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?