The Climate and You

It’s time to take personal responsibility for climate change to a whole new level.


Let’s face it, politics has not and will not be enough to ‘save’ the planet. The election of Donald Trump is undeniably a major blow to all environmentalists and climate change efforts worldwide (see Trump’s environmental to (un)do list. But if the rise of The Donald teaches us anything, it’s that real momentous change hardly comes from the top; it starts at the bottom. It starts with you.

NOTE: This is not an article about changing your lightbulbs, using public transport, or recycling more. They’re part of the solution, but they simply aren’t enough.

We’re surrounded and bombarded by climate change rhetoric wherever we go. It’s apocalyptic, at times frightening, overwhelming, and yet always all too familiar. From Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 to Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Before the Flood” a decade later, climate change has been a “hot topic” for as long as we can remember. Yet despite all the urgency, things only seem to be getting worse. Current projections put us on a catastrophic course of temperature increases between 2.6 and 4.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 21001. Above 2 degrees, anything can happen. Others warn that we’re being too optimistic: we’re heading towards an irreversible, all-life-ending, seven degree Celsius rise within our lifetimes2.

We tend to, quite naturally, look towards world leaders and governments to address, if not resolve, the myriad of climate issues we’re facing. They steer our collective resources and, as such, have the means and reach to implement meaningful change. And yet here we are. The pendulum of politics continues to swing like a wrecking ball, writing and scrapping and re-writing and re-scrapping the policies and regulations put in place to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Now ask yourself this: in the last decade, what have you personally really changed about yourself, your habits, your beliefs and values to mitigate your effects on the environment? I’m not talking about a vote, a lightbulb, or buying a Tesla (if you can afford one). I’m talking about a more fundamental change in your daily routines and consumption; a deeper behavioural change.

I for one can say this for myself: not enough. I buy my food from supermarkets where I’m unsure where or how my food is grown and where half of all perishable goods on shelves end up in the dumpster. I leap at cheap holiday flight deals. I live in an apartment, in a city, connected to the grid. To realistically change any of this seems inconvenient at best and inconceivable at worst. They are part and parcel of the convenience and ease that comes with a modern Western lifestyle.

We’re unlikely to ever fully reject or resist these comforts and luxuries. Environmental activists that do so should be commended, not ridiculed. The personal sacrifice they take on in the name of the environment is nothing short of heroic.

But there is one thing that I think we can all do. It’s a behavioural shift so simple yet, collectively, very powerful.

It’s a pledge and commitment, pure and simple, to drastically reduce the amount of meat and dairy we eat. Eating less meat and dairy is the single fastest way you can commit to reducing your environmental impact. Eating is something most of us do at least three times a day; deciding what’s on your next plate is a decision that you can make right now. It’s very much unlike buying a Prius, taking the train, or changing a lightbulb. It’s much more difficult. It takes willpower, determination and resolve. All meaningful action does.

The problem with meat, more than anything else, is that the scale and process of industrial livestock production is highly inefficient and unsustainable from an environmental perspective. A 2006 study by the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation — Livestock’s Long Shadow — found that the livestock industry produces 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), more than the entire transport sector combined[3]. Other studies, such as a WorldWatch Institute Study in 2009, put GHG emissions of livestock at a whopping 51% of global total emissions4.

The way meat is produced and processed differs from farm to farm, country to country, and region to region. The following 5 points are nonetheless helpful in painting a broad picture of the wider problem.

1. Meat, Eggs & Dairy: an inefficient source of energy

The ratio of energy input to food energy output is a good starting point.

Source: Adapted from Table 2 ‘Animal production in the United States and the fossil energy required to produce 1 kcal of animal protein’ from Pimentel, D (2003) ‘Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment’ Journal of American Clinical Nutrition, 78(suppl) p. 660S– 663S.

The average fossil energy input for animal protein production systems is approximately 25 kcal fossil energy input per 1 kcal of protein produced. This is more than 11 times the average 2.2 kcal of fossil energy per plant protein produced5.

