse gas have many beneficial side effects for the environment. Less methane results in less tropospheric ozone, a pollutant damaging to human health and agriculture. Moreover, the same factory farms responsible for these methane emissions also use up most of the country’s water supply, and denude most of its wilderness for rangeland and growing feed. Creating rangeland to feed western nations’ growing appetite for meat has been a major source of deforestation and desertification in third world countries. Factory farm waste lagoons are a leading source of water pollution in the U.S.
Earthsave: healthy people, healthy planet.
I don’t think it would be possible for everyone to remove meat from their diet alltogether, but I am quite sure you can reduce it by half at least. Besides, it is much healthier anyway. Why wouldn’t you?