What’s the link between veganism and climate change? Shifting to a vegan diet is the single biggest action each of us can take to stop the climate crisis, according to the largest-ever food production analysis conducted in 2018 and published in the journal Science. Researchers assessed food’s impact by accounting for its land use, greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater usage, air pollution and water pollution. The lead researcher concluded, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth… It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car. Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems.”
- On a crash course to mass extinction without veganism
- The “best case” scenario of climate change
- Overcoming apathy about climate change
- Foremost environmental organizations indict animal agriculture as a primary culprit of the climate change
- The 4 highest-impact actions we can take to stop the climate crisis
- Take a small step today
- Just change this one meal
- Taking the climate crisis seriously: we must act
On a crash course to mass extinction without veganism
We’re already on a crash course for the largest mass extinction of species in 65 million years. The “best case scenario” is still a planet that is significantly less hospitable than the one we have today. Even if we miraculously achieve the Paris Accord goal of limiting warming to 3.6 degrees F (1.5-2 degrees C) (which we have a 5% chance of doing), researchers predict the following to still occur:
The “best case” scenario of climate change
- WATER: Sea levels rise 1.6 feet and flood coastlines. Warmer oceans damage 99% of coral reefs (Foer, 2019).
- To have just enough freshwater for the world’s population in 2050, we must limit animal-based foods to 5% of total calories.
- LAND: 20-40% of the Amazon is destroyed. Greenland melts irreversibly (Foer, 2019).
- AIR: Annual heat waves destroy crops and deplete rivers (Foer, 2019).
- FOOD & WATER SCARCITY: Wheat, rice, corn and soybean yields drop by 6-12%. Four hundred million people won’t have enough water (Foer, 2019)
- “The opportunity food losses of beef, pork, dairy, poultry, and eggs are 96%, 90%, 75%, 50%, and 40%, respectively.”
- Farmed animals consume 56% of all freshwater in the U.S. This is more than ten times as much water used domestically by showers, toilets, washing cars, drinking water, and watering lawns.” Without animal-based foods, the world could feed an additional 4 billion people.
- BIODIVERSITY LOSS: 50% of all animal species and 60% of all plant species face extinction (Foer, 2019).
- PEOPLE: 143 million people will become climate migrants. People will die from heat waves, floods and droughts (Foer, 2019).
- ECONOMY: Global GDP falls by 13% (Foer, 2019).
Overcoming apathy about climate change
“The scale of inevitable loss is almost enough to make any further struggle seem futile,” Jonathan Foer writes in his book We Are the Weather. “But only almost. Millions of people will die because of climate change. Tens or hundreds of millions will become climate refugees. The number matters. It matters how many days a year children will be able to play outside, how much food and water there will be, how many years average life expectancies will shed…
They’re not just numbers… each corresponds to an individual life. It is hard to care about the lives of millions; it is impossible not to care about one life… The biggest challenge is to save as much as we can… as many trees, icebergs, degrees, species, lives.”
Foremost environmental organizations indict animal agriculture as a primary culprit of the climate change
Animal agriculture is consistently pinpointed at the number 1, number 2 or number 3 cause of every major environmental concern. (Why the variation? It can be difficult to isolate causes, as different factors interact with each other directly and indirectly in multifaceted ways.)
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The February 2022 IPCC report warns that our window to preserve a livable future is quickly closing. The report highlights how animal agriculture is a primary driver of biodiversity loss, climate change, and pollution, as well as pandemics. It states that in order to meet the Paris Accord target of 1.5°C and limit the worst impacts of climate change, our food systems must undergo rapid and ambitious changes.
Even if we eliminated fossil fuel emissions, we would not meet this target with current trends in the global food system that demand for energy-intensive animal products. Policy-level action is, of course, needed. But grassroots efforts like our collective changes do make a difference in the global food system. As we pull financial support from animal agriculture, we simultaneously redirect it to plant-based competitors who use energy efficient technology to transform plants into meat.
Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production & Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health
The livestock sector is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Overall, livestock activities contribute an estimated 18 percent to total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the five major sectors for greenhouse gas reporting: energy, industry, waste, land use, land use change and forestry, and agriculture.” Of human-caused global emissions, livestock account for 35-40% of methane; 65% of nitrous oxide; and 64% of ammonia and 9% of CO2. Methane is the most potent of these gasses, and thus the most urgent to reduce.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA reports agriculture, forestry and other land use as a whole as the second largest cause of climate change (24% total), behind electricity and heat production (25%). Much land is deforested to grow crops for farmed animals, as only 55% are fed to humans and 36% are fed to farmed animals.
Journal of Ecological Society
Animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change, according to a paper published in the Journal of Ecological Society (Rao, 2019).
PLOS Climate Journal
Rapid global phaseout of animal agriculture has the potential to stabilize greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68 percent of CO2 emissions this century. This conclusion takes into account direct emissions; indirect emissions (such as land use); and the potential for restoring that land so new plants can capture carbon emissions.
The 4 highest-impact actions we can take to stop the climate crisis
We still have a chance to avoid the worst effects, if we act quickly. Phasing out animal agriculture represents “our best and most immediate chance to reverse the trajectory of climate change”. The most impactful actions individuals can take to stop climate change include: 1) eat a plant-based diet; 2) avoid air travel; 3) live car-free; and 4) have fewer children. Of these, only eating vegan immediately reduces methane and nitrous oxide, which trap more heat than carbon dioxide. All told, vegans produce 43% fewer greenhouse gasses than meat eaters.
Take a small step today
As we have seen, our diets heavily impact our carbon footprints. We cannot claim to care about the future of life on this planet while continuing to eat meat and animal products. If you’re like most people, you don’t feel ready to adopt a new eating identity. No one who isn’t already vegan is eager to hear this message. But, it is a mistake to excuse ourselves from responsibility by pretending that there are only two options: go vegan or keep eating as we always have. Our choice is not black and white.
Just change this one meal
You can start reducing your impact on the environment by taking small, manageable steps today to transition to vegan eating. As Foer frames the issue in We Are the Weather, “Instead of imagining all the meals ahead of you, focus on the meal in front of you. Don’t give up burgers for the rest of your life. Just order something different this one time. It’s hard to change lifelong habits, but it’s not hard to change a meal. Over time, those meals become your new habits.”
Taking the climate crisis seriously: we must act
If we cannot do this, our actions show that we do not care. We must take the climate crisis seriously, at the level of action. If we do not, how are we self-professed science believers different from those who deny global warming altogether? As author and activist Colleen Patrick-Goudeau urges us, “It’s not that you can make a difference. It’s that you do make a difference.” Transitioning to veganism is the most impactful action you can take to stop climate change.
Everything we eat is a vote for a livable future or an inhospitable home.
What will your next meal be?