cow grazing mountain Sergei Krasnoukhov\TASS via Getty Images

Ban the Beef?

For many environmental campaigners, eating meat is fast becoming as repellant as smoking – behavior to be discouraged or even banned. But is your hamburger really to blame for climate change, and would going vegetarian really help?

COPENHAGEN – 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 10-15 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.”

In case you have missed this development: eating meat is fast becoming as repellant as smoking to many green campaigners. It is behavior to be discouraged or even banned.

That’s because your hamburger is being blamed for climate change. Meat production – especially raising cattle – emits methane and requires carbon-dioxide-intensive inputs. In the breathless 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 empathize with the interest in promoting less meat in our diets. But I want to make sure the science is right. 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 while ignoring basic facts.

Reading the popular press on this topic, you find plenty of articles suggesting that eliminating meat consumption could cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 50% or more. That’s massive. It’s also massively misleading.

Importantly, the 50% reduction in emissions is achieved by going a lot further than vegetarianism. It requires going completely vegan, which means stopping eating and using any animal products: milk, eggs, honey, meat, poultry, seafood, fur, leather, wool, gelatin, and much else. This is not going to be a mainstream dietary and lifestyle regime any time soon.

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Still, the media suggest that going vegetarian can achieve a reduction of 20-35% 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, which means the impact is actually five times lower.

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 likely reduce an individual’s emissions by the equivalent of 540 kilograms (1,190 pounds) of CO2. For the average person in the industrialized world, that means cutting emissions by just 4.3%.

But this still overstates the effect, because it ignores an age-old and well-described 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 additional greenhouse-gas emissions. In the United States, vegetarians save about 7%, and in the United Kingdom 15% of their food budgets. 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 CO2 emissions, which the study concludes will cancel out half the saved emissions from going vegetarian.

In a developed-country setting, 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. Indeed, 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 impact.

In contrast, to bolster their counter-argument that vegetarianism has a much higher impact, the academics chose to rely on only two studies that just happened to have 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 impact, although the literature clearly says “when evaluating the environmental consequences of vegetarianism the rebound effect of the savings should be taken into account.”

Of course, fiddling with numbers to fit our preconceptions doesn’t fool the planet. The fact is, instead of going completely vegetarian for the rest of your life, you could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by the exact same amount by spending $6 a year using the European emissions trading system – while eating anything you want.

An emissions cut of a couple of percentage points is nothing to sneer at, but it is certainly not what will “save the planet.” The inconvenient truth is that few individual actions can transform the battle against climate change. One action that could make a genuine difference is campaigning for far more spending on global investment in green-energy research and development. This technology needs to be massively developed if we are ever to bring forward the day when alternatives can outcompete fossil fuels.

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

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

It also suggests a narrow focus on the world’s rich. It is incredibly self-obsessed to talk about banishing steak eaters from restaurants when 1.45 billion people are vegetarian through poverty, wanting 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.