Reduce meat not air travel

We hear a lot about the impact on carbon emissions and climate change of travel, especially by air, but very little about the impact of the livestock industry, which has been estimated to be responsible for 18% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, more than the total emissions from all sorts of travel put together.

I have a personal interest in this because I travel a lot by air (boo!) but I have not eaten meat for 25 years, nor do I own a car.  I also live in a house that has neither any heating nor air conditioning; nor (unlike many ex pats in Addis Ababa) do we have a generator.  So if we are fixated only on air travel, my carbon footprint looks horrendous; but it looks a lot better if you take account of other aspects of my lifestyle. I am sure I should do more, probably much more, to reduce the damage that I do to the environment: but let’s look objectively at the overall impact of a person’s lifestyle, rather than focus on any single measure.

The fixation with air travel annoys me because I think that there is public good in air travel.  The world would, in my view, be a better place if more people were able to travel and meet people in other countries and learn about other cultures.  We would have a stronger sense of solidarity with other people around the world and a greater willingness to act collectively to solve global problems.  We would probably be more worked up about the need to tackle global warming if we saw first hand how it is already affecting communities affected by rising temperatures and rising sea levels.  Air transport also enables farmers in Africa to grow flowers and beans for sale in Europe, with an overall carbon cost that is much lower than if these products were grown in greenhouses in Europe, and that trade provides livelihoods for more than a million people who desperately need it so that they can trade their way out of poverty.

I do not see a similar “public good” argument for eating meat.  I did not become a vegetarian 25 years ago because of climate change, which hadn’t been invented then, but because I thought then and continue to believe that it is wrong to eat animals purely for pleasure.  As well as being bad for the animals themselves, and for the climate, the meat industry is destroying our health and our countryside.

Yesterday Tristram Stuart Hunt in The Guardian calculated how much we should reduce our meat consumption:

Based on the global food production figures published by the FAO, I did a few preliminary calculations. Global average consumption of meat and dairy products including milk was 152kg a person in 2003. Average EU and US consumption, by contrast, was over 400kg, while Uganda’s was 45kg. In order to reach the equitable fair share of global production, rich western countries would have to cut their consumption by 2.7 times – and this doesn’t include the fact that the butter will have to be spread even more thinly if the global population really does increase by another 2.3 billion by 2050.

However, still further reductions would be necessary because global meat production is already at unsustainable levels. The IPCC among other bodies, has called for an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Since high levels of meat and dairy ­consumption are luxuries, it seems reasonable to expect livestock production to take its share of the hit. For rich ­western countries this would mean decreasing meat and dairy consumption to significantly less than one tenth of current levels, the sooner the better.

So let’s try to focus less on air travel – which has positive benefits for the world – and more on changing our diet, which we should be doing even if there were no impact from livestock on climate change.

I suspect that the environmental movement focuses on air travel partly because it appeals to an instinct for class war. The kind of people who fly several times a year on long-haul flights are the kind of people we love to hate.  This makes a campaign against air travel much more popular than criticising people for eating meat, which would mean taking on “ordinary” people.

Of course, as a vegetarian who flies a lot, I would say this, wouldn’t I?

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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18 Comments

  1. Owen,
    I just couldn’t agree more.
    I grew up in rural Kentucky. No one there was from anywhere but there. I remember hearing stories on the news about disasters or happy momentous occasions…it meant next to nothing. It could have been happening on Mars.
    After 17 years of traveling – it’s rare that I don’t connect to a newsworthy event (and what it means for real people)on a personal level. It’s not just numbers or faces (that don’t look like mine or my family’s)…it’s my friends, colleagues…or sometimes brief acquaintances whose lives touched mine. I see a very real cost in cutting back on travel – it will undermine our ability to see how connected we all are.
    Agree – giving up eating animals is a winner all around. but the general principle is equally important – of each person doing what can work more easily in their life (meat is much easier for me to forgo than air conditioning here in the swamp we call Washington DC!) – and not to forget to count the costs/ benefits on both sides.

  2. Well global cimate change *was known about 25 years ago, just not by many. It wasn’t long after than that Margaret Thatcher made her famous speech on the subject.

    Reduce meat + dairy to 10% current?! I think the latter is the hardest part: Butter on toast and milk in tea. Unless I remember to always get from the organic farm shop and not the supermarket :/

    1. Paul

      I know that it had been invented – but it was before I knew anything about it.

      Dairy is going to be a problem for a pizza addict like me.

      Owen

    1. Sub Ed – Good catch. The link was generated automatically (by ScribeFire) from the page header – which does say Tristram Hunt (if you open the page in a browser you’ll see that in the name of the tab). But the byline says Tristram Stuart. Duly changed in the blog entry.

  3. I agree with your first commenter that we each should start with whatever fits our lifestyle best. There’s no point trying to cajole someone whose children live in Australia to give up long-haul, a pizza junkie to give up mozzarella or a Glaswegian central heating. Maybe if we each made the easy changes we might not need to make the difficult ones.

    Although those of us who care should still challenge our own lifestyles. Battery or free range? Rail or air for short-haul? Pulses or mince? Tesco or farmers’ market? Car or bike?

    But beware judging others’ choices. Class pays as much if not more part in food choices/opportunities as in travel options. Let’s make it easy for people to make the small changes, and encourage them to do so. .

    1. John – Sure – we should do what suits us best, provided we do enough. My point is that it is a pity to focus on air travel, which also does some good, rather than eating meat which mainly does harm.

  4. Put a price on it. Once the right to use up some of the atmosphere’s scarce capacity to absorb carbon dioxide is distributed rationally rather than simply given away free to whoever pushes their way to the front of the queue, people can make their own decisions about whether flying is preferable to eating meat, or the other way round.

