LAST UPDATED: 4 February 2020
Most of us would agree that if we want planet Earth to sustain life for generations to come, we need cleaner energy. We need cleaner energy to fuel our cars, our homes and our cities. If advances in green tech can overcome these challenges, we will have solved a big piece of the climate puzzle. But not all the big pieces...
What about the energy we use to fuel our bodies?
Turns out, this is the biggest question of all. Adelaide University's Professor of Climate Change, Barry Brook, estimates that raising animals for human consumption is responsible for half of Australia's short-term global warming gases — that's more than the coal industry.
The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective.Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds
And, according to a recent report — the biggest analysis to date on the impact of agriculture — it's the products of animal agriculture, such as meat and dairy, that are the most unsustainable of all.
What makes animal agriculture so inefficient? In short, animals consume more food than they produce. Or put another way, syphoning plant protein through the bodies of animals in order to produce animal protein is like filling your car's tank by throwing a bucket of fuel at it: you'll lose more than you gain and create a right mess in the process!
That doesn't even begin to address the damaging greenhouse gas emissions released from the millions upon millions of 'food' animals belching and farting all day long. It might sound comical, but these emissions account for one of Australia's leading contributors to climate change — which ironically will likely impact farmers earliest and hardest of all, particularly through the devastating impact of more frequent, longer and severe droughts.
Despite these dire climate predictions, Australia's Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has rejected calls from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to introduce more stringent emissions targets.
And while Prime Minister Morrison is doing his best to keep the conversation focussed on power prices, an IPCC report actually stresses that it's our food systems that present one of the most pressing issues: in order to combat climate change, we need to use less coal and reduce global meat consumption starting NOW:
The Oxford University report describes how avoiding meat and dairy is the 'single biggest way' to reduce your impact on Earth! And that's not all. Making the change to a more sustainable plant-based food system will help not only people, it will spare billions of farmed animals from the horrors of factory farms and slaughterhouses, and help save our precious wildlife:
The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% — an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined — and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.Damien Carrington, Environment editor, The Guardian UK
It's true, eating beef is bad for cows and koalas.
A global shift
It's a no brainer. A shift away from environmentally damaging meat and dairy production, to a cleaner, healthier plant-based food system is better for everyone. The United Nations was one of the first global institutions to point out that we need to reduce our dependence on animal products to avoid environmental destruction, and since then many influential voices — from business leaders and NGOs to multinational corporations — have joined the chorus.
Climate action group One Million Women has been talking about it for years. As has The Climate Council. Climate guru Al Gore, who comes from a line of cattle ranchers, is now vegan. There are schools all over the world that are adopting 'Meat Free Mondays' to teach students about sustainability and to reduce their eco footprint. Much like IKEA did when they introduced 'veggie balls' to their menu.
Meanwhile, the Stockholm International Water Institute is warning that we must reduce global animal product consumption to just 5% of our calorie intake by 2050 to make sure we don't run out of fresh water. And Greenpeace is now encouraging its global followers to reduce their meat consumption — or ditch it altogether:
Veganuary — a charity that encourages people to try vegan for January — had a record-number of sign-ups in 2018, more than doubling the previous year. While plant-based dairy and meat is flying off supermarket shelves — and that's according to Australia's leading 'beef' news site!
All of which begs the question: exactly when will our policymakers catch up?
With a Prime Minister who is warning us not to get "distracted by ideological debate" when it comes to climate change, and is failing to prioritise Australia's international climate obligations, it doesn't seem likely that calls for a meat tax (to help offset meat's significant financial burden on the environment and public health system) will be adopted any time soon.
So despite the fact meat and dairy are some of the greatest polluters of all, political focus remains stubbornly fixed on the energy we use to power our homes, rather than our bodies. In fact, the current government has no emissions reductions policies — in the energy or agricultural sectors! But that isn't stopping Prime Minister Morrison insisting that Australia will meet our Paris climate commitments. How? Well, according to the PM "the business-as-usual model gets us there in a canter".
He doesn't seem to understand that how we're currently operating — "business-as-usual" — is actually cantering Australia, and the world, towards a cliff...
The good news? We don't have to wait for the government to act!
Through the power of our everyday choices, each and every one of us can be a player and make a huge difference in the do-or-die climate change game.
With governments lagging behind, predictably the tech world is ahead of the curve, investing big money in alternatives to inefficient and unsustainable animal agriculture. Within decades it's expected that cruelty-free meat and dairy cultured in a laboratory (that is, without the need to raise and slaughter animals) will not only be commercially viable, but market forces will quickly make clean, slaughter-free meat completely 'normal'.
The fact remains that for the eco-conscious world citizen, no amount of energy efficient light bulbs or 2-minute showers will outweigh the benefits of eating fewer animal products.
Reducing or replacing animal products in our meals is not only the most profound way to practice environmentalism — it's easy, it's healthy, and it doesn't cost an extra cent.