There are lots of reasons why people might want to eat less meat and dairy, from cultural or religious reasons, to health benefits, to animal welfare. Some people choose to eat less because of climate change, and they’re onto something. As a study in Nature Food points out, there is a potentially powerful double benefit to reducing the amount of meat and dairy that we consume.
First, there are reduced emissions from production. A widespread adoption of more plant-based diets would, over time, reduce the number of animals and thus the emissions from them. This would be a fairly fast reduction in emissions, particularly of methane.
The second effect comes from the land that is freed up. If land that was formerly used as pasture were restored, it would become a carbon sink. This would take much longer, as trees re-grow in the following decades and centuries. 80% of farmland is for animals, and letting significant areas of pasture-land revert to woodlands would not reduce food production.
The study, which is summarised by Carbon Brief here, looked specifically at meat and dairy reductions in rich countries where people eat more animal products – often more than is healthy anyway. It modelled what would happen if people ate the Lancet/EAT planetary health diet (which I’ve written about before), so this is a reduction rather than an elimination of meat and dairy. This would be enough to reduce agricultural emissions by 62%, and it would make a significant contribution to the rich world’s climate targets, without demanding changes from those who already eat little meat and dairy.
That sounds like a reasonable goal to me – to encourage everyone in rich countries to eat a healthier diet, and spare climate disaster in the process.
Often when we write about climate solutions, there are reasons why we might not be able to do much as individuals. Not everyone can afford an electric car. People who rent can’t do much to insulate their homes. This can feel quite dis-empowering sometimes. Meat and dairy is different. Everybody can make a choice today to eat less of those foods, or take another step towards a vegetarian or vegan diet. So make that a positive choice, an empowered decision, because on this particular aspect of climate change you can make an immediate difference.