  5. Richard – I agree that the way to sort all this out is to put a price on it.

    But I suppose a more formal way of making my point is that if and when we get round to pricing these things properly, including the environmental costs, the price of air travel should take account of the wider positive externalities too (viz. global solidarity) whereas the price of meat should take account of the wider negative externalities (viz. animal deaths, bad health, destruction of countryside, etc).

    Owen

  6. Owen, it’s refreshing to read your distinction b/w carbon footprints that contribute to public good, and those that have less justifiable benefits.

    I vehemently agree that travel and intercultural connections are a vital ingredient for increasing the *desire* to make sustainable changes. Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  7. Bravo — when I hear diatribes against air travel, I am always dismayed to think of a world in which we are constrained to the corner of the globe where we originated. And I am continually frustrated that the only thing no one is willing to talk about — the sacred cow, if you will — is the environmental impact of eating lots of meat. I agree with previous commenters that different people can choose different changes in lifestyle, but it’s frustrating to see it presented in the media as if travel/shipping/”food miles” etc. are the only factors to consider.
    Then again, I am also a wandering vegetarian…

    Paul — I think it’s actually best to think about dairy as a condiment the same way that Michael Pollan talks about using a bit of meat to flavor a dish that uses vegetables and grains as a base — so using dairy in small amounts to flavor other dishes (e.g. milk in tea and butter on toast) is probably the most reasonable approach to cutting consumption. Though I must say own weakness is ice cream.

    Anyways, I do think the meat argument is starting to get out there — it just has a harder slog.

  8. Having just got back from a holiday in Syria and taken a rare flight which has left me feeling carbon guilty but culturally enriched, this was a really interesting post to read. I’d love to work out some comparative figures, as obviously far more people are eating meat than engaging in long distance travel at the moment. If the whole world ditches meat, but everyone gets to fly, does that work too?

    I saw in another article that 1kg of beef is equivalent to travelling 250km. So if all I was eating was beef and I’m the EU average of 400kg a year meat consumption, then it’s the equivalent of travelling 100,000 miles every year. I could ‘afford’ 25 return flights to Damascus on that budget, wow.

    Red meat and dairy are the extreme end of the meat spectrum. A more palatable suggestion for people who weep at the thought of a meatless world would be to switch over to much less environmentally intensive chicken, eggs, sheep and goats…

  9. I too cringe at the irony of finding myself having to expend so much carbon in order to travel somewhere, like Mumbai last year, to conduct research on the very issue of how to not expend so much carbon, how to reduce our carbon footprint. And as you discuss in this post, it is the quotidian habits that we develop, or lose, over time, that will cumulatively make a sustained impact. It is with this belief that I intern with the non profit public health initiative Meatless Monday which promotes the concept of cutting back meat to reduce risk of preventable disease while also reducing our impact on the environment. Because it is a project of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, Meatless Monday also serves as a great source of information, which you can get a taste of through the Youtube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpnKeYmR1NM and the website, http://www.meatlessmonday.com.

  10. 400 kg is probably a bit high for the average EU meat consumption – that would be 2.5 pounds a day. But yes, there are lots of good reasons for cutting down meat consumption, and a combination of carbon prices and animal welfare regulation will help, too. My wife and I try to follow Jewish kosher laws at home, which is a further incentive to cut down – it is not easily obtainable (supermarkets don’t stock it, so it means a special trip to the kosher butchers), it is more expensive (the rules of ritual slaughter mean that industrial methods of production cannot be used), it has to be cooked and prepared separately from dairy products (so it is quite an effort to get out the separate crockery and implements), and the rule requiring a six hour gap between eating meat and then eating dairy means that choosing meat rules out so many other foodstuffs that it is normally preferable to avoid it. Whatever the original purposes of the laws about meat-eating, framing so many rituals and obligations reduces the temptation to eat it.

  11. Hi Owen,

    Interesting post though I’m afraid that given the amount of carbon we need to cut, and a growing world population, desire for continued economic growth etc… we’re all going to have to do both i.e. eat less meat AND fly less. Current forecasts (for UK at least) mean that we need cuts of 80-90% of carbon. That means radical decarbonisation and huge changes in behaviour.

    I like flying and eating meat, though have radically cut the former (didn’t fly last year at all) and am making in-roads on the latter. I don’t think this is about class war, I think it’s about big changes about the way we live.

  12. Owen,
    [Better late than never]
    I think Helen’s hit it on the head. We privileged are very adept at rationalising our own lifestyle choices. Meat is an essential source of food to much of the world’s population where as air travel is an enormously damaging and often frivolous activity undertaken by a tiny minority of the world’s people. As Helen rightly says the changes we need to make are enormous. If we all successfully quarantine our favourite carbon-producing activity our fates are seeled. But as George Monbiot had said “…I urge you to remember these privations affect only a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you.”

  13. Air travel is where the rubber hits the road, because everyone in the first world has a stake in it. That’s why it tends to get greenwashed the most, including in this article. As the IPCC report states, there is a 2.3 carbon multiplier on it because of the greenhouse effect of the water vapor emitted into the stratosphere. Yet, time and time again we see articles extolling the efficiency of modern planes – “better mileage than a Prius”, implying that it is almost virtuous to fly rather than drive.

    If the math is looked at another way, you can put 4 people in a Prius, so arguably you can drive with 1/9th the greenhouse effect per passenger mile, compared to air travel. Yet, nobody is even remotely interested in considering the implications of this, because it hits home directly for most of us.

  14. Well, while the upper middle class continue to circle the globe and suck up all the resources for travel, your argument that it increases empathy seems more and more off base. If this were true, all of the super rich would have fought for an egalitarian society something fiercely by now. Of course, it’s fun and it expands your sense of the world, but please stop with the empathy argument.

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