A recent peer-reviewed scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was described by the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, as a ‘code red for humanity’. The report warns of the severe consequences of inadequate action to contain climate change and avoid irreversible impacts known as tipping points.
Emissions of methane associated with human activity account for over a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Methane is more potent than carbon dioxide but has a much shorter life. A rapid and big cut in global methane emissions would therefore slow down global heating significantly whilst buying time to tackle the more difficult sources of greenhouse gas emissions that involve capital expenditure.
Methane is the main greenhouse gas associated with meat and dairy consumption. Much of it is a product of the digestive systems of ruminants such as cows and sheep but other aspects of animal agriculture produce it too. It’s responsible for 42% of global methane emissions whereas the oil and gas industry only accounts for 36%. Waste is the source of a further 18%. Despite animal agriculture being the biggest source of methane emissions, the focus of calls for reduction so far has been on emissions from the oil and gas industry. This is despite the fact that dietary change need not result in extra costs to individuals.
To put this in context, meat and dairy consumption is responsible for between 16.5% and 87% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The lower estimate is deficient in a number of ways including not reflecting the fact that land used for animal agriculture could be much more effectively used for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than for grazing animals for food production and for growing animal feed crops.
Like the elephant in the room, the urgent need to reduce meat and dairy consumption, preferably eliminate it, is rarely recognised by politicians as a valid or viable tool in tackling climate change. This is despite being urged to do so by scientists and other experts. The title of this episode of Time is Sliding is therefore trying to draw attention to this. The need to move away from diets based on meat and dairy consumption is not even on the agenda for discussion at the crucially important COP26 climate change conference being held in Glasgow UK in November 2021. That conference is being attended by world leaders and other representatives of countries around the world. It's being seen as the last chance saloon for stopping climate change getting out of human control.
This episode explores the contribution of meat and dairy consumption to climate change, in more detail than here, and attempts to find reasons why the huge herd of cows in the COProom are being ignored.
Agricultural systems also need to change. Listeners might therefore wish to add their signatures to those calling for a Plant Based Treaty to parallel the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement that it produced.
Listeners might also be interested in the UK Vegan Society’s 2021 report called “Planting value in the Food System”. It sets out a vision for food and farming based on interviews with farmers and experts on health, environmental and food policy.
For more information about the 87% estimate of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to meat and dairy consumption, there's an episode of the Science is Gray podcast that's really helpful.
More at https://timeissliding.earth
Hello sliders in time. You’ve pressed play… for Time is Sliding. I'm Rob Baylis, podcasting about change. Now let's slide on.
Welcome to episode 4 of Time is Sliding, a podcast exploring how our world and our lives are changing, or need to change, over the precious time that’s always slippery-sliding away.
In each episode, you’ll hear discussion about changes in people’s lives, society and the environment on which we all depend. As a podcast about change, you can’t expect it to stay the same though. There’ll be departures and developments in style, content and format. This episode does just that in highlighting a change that has to be made. It’s one that’s been neglected in the run-up to the COP26 climate change conference and was almost completely off the agenda in the first 25 COPs. Chiming with episode three’s discussion with Mary Clear, there’s also an undercurrent of kindness in this episode.
The episode is being released to coincide with COP26 and also World Vegan Day. World Vegan Day marks the anniversary of The Vegan Society being formed in the UK in 1944. Vegans around the world celebrate this, and the growth of veganism, on the 1st November every year.
About COP26 02:13
Just in case some listeners live in a parallel universe in which they haven’t heard of COP26, don’t know what it is or haven’t become aware that climate change is a much bigger threat to humanity than Covid 19, here’s a very basic explanation. It’s an international conference being held in Glasgow, Scotland, between 31st October and 12th November this year. That’s 2021 if you’re listening at some stage in the future. The conference is being attended by many world leaders and other key actors in the saga that is the worldwide imperative to take urgent action to tackle the emergency resulting from climate change.
The climate emergency 03:05
A recent peer-reviewed scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was described by the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, as a ‘code red for humanity’. The report warns of the severe consequences of inadequate action to contain climate change and avoid irreversible impacts known as tipping points. Humanity is facing a climate emergency that needs urgent, appropriate and adequate action in response.
We’re already seeing some of the consequences of climate change through extreme weather events both hot and cold, wet and dry. Flooding, forest fires and even the war in Syria, with the mass migration it prompted, have been attributed to climate changes already happening. Sea levels are rising too because of melting ice-bodies in the arctic, antarctic and glaciers. As a result, many coastal cities, including London, are going to be impacted. A hotter world threatens many forms of life as well as food security and water supplies.
