Can we eat our way out of climate change? That question has come to the forefront again with the Monday release of yet more research connecting global dietary patterns and global warming. While no one’s arguing diet alone can stop the world from warming, there’s now more evidence that changing the way we eat could have a big impact.
Even though the agricultural sector accounts for a substantial share of our collective greenhouse gas emissions—almost 15 percent worldwide—it’s long been more or less ignored when it comes to international climate negotiations, including the landmark climate conference in Paris at the end of last year. Yet with the international community finally starting to take serious action to cut emissions from power plants and transportation, the total share of emissions from agriculture is only expected to rise—so much so that experts say it could essentially cancel out the cuts in other sectors.
The biggest culprit? Livestock, particularly cattle. As past research has shown, raising beef generates between nine and 27 times the amount of global warming pollution that producing an equivalent number of calories growing things like beans, nuts, and vegetables does. As just about everyone knows by now, red meat consumption has been linked to a host of health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
In the Oxford study, published in the journal PNAS, researchers peered into the future to 2050 and asked what might happen in four different diet scenarios. In the first, the world keeps eating the way we are now, with a predicted rise in meat consumption. The other three put everyone on a diet, so to speak, each with an increasingly restricted amount of meat, all the way to global veganism.
The upshot? The less meat the world eats, the better it is for our collective health, the health of our climate, and the global economy.
A worldwide shift to a vegetarian diet, for example, was shown to save 7.3 million lives and cut global warming pollution from the agricultural sector by 63 percent. Going vegan saved an estimated 8.1 million lives, cut climate pollution by 70 percent, and saved a whopping $31 trillion between now and 2050.
The study’s authors openly admit that’s not going to happen, but it’s important that the world’s growing penchant for American-style bacon burgers and meat lovers’ pizza become part of the climate debate.
“We do not expect everybody to become vegan,” the study’s lead author, Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Program on the Future of Food, told Reuters. “But climate change impacts of the food system will be hard to tackle and likely require more than just technological changes. Adopting healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets can be a large step in the right direction.”