Meat the Future: Industrialized animal agriculture is killing our planet

By Nick Golledge

This speech was given at Diplosphere's panel discussion on Meat The Future on 10 May 2021.

Currently, our global climate is a little over 1º C warmer than it was during the mid-nineteenth century ‘pre-industrial’ era and it is continuing to warm at a rate of about one fifth of a degree per decade. Even if that rate doesn’t increase, it means we only have a couple of decades before hitting the 1.5º C Paris Agreement ‘safe limit’. The consequences of warming due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions that we’ve already experienced are globally widespread, diverse, and interconnected. A recent study, for example, identified traceable evidence for 467 discrete ways in which climate change has impacted human health, water, food, the economy, infrastructure, and global security. We are seeing clear indicators in the physical environment around us, such as a 26% increase in the acidity of the surface ocean since pre-industrial times, a rate of sea-level rise (currently 3.6 mm per year) that is two-and-a-half times greater than the average of the last century, and a reduction in Arctic sea ice since 1979 (when comprehensive and reliable satellite observations began) that geological evidence shows is unprecedented in the last 1000 years.

The link between the last 150 years or so of accelerating global warming and the exponential increase in human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is now beyond doubt, but the underlying details of which gases in particular are most damaging, and over what time periods, is less well-appreciated. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions tend to come mostly from the production of electricity, heat, or other energy (35%), from agriculture (24%), from energy-intensive industrial processes (21%), or from transportation (14%). Sectors that rely on power from coal, oil, or gas tend to dominate carbon dioxide emissions, but two other gases – methane and nitrous oxide – are also key contributors to observed increases in the radiative forcing that warms the global climate. These gases are primarily associated with animal agriculture, and they are extremely potent. Methane, for example, is 84 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but because it breaks down in the atmosphere within about 12 years, its long-term impacts (say, over a century or so) are reduced to about 36 times that of carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide has nearly 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and rather worryingly, it hangs around in the atmosphere for over a hundred years.

Clearly, if we are to reduce our emissions-based future warming, we need to address all components of the greenhouse gas inventory. In New Zealand we have an emissions profile that is remarkably skewed, compared to the global mean described above. In New Zealand nearly half of our emissions come from agriculture, with dairy farming responsible for nearly half of those (22.4% of the total). Dairying accounts for more than all of the emissions from sheep and beef farming combined. Our current government has made a commitment to reduce long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to net zero by 2050. But methane, at the moment, is off the hook. The ambition set out in the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill to reduce methane emissions by 25-47% by 2050 doesn’t align with the recommendations of the IPCC who recommend such cuts by 2030, not 2050. In assessing the scientific evidence to provide guidance to government, the Climate Change Commission Draft Report asserts that ‘strong and decisive action’ is needed, with ‘behaviour change across all sectors’.

So how do we implement ‘behavioural change’ - what does it even mean? One view is that the responsibility to reduce emissions lies firmly with the largest polluting companies to ‘clean up their act’, or with governments to provide the stick-and-carrot impetus to initiate and coordinate substantive and widespread change. Clearly, both of these are needed. But these large bodies are composed of individuals, and until individuals are convinced of the need to change, little will happen at larger scales. As individuals, we have the power to drive radical transformation simply through market forces. Stopping, or at least reducing, our consumption of meat and dairy products has an immediate and tangible effect on the climate, and will change the economic viability and national revenue value of the associated industries. Instead of investing our money in food sources and production methods that are optimized for capital gain at the expense of our environment, health, and well-being, we can easily support instead those that prioritize socio-economic and environmental sustainability. In the long-term these will prove to be far better solutions for a growing population whose prosperity depends increasingly on stewardship, rather than exploitation, of our natural environment. And let’s not forget that environmentally-damaging industries such as industrialized animal agricultural are implicitly subsidised if governments don’t require financial reparations for the externalities of that industry. In New Zealand, the environmental externalities associated with the dairy industry – if fully costed – would completely wipe out its economic contribution to the nation.

We have an abundant source of scientific and economic expertise, as well as practical know-how, to implement any of the low-carbon pathways investigated and put forward in the Climate Change Commission Draft Report, or in the numerous assessments from Motu that illustrate land-use changes that could stimulate our economy as well as lower our emissions. Individually, each of us has the capacity to take responsibility for our own carbon footprint, and the ease of making a transition to a plant-based diet is increasing all the time. So with the obvious urgency required to stay within that 1.5º C safe limit, what are we still waiting for?

Professor Nick Golledge is a glaciologist at the Antarctic Research Centre | Te Puna Pātiotio, Victoria University of Wellington

The views expressed in this speech are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.

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