I should explain that carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides are the main greenhouse gases causing climate change. As a result of human activities they’ve more than doubled to dangerous levels in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution but particularly since the 1960s.
COP26 is probably the last chance saloon for governments to re-chart humanity’s Titanic voyage and steer the massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that we know are needed. The longer game is that greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activities must be throttled back to very close to zero by 2050 and action taken to negate any unavoidable residual emissions.
The cows in the room 05:29
You may be wondering what all of this has got to do with a huge herd of cows in the COP-room as referred to in the title of this episode. Well, like the elephant in the room, huge herds of cows seem to have been invisible in all previous climate change conferences and it looks like the same applies to what will be discussed at COP26. Cows, along with other non-human animals used for human food, are highly significant for climate change because meat and dairy consumption accounts for a large proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The most commonly quoted estimate of meat and dairy consumption’s contribution to climate change is 14.5% of world-wide greenhouse gas emissions. That estimate was published in 2013 by the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It’s been superseded by several more accurate and inclusive estimates. One was reported in a 2021 academic paper written by Richard Twine. He updated the FAO estimate to 16.5% but there are several other higher estimates including one as high as 87%.
Being responsible for at least 16.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and probably a lot more, makes diet and animal agriculture an important target for emission reductions alongside transport, heavy industry, energy and consumption. However, it should be prioritised above all other sources of greenhouse gas emissions for reasons I’ll now explain.
The significance of methane 07:34
Methane is the main greenhouse gas associated with meat and dairy consumption. Much of it is a product of the digestive systems of ruminants such as cows and sheep but other aspects of animal agriculture produce it too. It’s responsible for 42% of global methane emissions whereas the oil and gas industry only accounts for 36%. Waste is the source of a further 18%. Despite animal agriculture being the biggest source of methane emissions, the focus of calls for reduction so far has been on emissions from the oil and gas industry.
Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Its global warming potential is around 80 times more. However, it only has a lifespan in the atmosphere of 10 to 15 years before breaking down to carbon dioxide. In contrast, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for 100s of years and more. Because of its short lifespan, emissions of methane at constant levels would make very little difference to climate change. If, however, the rate of methane emissions were to be reduced, there would be a much greater and faster reduction in the negative effects of climate change than would result if the same quantity of carbon dioxide were to be cut. It would be a quick win. Unfortunately though, methane emissions are increasing and so are making a more rapid and larger impact on climate change than the same level of increase in carbon dioxide emissions.
Several respected organisations have highlighted the efficacy of a reduction in methane emissions as a way of tackling climate change. One is the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a voluntary partnership of 73 governments (including France, Germany, Russia, UK and USA). Intergovernmental organisations, businesses, scientific institutions and civil society organisations are also part of the partnership. The CCAC has reported that a 45% reduction in human-caused methane emissions by 2030 would contain the increase in global average temperature since the start of the industrial revolution to within the 1.5 degrees centigrade ambition set by the Paris Agreement made at COP21 in 2015. The CCAC adds that this would also bring benefits for health, development, and food security.
The scale and rapidity by which a reduction in methane emissions can limit climate change is why the USA and the European Union initiated the Global Methane Pledge in September 2021. Countries are being encouraged to pledge to make a 30% reduction in methane emissions from 2020 levels, by 2030. I don’t know why that doesn’t seem aligned with the CCAC’s proposed 45% cut.
I quote The Whitehouse Press release dated 18th September 2021:
“Rapidly reducing methane emissions is complementary to action on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and is regarded as the single most effective strategy to reduce global warming in the near term and keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach.”
Governments not admitting that there are cows in the room 12:00
Despite various esteemed international and national bodies recommending cuts in the consumption of animal products amongst the measures needed to contain climate change, it’s glaringly absent from the Whitehouse Press release just mentioned.
The UK provides another depressing example of a government shunning dietary change as a means of tackling climate change. Only this month (October 2021), the Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy uploaded to its web site a research paper recommending that people should, in its words "shift dietary habits" towards plant-based foods to combat climate change. That sounds like a great leap forward… until the paper was hastily removed from the web site and the following statement was made:
"We have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour in this way. For that reason, our Net Zero Strategy published yesterday contained no such plans.”
I hope that I’ve made it clear enough as to why it’s so important to eliminate, or at least reduce, the consumption of meat and dairy. The benefits would be realised more quickly than cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and need not involve additional costs to individuals or governments.
