I’ve been hearing some vegans say cutting transportation emissions won’t matter. That a plant-based diet is the answer to climate change. Here are my two main concerns:
- These assertions run counter to a great deal of research, including research done by scientists who have spent many years examining agribusiness and climate and whose results provide strong cases for veganism.
- The assertions would position vegans as outliers. (I mean, more so than we already are.)
Will assertions like these put off some of the people already confronting emissions in the energy arena who might be amenable to join us in the climate work? If so, is there, nevertheless, some strong inherent reason for making these assertions?
To Start, What’s the Real Percentage of Greenhouse Gases Emitted By Animal Ag?
It’s hard to pin a number on the emissions factor of animal ag. Fossil fuels used for transportation and refigeration are highly intertwined with animal agribusiness. And much depends on how the land would be used (or not) if the animal farm weren’t there. But very roughly speaking, say the animal ag emission factor is somewhere in the area of 30 to 40%, as is accepted by a number of leading food and ag emissions researchers. Don’t those percentages look like a really huge problem? They are indeed.
I don’t think we have to prove animal ag accounts for some certain overwhelming percentage of emissions. There is a strong argument for divesting from animal ag with what’s in the peer-reviewed material today.
And it does not take the help of law and policy making and infrastructure replacement for us to divest. It’s just like the old question: What if there was a war and no one came? You just say no to the use of other animals: “I’m out, I’m a conscientious objector. Done.”
Here are some questions we might ask of ourselves as climate-aware vegans.
Why Do Vegans Focus on Food Exclusively When Discussing Greenhouse Gases?
It’s practically intuitive for vegans to argue for ditching animal agribusiness or some facets of it. Cows (and, by extension, all ruminants) are on most people’s radar screens; but aquaculture is also harmful, and so are the pig and chicken businesses and their connected elements like feed and waste.
We vegans might understandably be keen to know the effects of animal ag and its satellite industries. We might be keen to read, write, and talk about them.
And in any case, fossil fuel use already gets a lot of attention, whereas “our issue” is pitifully neglected and typically left to us to point out.
Why Shouldn’t Vegans Keep on Focusing on Food Exclusively When Discussing Greenhouse Gases?
I think the best vegan response to climate crisis is comprehensive. It’s aware of the interconnected impact of animal ag and fossil fuel energy.
I also think we have to look out for our tendencies to stay within our comfort zones. On a personal note, to press outside of mine, I set a cap on my fuel use a few years back. The annual goal is to stay under 1,000 miles; but no penalty for public transit. It is uncomfortable, in the sense that I really need to be mindful. I guard my milage allowance. I avoid driving for a lot of reasons. (If I were treating this the way I treat diet, I’d say no use of petroleum is ever acceptable!)
I don’t want to get caught in the trap of thinking a vegan approach exclusively involves dietary commitment. I’m used to my vegan commitment and I’m used to arguing for it, but I’m a more responsible advocate if I take into account everything we humans are doing to imperil our biosphere.
What About the People on the Other Side of the Issue, Who Keep on Focusing on Cars, Carbon Taxes, and EV Incentives When Discussing Greenhouse Gases?
I expect the people who are working on the fossil fuel side of the issue to also be comprehensive. Even though it means going out of their comfort zone.
I expect them to renounce animal agribusiness, not just cap their consumption at a certain level. In other words, I am not going to urge anyone to eat less meat when simply rejecting animal products is so simple to do (where we are, in this time) and when animal confinement is so unfair, and so utterly atrocious from a land and resource use standpoint.
One of the most noted decarbonizers, Elon Musk, dismisses veganism, saying the greenhouse gas problem is chiefly about “moving billions of tons of hydrocarbons from deep underground into the atmosphere and oceans.” I think I detect a comfort zone challenge. How can Musk not concede that animal ag is a massive greenhouse gas emitter?
Marco Springmann, the University of Oxford’s senior researcher on environmental sustainability and public health, states:
There are lots of different sectors that have an impact on emissions and the food system is surely one of the most important ones as it is globally responsible for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Springmann adds that the overwhelming majority of those food-related emissions connect with flesh and dairy production, so without confronting animal agribusiness “it is hard to make progress.”
Both major forms of divestment matter, then, right? Divestment from hydrocarbon energy, and divestment from animal-derived protein.
Elon Musk is more interested in electric vehicles than veganism. In contrast, vegans understandably put vegan climate answers first. But I am understanding from some vegans that fossil fuel use hardly matters at all, or to the extent that it does, we should avoid accounting for it in our climate conversations and presentations. That seems like Musk in reverse, and I’m uncomfortable with it.
As always, I’m open to persuasion. I’ll be looking into the arguments and connected information further, and likely reblogging this column when I’ve added substantial content.
Love and liberation,
Photo credit: Jan-Rune Smenes Reite, via Pexels.