Go vegan for the climate? That is not what the data say.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

I eat a mostly plant-based diet and I think most people should do the same. But it is important not to spread ideas that are not true. This leads to distortions in behavior–compared to what would happen if people had correct information–and worse outcomes. As we shall see.

Without further ado.

Those who focus primarily on food without changing other aspects of their lifestyle are fooling themselves.

According to EPA, agriculture accounts for only a tiny fraction of emissions of carbon emissions. This includes methane from livestock. 9% of carbon emissions are from agriculture. Maybe half are from animals (4.5%). Transportation and electric power produce 29% and 28%, respectively. From a carbon emissions POV, green energy and transport is way more important than abstaining from meat.

Below is a table giving the emissions figures for agriculture. Note that a substantial proportion of agricultural emissions are actually from growing crops to feed animals. Even if this proportion were relatively high, it still would be on the order of 10% of transportation and energy.

This does not mean that meat consumption is not important for CO2 emissions. It does mean however that those who focus primarily on food without changing other aspects of their lifestyle are fooling themselves.

To fight global warming, American meat consumption is largely not what counts.

I am not alone in pointing this out. Michael Mann points it out as well.

I do think that animal agriculture can be environmentally destructive, especially with respect to land use (the idea of sequestering carbon with livestock is largely unsubstantiated except with the weakest evidence).

I also think there are some serious animal ethics issues associated with, e.g. pig and chicken farming, and sometimes with cows as well.

And, again, I think eating less meat and more plants produces better health for other reasons. Suffice to say, less hyperprocessed food is also a high priority here.

But I don’t think that animal agriculture is a CO2 issue.

Our way of life is the CO2 issue, and going vegan to fight global warming is substantially a distraction from that. The focus on meat to combat global warming in this sense is in fact harmful. We do not have much time to turn this ship around. That means focusing on what counts. Meat is not insubstantial, but it is not the major issue. To fight global warming, American meat consumption is largely not what counts.

You can find the EPA document here: ‪https://epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-04/documents/us-ghg-inventory-2019-main-text.pdf‬

UPDATE:

Some people have sent me IPCC data suggesting that the global emissions footprint is larger than the modest figure suggested by EPA.

While global animal agriculture emissions are a substantial proportion of total emissions (25%), emissions from countries like the United States (OECD-1990) are actually a remarkably small proportion of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

For instance, here is a graph from a recent IPCC report:

Where AFOLU stands for “agriculture, deforestation, and other land use change.”

What is clear here is that about 25% of global carbon emissions equivalents are from agriculture. Why are these figures different from those from the EPA?

It is important to note that the EPA is showing emissions only from the United States. Let’s take a look at a figure showing a breakdown by global region.

Where,
MAF: Middle East and Africa
LAM: Latin America
EIT: Economies in Transition

What is most striking here is that while AFOLU emissions from non-OECD countries has increased substantially, AFOLU emissions from high-income countries in the OECD from the past several decades have been stable. Additionally, it is clear that emissions AFOLU emissions from countries like the United States (OECD-1990) are actually a remarkably small proportion of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

In other words, the IPCC data seem to be consistent with the EPA data. Although countries like the United States are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions, this share in fact derive from animal agriculture but from other sectors.

Less than 10% of beef in the United States is not domestically produced, meaning that the United States contributes to a very small fraction of the large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from beef from other countries.

At least not directly, one might object. What accounts for these emissions in these other countries? Could these emissions be from industries that US consumers use–thus the US emissions levels are in fact underestimated by such graphs above?

At first sight, this seems possible. After all, the largest proportion of total agricultural emissions does come from deforestation, and we have been told that the world is deforesting in order to provide for agriculture (especially livestock):

If we look at trends in land use, this seems to further reinforce this story, with land put aside for “cattle and buffaloes” declining in countries belonging to the OECD (such as the United States) but rapidly increasing elsewhere:

And indeed, the FAQ section of the IPCC report suggests much the same thing: about half of greenhouse gas emissions are driven by deforestation.

However, the notion that this deforestation globally (due to beef production, etc.) is on behalf of the United States cannot be right, either. According to this Michigan State University agricultural extension website, less than 10% of beef consumed in the United States is not domestically produced, meaning that the United States contributes to a very small fraction of the large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from beef from other countries.

Indeed, most of the foreign beef supply is from countries like Mexico and Canada–not from, say, the Amazon:

Similarly, the USDA estimates that almost 90% of US food consumption is domestically produced:

In 2016, 87.3 percent of food and beverage purchases by U.S. consumers, including both grocery store and eating out purchases, were from domestic production. The remaining 12.7 percent were imported food and beverages such as produce from Chile or wines from France.

https://www.wlj.net/top_headlines/americans-consume-mostly-u-s–made-food-produce/article_a76f95f0-5857-11e8-8922-47f84163101f.html

American greenhouse gas emissions are not substantially from agriculture; our forestry problems are not from deforestation; and our food does not come from countries that do produce large agricultural emissions. If climate is your priority, go carless first, then talk about reducing meat consumption.

Finally, if we look at the estimate mitigation potentials for forestry in the IPCC report, we see that the vast bulk of mitigation potential in OECD countries is from better forest management, while preventing deforestation is the priority in other countries (such as in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America):

In other words, our greenhouse gas emissions are not substantially from agriculture; our forestry problems are not from deforestation; and our food does not come from countries that do produce large agricultural emissions.

