climate change food

Flexitarians for a safer climate

I tend to avoid portmanteau words as much as I can, but today I’m going to break my usual rules and write about flexitarianism.

A flexitarian, in case you haven’t encountered the word, is someone who is mostly vegetarian. It could apply to someone who eats almost entirely vegetarian but breaks their rules a few times a year at barbecues. Or it could be someone who eats meat two days out of three. So it’s a broad church and not the most precise of words. Nevertheless, it represents one of the most promising opportunities on the table when it comes to reducing the risk of dangerous climate change:

“Reduction in meat consumption to a healthy dietary intake, that is flexitarianism, offers an immediate, accessible and effective opportunity to mitigate climate change and its negative impacts. There is overwhelming evidence that shows the most valuable, meaningful, fast and inexpensive action that individuals and societies can take to prevent the impending, irreversible tragedies of global warming is to eat less meat and to consume alternatives to livestock products.”

That’s a statement worth reading again.

It’s from a study on flexitarianism which argues that we have plenty of promising solutions to climate change in the long term. We will eventually have an entirely renewable electricity network. Electric self-driving cars will one day own the roads. Carbon capture and storage could come good, but all of these are decades away. Eating less meat can start today.

The big problem with decarbonisation isn’t that we don’t know what to do, but making it happen fast enough. We have the technologies, but they can’t be applied at speed. If we had a hundred years to make the transition, we might be able to carry on swapping dirty technologies for cleaner ones and otherwise leave behaviour and consumption patterns alone. But we don’t.

Like any carbon intensive activity, what looks like a relatively moderate challenge becomes a daunting one when we look ahead. The carbon budget is going to progressively shrink each year, but meat consumption is forecast to grow, and that means that it will take up an ever bigger slice of allowable emissions. One study calculates that by 2050 the livestock sector will account for 72% of the safe greenhouse gas quota. I’m not sure anyone would argue that eating meat is so important that we should ignore it and cram industry, energy and heating, cars and aviation, and the rest of agriculture into the remaining 28%. If we want to avoid dangerous climate change, we simply have to eat less meat.

This is scarcely recognised. As I mentioned before, none of the 184 national emissions reduction plans submitted to COP21 included meat consumption. As the authors of the study note, “despite the massive opportunity for mitigating climate change offered by a reduction in meat consumption, this option has ‘fallen through the cracks’”. There isn’t a government in the world that wants to tackle the issue. It will have to happen on the individual level, and that implies talking about it, modelling it, and putting it into practice in our own lives as soon as possible.

Why not vegetarianism, pure and simple? Because it’s a harder sell. By all means go for it, or shoot for a vegan diet if you like. But for mass mobilisation, eating less meat is as much as we can ask in the time frame we have. Vegetarianism could save the world, but it won’t because it sets the bar too high. However unpopular it may be with those who have chosen the higher path, it is flexitarianism that offers our best chance.


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