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Cold, necessary cuts

Reducing meat consumption can bring down greenhouse gas emissions. Such lifestyle changes can make climate change mitigation work, writes RK Pachauri.

columns Updated: Dec 03, 2009 20:39 IST

Two days before Copenhagen, governments are staking their positions on the boundaries of the agreement that they would accept coming out of that meeting. The focus today is entirely on what governments may have to do to deal with the problem of growing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which is leading to human-induced climate change and creating impacts that would prove extremely harmful for several societies across the world. However, based on current indications, Copenhagen would hopefully move the world towards an effective agreement, but may still not result in legally binding and precisely defined commitments. Governments are likely to continue negotiating the details of an agreement that all countries hopefully would sign on to, possibly before 2010 is out. However, particularly in democratic societies, the only means by which action can be taken by governments, business and civil society would require the public being convinced that reducing GHG emissions is in their individual and collective interest.

In this context the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) clearly pointed out that lifestyle changes and behaviour patterns can contribute to climate change mitigation across all sectors. The question is often asked whether these lifestyle changes would prove to be a setback to society, which has reached unprecedented levels of comfort with large choices of goods and services defining a pattern of growing consumption. The response lies in the reality that much of the consumption the world is addicted to is questionable, in terms of the benefits it provides to human beings. Scientist Paul Ehrlich labelled countries in the world as developing, developed and mal-developed. In his interpretation, mal-developed countries are those that have been consuming more and more and imposing higher and higher negative impacts or externalities on natural resources and the global commons.

These societies would have to redefine their values and preferences to alter their consumption and avoid harmful impacts on various ecosystems. One set of products being consumed at an increasing rate worldwide is animal protein. This trend is becoming universal. Even in developing countries where rapid increases in income have taken place in recent decades, meat consumption has gone up substantially. The result is not only a major setback to global efforts towards achieving food security but it also adds to the mounting emissions of GHGs.

There are some facts about the entire meat cycle that have remained unknown. For instance, the livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land. Livestock production accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land and 30 per cent of the world’s surface land area. A total of 70 per cent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by cattle pastures, and crops for animal feed cover a large part of the remaining land. Today’s meat cycle, and the rearing of animals for meat is essentially in the nature of a factory-type production system. Animals are fed on foodgrains that otherwise could have been used directly for human consumption.

The meat cycle also accounts for large consumption of water. For instance, 1 kg of maize requires 900 litres of water, but the production of beef takes 15,500 litres. Livestock is also responsible for 64 per cent of ammonia emissions that contribute to acid rain. The extent of foodgrain diverted for production of meat amounts to one-third of the world’s cereal harvest and over 90 per cent of soya production. Overall, it takes around 10 kg of animal feed to produce 1 kg of beef and 2.1-3 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of poultry meat. In very simple terms, a farmer can feed up to 30 persons throughout a year from one hectare with vegetables, fruits and cereals. If the same area is used for the production of eggs, milk or meat, the number of persons that can be fed varies from five to ten.

Over a year ago, I addressed a large audience of over 700 people in the city of Ghent in Belgium, exhorting them to reduce meat consumption for mitigating GHG emissions. I was delighted to see that the result was a movement which led to the city designating one day a week as a meat-free day. Yesterday, on December 3, Paul McCartney and I addressed the European Parliament on the same subject and made a plea that all of Europe should introduce one meatless day a week to make a difference. One important co-benefit of reduced meat consumption, of course, is the improvement of health that would accrue from a vegetarian diet. In fact, the World Cancer Research Fund advises people to “eat mainly foods of plant origin”.

While a global agreement is essential, the effectiveness of any agreement reached in Copenhagen will remain weak unless human society as a whole takes action to change its own values and lifestyles. Perhaps a good start for society would be to cut down consumption of meat that would bring about a substantial reduction in GHG emissions. One or two meatless days a week can be the quickest, most effective action to reduce GHG emissions and improve human health.

RK Pachauri is Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Director-General, The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI)

The views expressed by the author are personal