So What Can I Do to Save the Planet? Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

At COP 18 there has been much talk about combating climate change with energy conservation, carbon capture and storage, clean energy and placing a price on carbon.  However, these (necessary) strategies are designed to effect change on a massive scale and will require years before they can be fully implemented.  A lot of young people are worried about the future of our planet and want to act now – but what can we do?

In addition to the better known steps you can take to lessen your impact on the environment such as walking more, turning off the lights, and recycling I would like to discuss another way to help the planet – eat more plants (and less meat)! 

Several of the side events at COP 18 have focused on animal agriculture – an industry with an enormous carbon footprint. Many people don’t realize that the animal agriculture sector is responsible for about 18% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  According to the FAO, “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”  This includes the impact of clearing land for animal grazing, growing grain to feed livestock and transporting feed, animals, and animal products.

I spent a lot of time learning about the missions of organizations such as Brighter Green, The Humane Society International, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Here are some facts I learned:

  • Farm animals are responsible for 35-40% of methane emissions worldwide.  Methane gas has 25 times the global warming potential of CO2.
  • We use 8 times as much arable land for feeding our animals than feeding ourselves.
  • It requires approximately 1,800 gallons to produce one pound of grain-fed beef.
  • Since 1980, meat consumption in China has quadrupled.  China is now importing record amounts of both corn and soybean to feed their animals.
  • Worldwide, more than 97% of soymeal and over 60% of barley and corn go to feed farm animals.
  • Farm animals and meat, egg, and dairy facilities cover one-third of the Earth’s total surface area and use more than two-thirds of its arable land.
  • Cattle ranching is one of the main causes of deforestation in Latin America.

 Eating fewer animals is not just an issue of pragmatism.  It is an issue of personal health.  I also believe it is an ethical issue.  With about 12% of the world’s population considered “food insecure”, feeding so much to our animals is unethical.  The first people to be affected by the consequences of global warming, desertification of arable land will be those already in poverty.  On the ethics of global warming, Henry Miller of Stanford University said “like the sinking of the Titanic, catastrophes are not democratic…A much higher fraction of passengers from the cheapest decks were lost.  We’ll see the same phenomenon with global warming.”

At Tuck, we talk a lot about how cap and trade works by encouraging companies to go after the “low hanging fruit” – the parts of their supply chain that are the easiest to remove emissions from.  If you’ve thought about improving the health of yourself or the planet recently, please consider if cutting back on meat consumption might be the “low hanging fruit” for you. 

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