2. Meat & Dairy: an inefficient use of land

Expanding this argument to land use leads to similar results.
Source: Adapted from Table 2 in Peters, C.J., Wilkins J.L., Fick G.W. (2007) ‘Testing a complete-diet model for estimating the land resource requirements of food consumption and agricultural capacity: The New York State example’ Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22(2) pp.145–153

26% of the earth’s terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing6. One third of all global arable land is occupied by livestock feed crop cultivation7.

This conversion of forest to pasture for animal agriculture accounts for 70% of Brazil’s deforested land. Cropland occupies much of the remainder. One estimate puts the total amount at 91% of the Amazonian’s deforested land 8. This makes iteading cause of habitat destruction, species excinction, ocean dead zones and water pollution.

3. Meat & Dairy: an inefficient use of water

The water footprint of animal products far succeeds those of crop products with equivalent nutritional value. The average water footprint per calorie of beef is the largest; its global footprint is 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy foods. Dairy cattle are a close second9.

The global average water footprint of a kilogram of meat from beef cattle and sheep is 15,400 and 10,400 litres respectively10. To put this into perspective, that’s more water than you would typically consume by taking a shower every day for a year.

Animal production alone accounts for 27% of global freshwater use11.

4. Meat & Dairy: a complicated affair

You’ve probably noticed that not all meat is created equal. This is important. Different food groups exhibit a large range in water and land consumption, and GHG emissions more generally.
For instance, how efficient an animal is in converting feed into meat (Feed conversion efficiency) greatly affects the overall water and land consumption of that animal. Matters become even more complicated when considering different livestock farming systems (grazing vs. mixed vs. industrial systems).

Generally speaking, feed conversion efficiencies are largest for broilers and pigs and smallest for cattle. Feed conversion efficiency also improves from grazing to mixed systems to industrial systems12.

In terms of emissions, red meat emits the most GHG. It’s around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken, for instance13. This is partly explained by looking beyond the usual culprit: carbon dioxide. Ruminants (like cows and sheep) produce methane in their digestive system. Methane is 86 times more powerful in the long term than carbon dioxide. Livestock is responsible for 40% of all global methane emissions14.

Source: Figure 3 of Raganathan et al. 2016. Chapter 8, IFPRI Global Food Policy Report

5. Meat & Dairy: it’s only getting worse

The major cause of biodiversity loss in our planet is from the livestock we raise from food and overfishing oceans15. This should be no surprise when you consider the collective impact of points 1 to 4 above.

The world’s livestock sector is growing at an unprecedented rate. Population growth, rising incomes and urbanisation are expected to more than double meat consumption by 205016. The growth in agricultural emissions alone — regardless of other mitigation efforts in industry, energy, and transport — would make it virtually impossible to keep global temperatures below the agreed 2 degree Celsius limit.

For some of you, this may all be old news. Some of you may agree, others won’t (see 7 common objections to eating less meat.

Does that mean that vegan and vegetarian diets are carbon-neutral? Of course not. Aren’t there contradictions? Of course there are. But those realities do not justify inaction. Like it or not, you are part of the problem.

You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of. Jim Rohn

Being a vegetarian or vegan isn’t going to save the world, nor does being one absolve you from your responsibility to do more. Changing your diet alone is not enough. But it’s the most simple, achievable, impactful first step you can and must take. It starts with your next meal.

Making this choice forces you to confront climate change on a much more personal level. As you resist temptations to revert back to a former diet that by all accounts was easier — for it raised no eyebrows and invited no unwanted attention — you’ll find yourself researching more to strengthen your resolve; to justify your decision.

By doing so, you’ll hopefully learn about the contradictions and nuances in your choices. You’ll learn to further appreciate the complexity of the problem. You’ll see that local isn’t always better, organic isn’t always innocent, and that cattle aren’t inherently bad for the environment. Finally, you’ll accept that changing the world “one meal at a time” isn’t enough, that it remains an idea of the privileged when not accompanied by an effective broader regulatory approach.

I urge you, I challenge you to drastically change your diet. And I dare you to not stop there. Use it as a catalyst to inspire the further radical action we so desperately need.