While agriculture might account for ~25% of emissions globally, people in the developed world are actually contributing only 10% of their emissions from agriculture. If we want to point our fingers about agriculture, we should point them at other countries. And if we want to make a change in total emissions at home, we need to start with transportation.

I still think people should consume a predominantly plant-based diet and reduce their meat and animal product consumption, but not for reasons of climate.

If climate is your priority, go carless first, then talk about reducing meat consumption.

UPDATE 2:

The following thread was linked in response to my post:

Richard’s main argument is as follows:

Even though the United States produces relatively few emissions as a proportion of total emissions (10% of total emissions is from agriculture and perhaps only about 5% from livestock) and only contributes to a very small fraction of total greenhouse gases from agriculture…

If consumers in the United States were to stop consuming so much beef, say 1/3, but continue to export to other countries, these countries which are producing the lion’s share of emissions could start producing less, because they are receiving American beef and don’t need to produce as much of their own.

But this argument relies on many assumptions that are not justified. I can count at least four (and there are probably more):

1) that there is an upper-bound to meat demand globally and other countries will stop producing as much just because we produce more;

2) that we can export all of the meat we produce;

3) we will continue to produce the same amount of beef for exportation.

But the fourth assumption is the most important: that even if the above 3 assumptions hold, the amount of beef that the United States produces is enough to substantially offset the amount of beef produced elsewhere.

This assumption does not hold up, and therefore Richard’s argument does not hold up. Here is why.

According to USDA, America produced 26.87 billion pounds of beef in 2018. (See: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/DataFiles/51875/RedMeatPoultry_ProdFull.xlsx?v=6920.8)

Let us round that up to 27 for the sake of math. One-third of 27 is 9.

9 billion pounds that the US can export and provide to the world.

Worldwide food balance for beef in 2013 according to the Food and Agricultural Association was 147.3.

Let us round that down for the sake of math.

147 billion pounds that the world produces.

147 – 9 = 138 billion pounds vs. 147 billion pounds, or a 6% decline in beef production worldwide from a one-third drop in American beef consumption.

OK. Now according to the UN Food and Agricultural Association emissions from livestock are 14.5% of total emissions, and beef and milk account for 65% of that:

That means we have about 9.5% potential emissions to mitigate via this one-third decline in American beef (and milk) consumption.

6% of 9.5% is what?

0.57% of total emissions.

Assuming the first assumptions were correct, the fourth assumption–that declines in American beef are substantial enough to offset total GHG–is false. And the fact that the first three assumptions will to some degree not hold makes the fourth assumption even more erroneous. 0.57% is the best-case scenario (and includes milk and favorable rounding).

And this is not accounting for the future increases in beef production in other countries, either. (The assumption that everyone else won’t produce more beef is not reasonable.) Here’s why. Americans produce almost 20% of the world’s beef, yet are only 4% of the world’s population.

What do you think the world is going to do as they continue developing? Keep their beef production at a standstill?

The world will keep increasing its consumption of beef, and this is all the more reason to believe that American reductions in beef won’t make a dent.

Let’s compare that to the other 96% of the American greenhouse gas emission equivalents. About 96% of American emissions are not from animal agriculture, because 9% of American emissions are from agriculture, and about 42% of those are from animals. 42% of 9% is 3.8%. 3.8% represents the total % of American emissions from animal agriculture. This New York Times article gets the numbers right, which are consistent with EPA and other sources.

OK, 96%, right? Let’s reduce that by one-third. How much would that directly impact worldwide emissions (and not by any assumptions)?

Well, the United States produces about 15% of total emissions, according to EPA:

One-third of that is about 5% of total global emissions.

So reducing beef by one-third is about 0.5% in the best case scenario. (It probably would have a substantially smaller impact.) Reducing everything else by one-third is about 5%, or at least ten times more effect.

If everyone in America stopped eating beef and milk tomorrow, and we could magically ship all of this beef and milk somewhere else, and nobody would produce more beef and milk to replace it, it would cause a 1.5% reduction in emissions–at best. And livestock emissions worldwide would drop from 14.5% to 13%.

It’s actually not the worst idea in the world.

It’s just that 1.5% is a drop in the bucket compared to our 15%. And so long as we focus on that 1.5% and not that 15%, we will get to keep our cars, planes, etc. while telling ourselves we are doing good for the planet by being vegan.

Nothing could be further from the truth. That is why, in the context of the climate debate, the focus on veganism is wrong: it is a false, self-complacent surrogate for authentic commitment to stopping climate change.

Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kevinnbass

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kevinnbass/

Support me: https://nutritionalrevolution.org/support-me/

Kevin

Posted In:

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this summary and POV. I agree that the exaggeration of connection between the animal agriculture and the environment is more harmful than helpful to 1) lifestyle behaviors and 2) the movement toward a mostly plant-based diet with fewer ideological distractors.

  2. While animal agriculture is only second or third when it comes to emissions, I think we can’t ignore other aspects of environment it has effect on. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation, species extinction (especially tragic is fishing), sweet water scarcity (as urgent problem as greenhouse gases) and oceans dead zones (due to runoff coming from rivers).

    This article is a short summary of the largest study done to date about impact of agriculture on environment and it links to the study itself if you’d like to read it: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth

    But yes, I agree with general sentiment. Voting, lobbying, changing how you travel, insulating your house, changing your heat and electricity sources, recycling and many more are very important. I just think that other than voting, only going vegan is available to every human no matter their income or life situation.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.