Eat Less Meat
A simple choice — one that isn’t too inconvenient but delivers a large ecological bang for the behavior change buck — is to reduce meat consumption. Livestock production is a major contributor to greenhouse gases.
Until now, most of the discourse on climate change has focused on how we heat buildings, power appliances and drive vehicles. These are all important, but the impacts of producing certain types of food are more damaging than most people realize.
According to R. K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The animals are fed large amounts of grain, which is energy-intensive to produce, and they emit methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas which stays in the atmosphere far longer than CO2.
If the average American were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, that would be the equivalent of switching from driving a Camry to a Prius.
Rosamond Naylor, a researcher at Stanford, estimates that U.S. meat production is especially grain intensive, requiring 10 times the grain required to produce an equivalent amount of calories than grain, Livestock production, which now covers 30 percent of the world’s non-ice surface area, is also highly damaging to soil and water resources.
Compared to producing vegetables or rice, beef uses 16 times as much energy and produces 25 times the CO2. A study on U.S. consumption from the University of Chicago estimates that if the average American were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, that would be the equivalent of switching from driving a Camry to a Prius.
Americans currently rank second in world in meat consumption, weighing in at 271 pounds a year, up from 196 pounds 40 years ago. And that doesn’t include dairy. We get an estimated 75 grams of protein a day from animals, and 110 grams total; the government recommends only 50 grams a day.
Mr. Pachauri took a lot of heat for advocating vegetarianism, and it’s not a change most American environmental organizations have pushed for yet. But it’s a key part of a transformation to a healthy, sustainable economy for humans and the planet.
I used to be an avid carnivore, but gave up all meat and fish more than 20 years ago, and went near vegan (I eat eggs) two years ago. Eating meat seems like a hard habit to change, but I’ve found that making the change was a boon to my health, culinary life, carbon budget and conscience.
The nice thing is, every little bit helps — and you can make change gradually. According to Mr. Pachauri, if I’d become a vegan at age 12, I’d have prevented the discharge of more than 100 tons of CO2 in the atmosphere before I die. Vive les legumes!
Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College and co-chairwoman of the board of the Center for a New American Dream.
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