The huge herd of cows in the COP-room 13:50
Now let’s get back to that huge herd of cows in the COP-room. Given the importance and efficacy of dietary change, it’s shocking to find that neither food nor agriculture is listed in the COP26 Presidency Programme. Elsewhere, in the COP26 green zone, there’s one event on food and agriculture on one day out of COP26’s two-weeks. It’s a youth initiative, Act4Food Act4Change. Act4Food Act4Change is seeking to improve the global food system but the cows in the room are barely mentioned in the long list of pledges on its web site. On another COP26 day, a British food retail chain has an event that looks at various aspects of food but there’s no mention of adopting plant-based diets, fully or partially, in the information about the event.
There’s a step in the right direction on the sustainability page of the COP26 web site. It states there will be “Catering that prioritises locally sourced and in season food items to minimise mileage for transportation and supporting local business.” A report in The Guardian has added a small amount of detail to this. Apparently, the menu will be dominated by plant-based dishes, 80% of the food will be sourced locally from Scotland and 95% from the UK. Also, each item on the menu will include an estimate of its carbon footprint. This is quoted as “helping attendees make climate-friendly choices.” Example dishes are “potato, leek and rosemary chowder, smoked salmon and a spiced mushroom and onion burger served with a vegan tomato mayo, slaw and shoots”. I wish I had time in this episode to cover all the well-known environmental impacts associated with farmed salmon but it looks like the conference organisers are at least acknowledging that cutting meat and dairy consumption has a big role to play in tackling climate change. Why oh why has that not fed into the conference agenda?
The UK government holds the presidency of COP26 and, as already mentioned, it’s reluctant to ‘dictate’ what its citizens eat. That’s despite its previous interventions into personal behaviour change such as the restrictions introduced in its responses to the Covid 19 pandemic. Another example is the levy imposed on the sugar content of soft drinks.
What’s the beef with advocating dietary change? 17:09
So what’s the beef with advocating dietary change? The UK Government’s independent advisory body, the Climate Change Committee recommended in December 2020 that the UK should reduce consumption of “high-carbon meat and dairy products by 20% by 2030, with further reductions in later years.” However, the committee highlights, in its response to the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy published in October 2021, the glaring omission of “an explicit ambition on diet change.” It adds that this must be explored further and early action taken.
I think the reason for inaction so far, and the huge herd of cows in the COP-room, is that the UK Government, and many others, are too scared to take a position that seems disruptive to the lives of the majority of their citizens. The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, made this position loud and clear in his forward to his government’s Net Zero Strategy. He wrote:
For years, going green was inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love. But this strategy shows how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight. In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.
Of course, he didn’t even mention anything about cutting meat and dairy consumption. That might be seen as a sacrifice that only extremist people would be prepared to make as a form of self-punishment - like wearing shirts made of hair. It’s clear he doesn’t want to scare those who fear change regardless of whether or not it’s good for them or anyone else. These will include conservative people, potential voters, members of his own Conservative Party and, of course, powerful animal agriculture interests.
The UK Government being scared of dictating public behaviour is one thing but surely all governments should provide advice on what’s best for citizens … whether it be related to public health or the interrelated issue of the environment in which citizens live? Public Health England already does this to some extent through its Eatwell Guide - but meat and dairy is included in that guide without reference to health risks or climate change implications.
One positive statement has come in the week before COP26. The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has actually urged Britons to eat less meat and take fewer flights. He says this will make a huge contribution to curbing climate change. What he hasn’t dared say is that switching to a vegan diet would reduce the carbon footprint of the average Brit by 50%. Nevertheless, he’ll probably have to face pickles at dawn in the near future because of what he did say.
It often amazes me that governments don’t seem to realise (or want to admit) that, unlike most other ways to tackle climate change, there’s no investment cost needed to change diet. I must be being naive in believing that governments should be championing the most cost-effective measures to protect their current and future citizens from the ravages of the crisis that climate change is.
An upbeat vision of a future 22:05
I’m now going to change the mood of this episode by playing an excerpt from a recording of a chat with my friend Annie in the wooded part of a local park during the summer of 2020. I happened to have a portable recorder with me when I came across Annie walking her dog. We sat, socially-distanced, at either end of a park bench and so you can hear the ambient sounds of our surroundings. During the excerpt, Annie describes an upbeat vision of a future in which climate change has been contained by a wholesale adoption of vegan diets amongst other mitigation measures.
I should add that Annie’s dog Dylan was rescued and so being his companion is not adding to the meat-consuming population of dogs in the UK. I don’t actually know what Annie feeds Dylan but there are certainly plant-based dog foods that meet all their nutritional needs. Dogs are also happy eating them.
So. We’re sitting at the top of a wood on a very hot day … for some people … I love it. And I’ve called by a friend of mine who is now going to introduce herself before I ask her a question.
