What if We All Ate a Bit Less Meat?
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This week, we’re trying something different. Usually, our One Thing You Can Do feature highlights an idea for reducing your climate footprint. For a change, we decided to look at an individual action and talk about what would happen if everybody in the United States actually adopted it.
Here’s the question: What if everybody in the United States ate less meat? We don’t mean going vegetarian. Just less.
Is that realistic? “There is historical precedent,” said Richard Waite, an associate in the food program at the World Resources Institute. Overall, Americans eat about a third less beef than they did in the 1970s, he noted. It’s conceivable that we could make such a dietary shift again.
So, according to a study this month in the journal Scientific Reports, if everyone in the country reduced their consumption of beef, pork, and poultry by a quarter and substituted plant proteins, we’d save about 82 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. That would be a reduction of a little more than 1 percent.
Just for comparison: If everyone in the country did go vegetarian, cutting meat out completely and replacing it with plant proteins of the same nutritional value, we’d save 330 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. In that case, the savings would be about 5 percent.
Keep in mind, studies like this one necessarily include some assumptions about farming practices, dietary choices and even market forces. The numbers here are an estimate based on the average American diet and agricultural emissions data.
The average American, by the way, consumes almost 215 pounds of meat per person per year, according to 2016 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and the Food and Agriculture Organization. That includes beef, pork, poultry and lamb.
The environmental benefits of reducing meat, of course, would be lower in places that eat less meat in the first place. For reference, meat consumption in Australia is only slightly lower than the United States. Canada and the European Union are in the range of 150 pounds per person, according to the O.E.C.D.
That means, for just about any developed country, the benefits of reducing meat would be significant.
Any immediate drop in emissions would be only part of the story, though, according to Mr. Waite. Following our example from above, cutting back meat by a quarter would also free up about 23 million acres of high-quality land, an area roughly the size of Indiana.
Some of that land could be converted to more efficient food production, like growing high-protein lentils, or could be turned into forestland, which absorbs and stores carbon dioxide. Both would be crucially important as we try to feed a rising global population and to simultaneously mitigate the effects of climate change, according to a recent report by the United Nations.
The upside of eating less meat, incidentally, could go way beyond the environment. If you’re living in a Western country, it would probably be good for your health.
That was the conclusion of a report this year in the medical journal The Lancet, which suggested a dramatic reduction in red meat consumption for people who eat a lot of it, like Americans and Canadians. People in North America eat more than six times the recommended amount of red meat, the report said.
What does this have to do with climate change? As it happens, quite a bit. Economic slowdowns bring with them reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. In a world that seems to be speeding toward catastrophe, recessions act as a speed bump.
When an economy is expanding, “the demand for energy for private industry and for commercial activity increases,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Trucks and airplanes move more goods around the country, and there’s more vacationing and leisure travel. These activities produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, but they “obviously work in the opposite direction when there’s a recession,” he said.
The connection between economic blahs and lower emissions was shown in a 2015 paper in the journal Nature, which found that the nearly 10 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions in the United States between 2007 and 2009 “was primarily the result of the economic recession, evidenced by large decreases in household consumption, energy-intensive capital expenditures and export.”
That’s not the whole story, though. Professor Stavins said that if a recession was prolonged, there would also be a “reduction in investment activity,” including precisely the kind of investment in renewable energy that helps the world transition away from burning fossil fuels.
What’s more, some experts suggest that public concern about climate change tends to wane during recessions. “The relationship is very clear — economic recessions are associated with declines in concern about climate change,” said Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University. “The underlying idea is that there is a ‘finite pool of concern,’” meaning only so many issues can be a high priority, and when the economy sours it can have “large immediate impacts on individual well being.”
However, analysis from scholars at Yale and the University of California Santa Barbara, suggest that political discussion, and not economic conditions themselves, have the greatest effect on attitudes toward climate change. Which probably means that, if a recession does come, keeping climate change a prominent part of the American consciousness will come down to keeping it in the national conversation. With an election coming next year, that seems highly likely.
From the mailbag
Hello again! Last week, we wrote about political donations, and one reader raised a good point: Your money could have an especially big effect if you focus on politicians in tight races. If your local candidate looks likely to be elected (or defeated) by a solid margin, it might be better to funnel your donation to another campaign.
You could also donate your time by volunteering in a close race. If there are none near you, it’s sometimes possible to do volunteer work remotely — for instance by making calls for a candidate in a swing state through his or her campaign office.
Thanks for reading, and have a great week.