If I stop eating meat, will it really help climate change?
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If I stop eating meat, will it really help climate change?

WITH climate scientists ringing the alarm bell and warning us of the devastation we can expect if we don’t act now, most of us are wondering what we can personally change that will make a dent in the juggernaut of climate change.

A common suggestion to do our bit in helping the environment is to cut out meat from our diet. We hear a lot about the damaging effects of livestock farming and the lasting impact this has on the climate. But is true? And would it really help if I give up meat?

The short answer is, yes and yes.

What’s the damage?

The latest climate report from the IPCC has some stark warnings. It says the world must keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius or face devastating impacts, such as impacts include stronger storms, more erratic weather, dangerous heat waves, rising seas, and largescale disruption to infrastructure and migration patterns.

SEE ALSO: This is not a drill: Our final call to save the planet from rising temperatures

Agriculture of all types is a major driver in this, producing greenhouse gases (GHG) that cause the warming. But meat production is a special evil, with beef being the most environmentally damaging of them all.

While it is hard to predict the exact amount of GHG produced from livestock farming, a study from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates it makes up around 18 percent of human-produced emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together.


Cattle on a dry paddock in the drought-hit area of Quirindi in New South Wales, August 7, 2018. Source: Glenn Nicholls/Shutterstock

As cattle production is highly inefficient and requires a lot of land and water, it has a huge environmental footprint. Not only does it require land and water for the cattle themselves, but for all of the crops need to feed the animals.

A report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) found it takes over 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef. That, in part, goes on growing the grain needed for feed.

In terms of land, the FAO estimates around 30 percent of the earth’s land surface is currently used for livestock farming. The clearing and land degradation this causes has significant knock-on effects such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity, acid rain, and even coral reef degradation.

SEE ALSO: The real culprits of climate change

But it doesn’t stop there. The cows themselves release methane emissions – a potent GHG that causes short-term warming.

One of the most recent studies in the area, from the University of Oxford, found beef results in up to 105 kilograms of GHG per 100 grams of meat, while tofu produces less than 3.5 kilograms.

We’re heading in the wrong direction

So far, warnings have gone unheeded with meat consumption rising rapidly rather than dropping.

As the global population booms and the middle-class grows, our appetite for meat is rocketing.

Meat consumption is on track to rise 75 percent by 2050, and dairy 65 percent, compared with 40 percent for cereals. By 2020, China alone is expected to be eating 20 million tonnes more of meat and dairy a year.


Dry lake in Victoria. Source: Tim J Keegan – Flickr CC

So I should become vegetarian then?

Basically, the more you can cut out the better. For example, a study published in the journal Climactic Change calculated if all Americans substituted beans for beef, the country would be close to meeting its 2020 GHG emission goals, pledged by President Barack Obama in 2009.

While this doesn’t mean you have to go full vegan – many environmental groups advocate for reducing our intake while improving the quality – ensuring the authenticity of labelled products can be difficult, and even then, the meat is far more damaging than any vegetable.

One of the most comprehensive studies to dates found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.

At a time when we’re told to give up straws, use public transport, and reuse our plastics, cutting out meat is your best option for saving the planet. As lead researcher Joseph Poore, from the University of Oxford said:

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”