More of Us Need to Become "Weekday Vegetarians"

CC BY 2.0. David Gleason

If a trio of Scandinavian researchers has its way, much of the world’s population will soon become vegetarian, or at least flexitarian -- like it or not. According to a new study published in Climate Change, eliminating energy and transportation emissions isn’t enough to get the rising global temperature under control. People really need to stop eating so much meat and dairy.

At the Cancun Climate Change Conference in 2010, almost 200 governments agreed “to commit to a maximum temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to consider lowering that maximum to 1.5 degrees in the near future” (United Nations, Framework Convention on Climate Change). The 2-degree increase was selected as the uppermost limit before wreaking significant environmental havoc, although since then another study has shown that even 2 degrees will be disastrous.

Fredrik Hedenus, the study’s lead scientist, explains why the agricultural sector must be adjusted: "Fuels are the main emissions source. That has to be reduced first. But what we show is, even if you remove all those in the energy and transport sector, and don’t do anything about the food system, the food system itself may be an obstacle to meet this two-degree target.”

climate change food production graph

© Hedenus, Wirsenius, and Johansson

The graph above shows five different climate change scenarios. Blue is the baseline, where consumption habits continue as usual. Yellow shows increased productivity, where consumption habits continue as usual with more efficient production methods. Orange shows a scenario with technical mitigation, in which we’d have a better system for dealing with the methane gas produced by manure.

According to Co.Exist: “Even if productive and technological fixes (yellow and orange bars) bring down those emissions, the agricultural sector alone would still be producing more than half of the global greenhouse gases for which we’d have wiggle room. Those emissions don’t even take into account the energy, industry, or transportation sectors, which together make up to 58% of greenhouse gas emissions today.”

That leaves us with the red and green bars – climate carnivore and flexitarian, respectively.

Replacing 75% of beef and lamb with chicken and pork could reduce emissions to five gigatons a year. Better yet, if we replaced the ruminant meat with grains and cereals, emissions could be reduced to three gigatons.

The good news is that eating to protect the planet isn’t entirely black and white. You don’t have to become a full-blown vegetarian in order to make a big difference. Rather, you can adopt what the study suggests – “flexitarianism” – which is a semi-vegetarian diet with the occasional inclusion of meat. Food writer Mark Bittman advocates a "Vegan before 6" diet, which is fairly self-explanatory -- eat like a vegan all day, but meat's allowed for dinner. For the less disciplined, even adopting a Meatless Monday policy can help.

TreeHugger founder Graham Hill is a proponent of “weekday vegetarianism” and gave a TED talk on why he thinks everyone should give it a try. TreeHugger has hundreds of weekday vegetarian recipes, if you need some culinary inspiration; and also has a reference list of books, documentaries, talks, websites, and apps to get you started.

Unless a large number of people make serious adjustments to their diet, Hedenus thinks that governments will have to toughen their climate change policies in such a way that people’s cultural perception of meat changes. What form would that take? Perhaps a meat tax would be the easiest way.