Any list of the things with the biggest personal climate impacts will tell you to fly and drive less and to eat less meat. Producing meat uses lots of feed, land and water, much more than creating the equivalent food value from plant sources.
Globally, the livestock industry is responsible for more emissions than the aviation industry, and the largest meat processing company – just one Brazilian company – is responsible for more than the total emissions of Italy each year.
Livestock also fart and burp the potent greenhouse gas methane. So much so that the official national inventory of emissions from Scotland includes an item for ‘enteric fermentation’. Including climate pollution from manure, livestock accounted for 71 per cent of all Scotland’s agricultural emissions in 2019, and 12 per cent of all our emissions.
The recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on how we should reduce emissions found that switching to plant-based diets was the number one most effective shift in individual behaviour that society could make. Yet the summary report, which has to be agreed by all UN countries, loses this message.
During the discussions which led to the Scottish Climate Act 2009, there was an understanding that ministers would aim high as long as there wasn’t too much focus on the agriculture sector in the immediate plans that would follow.
Even the current Climate Change Plan, the fourth of its kind, says nothing at all about changing diets to reduce emissions. There are actions about reducing the carbon intensity of livestock production, including improving the management of manure, but nothing about a shift away from meat.
The computer predictions behind the Climate Change Plan made no attempt to estimate the impact of changing diets. This is even though people are already reducing meat consumption or going vegetarian or vegan, with the market for meat and dairy substitutes doubling in the four years to 2020 and Scottish households eating less and less red meat over the same period.
To reduce the climate contribution of your food choices, you don’t have to go full vegan or veggie, just eating less meat and dairy will make a difference. The Meatless Monday movement in the US claims that skipping beef just one day a week for a year is the equivalent of driving 350 miles less.
And of course most advice about a healthy diet starts from eating less meat and more fruit and veg, so a diet that is good for the planet should also be good for you.
Sadly nothing is entirely simple. Switching to a diet high in soya protein could, like cattle ranching, be trashing areas of rainforest and displacing indigenous people, so you have to be careful about the other impacts of your food choices.
If you are looking to make a change which will reduce your personal contribution to climate change, cutting down on meat and dairy is one of the most effective things you can do. But as long as governments bow to meat industry special interests, official policy will continue to ignore one of the biggest changes we could make.
Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant