Is ditching meat key to saving the planet?

This article is part of the Yahoo sustainability series ‘Fact or Myth?’

Could eliminating hamburgers, sausages and steaks be just as important as cutting fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas?

With animal agriculture responsible for up to 18 per cent of global greenhouse-gas-emissions, the once radical idea of going vegan is becoming mainstream.

To better understand the link between animal agriculture and the climate crisis, we spoke with one of the world's best known living philosophers, Professor Peter Singer.

Children drawing the Earth in chalk at a climate change protest with an inset image of Peter Singer.
Princeton University's Professor Peter Singer argues the rules of veganism shouldn't be treated like those of a religion. Source: Getty Images/Reuters

While Prof Singer adopted a vegan diet decades ago, he takes a pragmatic view when it comes to conforming to its rules.

“Every reduction in meat and dairy… every substitution of plant-based alternatives, all of that helps,” he told Yahoo News.

“It’s not like a religion where your religion says you must never eat this, and it’s really bad if you eat that.

“If you eat a small portion of some dairy product let’s say… you shouldn’t feel: 'Oh I’ve sinned, that’s awful.'”

Hidden impacts animal agriculture has on the planet

Most people know that cattle and sheep are responsible for the majority of animal agriculture’s methane emissions, a compound many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What's now better understood is that the industry’s shadow extends well beyond this single emission.

Deforestation to make way for livestock paddocks has to be factored into the impact of the sector, experts say.

Livestock fattened in feedlots and sheds also contribute to deforestation as trees are slashed and burned to make way for crops like soy and corn to feed them.

Every time a tree is bulldozed, not only is its emissions reducing capacity lost, more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere during the felling or incineration process.

“If we didn’t grow crops and feed them to animals, we’d have a lot more land and we could reforest some of it and that would soak up quite a lot of carbon as well,” Prof Singer said.

Is sourcing food locally, better than going vegan?

Changing the diet of cattle, rather than reducing herd sizes, has been floated as a way to reduce methane emissions from cattle and sheep, however this solution still requires large amounts of land to grow these crops.

Even if fossil fuels were eliminated immediately, scientists believe without a considerable reduction in agricultural emissions the Paris Agreement’s target of 1.5 degrees of global heating could not be met.

A man with long hair and a beard staring at the camera with a sausage in his hand.
Without a reduction in meat consumption, the world will not limit global heating to 1.5 degrees, scientists have warned. Source: Getty Images

Prof Singer is not a utopian, but rather a utilitarian, advocating for actions which create the greatest amount of good for all sentient beings.

While some environmentalists believe that buying local and reducing food transport miles is key to lessening greenhouse gases from the sector, he argues this would make a “small difference” compared to cutting meat.

“If you were to cut out meat just one day a week, that would be the equivalent to buying local seven days a week,” he said.

“Every day that you cut out meat and dairy, you’re making a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.”

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