Every now and then, a fresh new research article comes out saying that if only people became vegetarian, or stopped eating beef, or ate more beans, that we’d take care of climate change. Granted, agriculture and cattle production do have emissions associated with them and we need reductions everywhere we can get them. Further, the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change: the hyperlink is to its chapter on Agriculture, a pdf download) warns that large increases in meat consumption, especially of the middle class in China, will increase global emissions by as much as a few percent.
So, the latest such article is in The Atlantic, “If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef” by James Hamblin with the tagline or summary “With one dietary change, the U.S. could almost meet greenhouse-gas emission goals.” It summarizes a paper by Helen Harwatt and others that makes this argument.
This sounds amazing! I didn’t know it was so easy! (Even though it’s really hard to get 300 million people to change their diet.)
But more important, how accurate is this? It turns out that the tagline is true, but the greenhouse-gas emissions goals it references are so weak this doesn’t turn out to mean much.
Here are a couple of key questions which really reveal that the devil is in the details:
- What or which climate goals are these? The article references Obama’s climate goals for 2020 and says that this dietary change will get us 46% to 74% of the way there. So what were Obama’s climate goals, how ambitious were they, and therefore how large or significant is a 46% to 74% step to those goals?
- How do these emissions due to beef compare to emissions due to fossil fuels? While all reductions in emissions are great, do we need to focus on creating policies that meaningfully curtail beef production or, for instance, that curtail fossil fuel production and use? If we answer “both”, what practical steps do we take?
Obama’s Climate Goals
The 2020 Obama pledge is a pledge that he made at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which was that emissions would be 17% lower in 2020 than in 2005. The graphic below which visually shows this is from the Climate Action Tracker webpage for the US: the 2 black, round circles in 2020 column, which the first vertical band of colors. These black dots are located right about at the transition from the red color to the yellow color. The red color means that emission reduction efforts are absolutely inadequate, yellow that they are medium (not adequate but not completely awful), green that they are adequate, and dark green means that emission reduction efforts are a role model for the world.