OK. My name’s Annie. I care passionately about planet Earth, Gaia, Pachamama and all sentient beings … and non-sentient beings, actually…that inhabit this beautiful planet that we seem to be destroying.
OK. Now I’d like you to say a few words please …about giving us an optimistic vision of where we could be heading when humanity deals with climate change in a switched on, sensible, way as opposed to the way things are looking at the moment.
We get lots of pessimism
So what I’d like you to do is put on your optimistic hat, and I’m sure that you, of many people, are able to do that.
Yes. I think there is a lot, Rob, that could be done. Ideally, we’d start with children, so educating children, just bringing them into the conversation. So they…getting them out … I suppose…I don’t know whether I’m really answering the question because I’m starting where ideally it would be. So it would be involving children. We would be just really taking seriously the way that we use our resources. We’d be cycling more. We’d be getting out in nature more. We would certainly not be consuming animals, because that’s a massive contributor to global warming.
Do you think meat, and dairy and the like will be looked at as some kind of aberration like smoking is regarded now?
I really do believe that, in time, slaughterhouses …there will be some that will be opened in the same way as places like Auschwitz - people can go and visit and being totally … not being able to believe what happened there. I think it’s gonna be the same with slaughterhouses. People are going to be aghast that they contributed to such an appalling thing - because of cognitive dissonance. So it’s not a blame thing, it’s not a judgement thing, but I do believe …there are people that will say ‘o no that’s not going to happen’ …but I really do believe that it’s changing. People are starting to realise that…
Where does that fit in with climate change? I think I know the answer but where do you see?…well I know an answer, I don’t profess to have all the answers …where do you see that fitting in with climate change?
We’re not going to be plundering the Earth’s resources, and also there’s not going to be as much methane going up into the atmosphere. And I think people…the consciousness of people will change as well. I think once the penny drops with the majority of people about what we’re actually doing, and how we’re treating sentient beings, then I think it’s a natural progression for then people to start thinking about other things as well. Like, OK, that was wrong that we’ve been eating dead animals … we’ve been contributing to wholesale slaughter of sentient beings…and look at what we’re doing to the planet as well, the only place that we have to live.
Do you think that people will come to that though an awareness of climate change, or they’ll come to climate change through an awareness of the mistreatment of animals?
I think it could come both ways. Somebody could be walking along the street… and somebody is stopping people, having a conversation about climate change…and it could easily go to eating animals. It could also be somebody talking about vegan movement … and you can’t not involve climate change in that either. I think they go together.
There’s a lot of contributory factors with global warming and climate change.
Don’t you think people have had enough information about this already, and the people who haven’t changed as a result of the information, are not gonna change when they just get more information?
No. I believe that you can drip-feed. There are people who … I think probably most people are like this … they hear something, they don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear it because they don’t want the status quo of their lives to be impacted on. They just want to be able to continue doing what they’ve been doing, and they want their meat and two veg or whatever. But then something happens, something happens. It’s no different to somebody that’s very over weight and he’s ignored it for a long time, and then one person makes one comment after a long period of time …and something shifts. So we need to be getting the information out there, and not standing on a pedestal and being too evangelical about it, because that can turn people off. But drip-feeding just all the time, bringing out alternatives whenever there’s new information that comes through just making sure that people know that… in any way.
I’ve been really heartened to see …and I know I seem to be spending more time talking about the vegan movement than anything else … but I’ve been really heartened to see adverts on television for vegan alternatives, and on the sides of buses. That just really excites me that. Just on the climate change movement, seeing young people getting really, really involved. It’s really exciting. We’ve created that mess for them. We need to support them ‘cos they are our future. And, of course, the younger ones coming behind them, they’re the ones that we really need to be focusing on as well, with diet … with just an awareness of the various ways that we contribute to either the planet continuing, or thriving, or dying. And I would not have done this with my children - I would not have said ‘o no I don’t want to talk to them about this because it’s too scary’. They need to know. ‘This is what’s happening, and this is what you can do. There is action that you can take.’
Summing up 31:10
I hope that you found Annie’s vision inspiring. She came across as a warm, kind and thoughtful person with an optimistic view of the intrinsic kindness in humanity. I hope her vision of the future comes true.
As for the 2021 climate change conference in Glasgow, John Kerry, the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has said that COP26 is “the last best chance the world has to come together in order to do the things we need to do to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”
Emissions of methane account for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. They’re more potent than carbon dioxide but have a much shorter life. A rapid and big cut in global methane emissions would therefore slow down global heating significantly whilst buying time to tackle the more difficult sources of greenhouse gas emissions that involve capital expenditure.
