To stop climate change, we need to eat less meat

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To stop climate change, we need to eat less meat

When Jeremy Corbyn said he was interested in changing to a vegan diet, people were surprised. But if we want to stop serious climate change, Leo Barasi says that we must think now about the effects of what we eat.

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn was in newspaper headlines in a new way. He talked about his interest in being vegan after being a vegetarian for many years.

Later he said he was not thinking about changing, but it showed us that this is a conversation that few people want to have. But we need to think now about the effects of what we eat on climate change.

Campaigners have been trying to persuade people to eat less meat for years. It’s more than forty years since Peter Singer’s important book Animal Liberation. The Vegetarian Society has been there since 1847. Over those years, there have been many reports about cruelty in factory farms and of the damage that farming can do to the environment. And doctors are warning more and more about the risks of eating too much meat.

But this has all failed. Perhaps vegetarianism now seems normal and not just something unusual. And there is no evidence that many people are eating less meat. Data seems to say that people around the world are eating more. In the US, meat eaten per person fell during the 2008 financial crisis but now it is rising again.

It seems that economics was the reason and not ethics.

We won’t stop serious climate change if we don’t look at this problem. Meat and dairy is the reason for about a seventh of all of human greenhouse gas. If this continues, livestock emissions alone will use the world’s ‘carbon budget’. This is how much carbon the world can release before coming to the dangerous limit of two degrees celsius in about 100 years. And, as farming emissions seem that they will grow 30 per cent by 2050, meat and dairy may use the carbon budget even faster.

There are answers to this. There is a change in what people eat. Chicken is now more popular and beef is less popular. This has cut emissions – beef warms the planet about four times more than chicken. But the change is so slow because as the population grows more people eat more beef. And chicken is cleaner than beef, but chicken is much more polluting than vegetarian alternatives.

Perhaps technology will help. It is possible that meat alternatives like the vegan Impossible Burger will make it easier for people to stop eating meat. The Impossible Burger releases much fewer emissions than beef. I am a new vegetarian and I found that even the small number of meat alternatives helps me to eat less meat. But technology isn’t the answer to the problem on its own. Even if vegan alternatives get better, most people will need more reasons to change. If the substitutes aren’t tastier or cheaper, many people will think why should they stop eating cheeseburgers.

It is possible this will be one of the hardest problems for the world as it tries to stop serious climate change. Changing from coal to clean power, or not using inefficient fridges are other possible ways of stopping emissions. They bring benefits and most people support them. People enjoy eating meat and so it will be much harder to persuade nearly everyone to eat less meat to help the climate, when arguments about health, animal welfare, and the environment have failed.

My book The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism has some ways to persuade more people to eat less meat.

Many people were surprised about what Corbyn said and this shows how far we need to go. If this is one of the world’s hardest problems, it’s also one that most people don’t want to talk about. Very few people who are not in the green movement will agree that eating less meat and dairy is necessary.

Corbyn only said he was thinking about changing what he eats. We can imagine people’s anger if he said others should do the same or if he suggested taxes on high-carbon foods. But we must think now about the effects of what we eat. We can’t wait too long. Cutting emissions is getting harder.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism by Leo Barasi is published by New Internationalist on 21 September Leo Barasi


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).