5 POINT ACTION PLAN

1. Take the pledge and tell everyone about it.

It’s much harder to back down once all your friends and family know you’re committed.

2. Choose gradual long-term change over radical short-term change.

There’s not much point in declaring to go all-out Vegan if a) you don’t know enough about how you’d replace the foods you’re pledging to cut from your diet and b) you’re going to quit after a week. Choose achievable realistic change, follow through, and build on that change.

3. Pick a starting date, set a target, find a buddy, plan it out.

For example: aim to limit your consumption of red meat to one standard serving per week (~ 60g) for 90 days, + use the money you save to buy better quality meat more sparingly.

Need help keeping track? Try the Climatarian Challenge App. You can further listen to Mark Pershin talk about his App and the Climatarian diet on For Food’s Sake’s first Podcast episode.

4. Started but struggling? Play around with substitutes.

Discover the wonders of whole grains, pulses (black lentils are a great replacement for minced meat), nuts and seeds, beans. Soy, quinoa & tofu-based substitutes are only three of many foods out there that mimic the texture and taste of meat. And it’s only getting better. Check out the impossible burger. The future is here.

5. Double down. Raise the bar.

If your challenge is almost complete, why not up the ante? Either further reduce your consumption or cut out the next culprit. Try reducing your cheese, fish or pork intake. Alternatively, research and act on the many other necessary ways to achieve #Foodjustice (Have a look at food waste, organic foods, local communities, local and national food policy, support for food workers’ rights etc.)

6. I know, I said five.

Spread the message. Don’t push people, it never works, but tell people if they are curious. You’ll be surprised how often people are genuinely intrigued and open to learning more about what you’re doing and why. So don’t be shy.

  1. Change, I. C. (2013). The Physical Science Basis: Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1, 535–1.

  2. Friedrich, T., Timmermann, A., Tigchelaar, M., Timm, O. E., & Ganopolski, A. (2016). Nonlinear climate sensitivity and its implications for future greenhouse warming. Science Advances, 2(11), e1501923

  3. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., & De Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM

  4. Goodland, R., & Anhang, J. (2009). Livestock and climate change: What if the key actors in climate change are… cows, pigs, and chickens? WorldWatch Institute http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6294

  5. Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment by D. Pimentel and M. Pimental in J. of Amer. Clinical Nutrition, 78(suppl)Recognising that certain meats are ‘complete proteins’ whilst certain vegetables require complementing with proteins from grain to acquire all necessary amino acids, this is still a remarkable difference.

  6. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., & De Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM

  7. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., & De Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM ; P. K., Herrero, M., & Ericksen, P. J. (2011). Livestock and climate change. International Livestock Research Institute.

  8. Margulis, S. (2004). Causes of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon (Vol. 22). World Bank Publications.

  9. Mekonnen, M.M. & Hoekstra, A.Y. Ecosystems (2012) 15: 401.doi:10.1007/s10021–011–9517–8

  10. Mekonnen, M.M & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) ‘The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Farm Animals and Animal Products’ Value of Water Research Report 48. Twente Water Centre, University of Twente.

  11. http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report-48-WaterFootprint-AnimalProducts-Vol1_1.pdf
  12. Gerbens-Leenes, P. W., Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2013). The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems. Water Resources and Industry, 1, 25–36.

  13. Gerbens-Leenes, P. W., Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2013). The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems. Water Resources and Industry, 1, 25–36.

  14. Weber, C. L., & Matthews, H. S. (2008). Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental science & technology, 42(10), 3508–3513.

  15. Alexander, L., & Simon Bindoff, N. L. (2013). Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers (No. Bajados de Internet/2013). OPCC.

  16. Oppenlander, R. (2013). Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work. Hillcrest Publishing Group.

  17. Elam, T. E. (2006). Projections of global meat production through 2050. Center for Global Food Issues. http://farmecon. web. officelive. com/Documents/Projections% 20of% 20Global% 20Meat% 20Production% 20Through, 202050.

Matteo De Vos

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