To recap, animal agriculture is the biggest source of methane emissions. It outstrips the oil and gas industries as well as the emissions from waste. So why is there a huge herd of cows being ignored in the COP-room? In my view, the main reason is that governments around the world are reluctant to impose on their citizens what they see as radical change. Even advice and advocacy towards radical change, or even small steps towards change, are seen as unpalatable.
I suspect there’s another aspect to ignoring the huge herd of cows in the room. Agricultural systems will have to be transformed into regenerative systems that provide wholesome plant-based foods. The trouble is that there are many vested interests that will always try to block such a transformation, and they tend to have the ear of governments and international organisations. Indeed, you don’t have to look too far to find the practitioners of animal agriculture being members of ruling parties and holding power in governments.
What a huge topic the need to change agricultural systems is. It’s certainly beyond the scope of this episode so I hope I’ll be able to cover it with an expert in a future episode of Time is Sliding. Meanwhile, if what I’ve said in this episode makes sense to you, may I suggest that you add your signature to those calling for a Plant Based Treaty to parallel the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement that it produced.
You might also be interested in the UK Vegan Society’s 2021 report called “Planting value in the Food System”. It sets out a vision for food and farming based on interviews with farmers and experts on health, environmental and food policy. It endeavours to set out a fairer and more sustainable food system in the future. I’ll include a link to this report and to the Plant Based Treaty web site in the episode notes.
In addition to being a really effective and cheap way to buy time to tackle climate change, there are multiple other benefits of plant-based diets. Those benefits include greater food security, reduced pressure on land use, less deforestation and fewer forest fires in places like Brazil, improved biodiversity, lower public health costs, reduced risk of zoonotic diseases like Covid 19 crossing over into humans, other improvements to public health particularly relating to cancer, heart disease and diabetes, less air and water pollution, reduced water use, less fertiliser manufacture and, of course, the well-being of sentient beings - the more than 88 billion non-human animals across the globe whose lives are cut short every year to satisfy the human appetite for consuming their body parts and secretions.
Governments have shown so far that they are incapable or unwilling to initiate adequate action to tackle the climate emergency, the crisis that’s so much more dangerous than Covid 19. They’re even less willing to advocate dietary change, the cheapest and quickest approach to curbing the irreversible impacts of climate change. The science is clear though. Changing to a plant-based diet is the single most effective step that most people can make in limiting the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their lifestyle. That’s as much as a 50% cut. Collectively, it can give a big boost to the likelihood that the worst consequences of climate change can be contained whilst taking a lot of pressure off the ecological systems that support life on earth. And quite frankly, it’s not a sacrifice. It’s a pleasure to eat plant-based foods.
Reducing rather than eliminating meat and dairy from diets will help too - but obviously, the bigger the reduction, the more benefits will flow. As well as climate change benefits, they will include better health and a kinder society that recognises that sentient animals should not be forced to suffer terribly for foods that are not necessary for human nutrition. Is there a cow waiting to be heard in your room?
That’s almost it for the fourth episode of the Time is Sliding podcast. Thanks to you for listening this far. I hope that it has provided clear insights into why dietary change is so important if humanity is to have a chance of succeeding in its last-ditch efforts to give the young of today, as well as the not yet born, a future that is safe, beautiful, full of vibrancy, enriching and self-sustaining. Echoing the theme of episode 3, this episode is ultimately about kindness: kindness to all sentient beings, human or not human, and kindness to the natural world including earth, seas and flora as well as fauna.
I’m very grateful to Annie for her ad hoc thoughts about what a kinder world could look like in 2050 if humanity succeeds in containing climate change.
I’ve put some further information and links in the episode notes and blog on the Time is Sliding web site. That’s timeissliding.earth.
If you haven’t already done so and enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast or follow it via your podcast platform of choice. That way, you’ll hear from me regularly. Please also give it a good rating and/or review if you like it. That’ll help other people discover Time is Sliding.
I’ll end with three relevant quotes:
“If cattle and dairy cows were a country, they would have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire EU 28.”
That came from Steven Chu of Stamford University & President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
The second quote is from Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme:
“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide. The benefits to society, economies, and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the cost. We need international cooperation to urgently reduce methane emissions as much as possible this decade.”
The third is from Sir David Bell, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Sunderland, UK. In his reflections on the Vegan Society’s Planting Value in the Food System report, he said
“The recommendations also highlight the need to give the policy debate around food matters a high national profile including an open debate about the desirability of moving to a plant-based system. Not everyone will necessarily support that direction of travel, but this report provides the basis for an intelligent discussion on the matter.”
I’m Rob Baylis, host of Time is Sliding. For better or worse, all production work and music has been by me. I hope you’ll join me again for more episodes. Until then, enjoy your meals.