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Eating less meat is a climate priority, whatever the sceptics say

life_in_a_pixel / shutterstock

Here we go again. The “sceptical environmentalist”, Bjorn Lomborg, has returned to warn against the excesses of an impending green dictatorship. The latest threat: taking away our burgers!

Yes, you’ve heard correctly. According to Lomborg it could even go as far as the “UN dictating what people eat”.

A well-known provocateur who now runs a think-tank in his native Denmark, Lomborg first made his name in the early 2000s with a series of outspoken but attention-grabbing attacks on mainstream environmentalism. He argued that the climate is changing but less dramatically than most suggest, and that there is no urgent need for action. He also claimed that forests aren’t disappearing and that species extinction has been wildly exaggerated.

Lomborg walks the line between sensible liberal thinking and outright denialism by cherry-picking or misrepresenting statistics. Though widely criticised by most scientists, Lomborg retains a large following today.

This is why his typically contrarian take on climate change and food attracts so much attention, and why it is worth responding to.

Lomborg, a vegetarian for animal welfare reasons, explains that: “Almost all articles on this topic suggest going vegetarian could achieve emission cuts of 50% or more.” But apparently none of them have taken the time to “dig deeper”.

As researchers who work in environmental impact analysis, we are acutely aware of the limitations of “food footprinting” studies and the danger of taking figures at face value.

So, let’s dig deeper into his claims.

Take the “systematic peer review” he cites which found that going vegetarian cuts personal emissions by around 5% rather than 50%. He’s correct that the cuts aren’t close to halving a person’s overall emissions, but there is good reason to believe it is double what Lomborg claims.

Lomborg is a high-profile critic of the UN’s climate policy. Sebastian Silva/EPA

Only two studies in the review he uses look at the major effect of meat consumption on emissions from deforestation, even though millions of hectares of forest are cleared each year to satisfy the world’s appetite for beef. As forests act as a carbon sink, while beef farms emit lots of greenhouse gases, this has a huge impact on net emissions. Meat consumption is incompatible with limiting deforestation and encroachment into natural land. Hence, we must take into account “deforestation emissions” when tallying the environmental burden of eating meat.

Taking the more realistic figure from these studies we arrive at a 10% cut in personal emissions from going vegetarian. To put this into context: a shift to vegetarianism in the UK would be the equivalent of taking 8m (or one in four) cars off the country’s roads. The impacts of veganism would be greater still. In short, the impact of individual actions really does add up.

What about Lomborg’s second claim that vegetarians take the money they save from “eating carrots instead of steak” and spend it on other things which have their own environmental impact, offsetting part of the benefits of giving up meat?

We dug deeper and found that the paper he cites relies on data from 2006 and also does not factor in emissions from changing land use, linked to deforestation. The paper is a microeconomic analysis of what consumers in Sweden, specifically, might spend their extra cash on if they went vegetarian. Its author warns that her work must be “interpreted within a relatively narrow topical and temporal scope”, and that unrealistic market assumptions concerning fixed supply, demand, and pricing could lead to completely different conclusions when relaxed.

Nevertheless, Lomborg does extrapolate the paper’s findings, against its author’s own suggestion, to trivialise the impact of vegetarianism on emissions across the industrialised world.

Deforestation and land use change is a major cause of emissions from livestock production. Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Clearly, this is not just about the environment. It’s about our ability to choose. Lomborg prioritises the right to eat meat over our collective responsibility not to. Many of the world’s poorest are involuntary vegetarians, he argues. Our duty, he implies, is to support their “right to meat”. However, poorer countries stand to benefit from widescale adoption of a plant-based diet. Mortality linked to strokes, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer could fall by 5m to 6m avoided deaths and trillions of dollars could be saved in healthcare costs and by preventing productivity losses.

Moreover, producing meat is terribly inefficient as animals consume far more food than they yield. If we grew crops for human consumption, instead of animal feed, we could increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people, ending global hunger and reducing emissions, one carrot at a time.

Lomborg summarises his argument: “Climate change is both trivialised and hampered by unrealistic senses of magnitude, and by silly suggestions that your or my actions can transform the planet.”

To suggest you and I can do nothing to help prevent climate change is surely defeatist. This climate defeatism is the new climate denial. Lomborg offers techno-fixes where effective measures already exist. Although he knows consumers will fry the planet before they do lab-grown burgers, prescribing artificial meat helps kick the can further down the road.

Although we need systemic change, the climate is also in our hands. Perhaps the only meaningful contribution Lomborg makes to avoiding climate breakdown is choosing carrots over steak.

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