A close up shot of eucalyptus leaves with sunlight in the background

The biggest cause of global warming that scientists need you to know about.

What contributes almost as much to greenhouse gas emissions as all the world's planes, trains and automobiles combined?

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated October 17, 2018

Most of us would agree that if we want planet Earth to sustain life for generations to come, we need cleaner energy. We need cleaner energy to fuel our cars, our homes and our cities. If advances in green tech can overcome these challenges, we will have solved a big piece of the climate puzzle. But not all the big pieces…

What about the energy we use to fuel our bodies?

Turns out, this is the biggest question of all. Adelaide University’s Professor of Climate Change, Barry Brook, estimates that raising animals for human consumption is responsible for half of Australia’s short-term global warming gases — that’s more than the coal industry.

The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective.
Professor Tim Benton
University of Leeds

And, according to a recent report — the biggest analysis to date on the impact of agriculture — it’s the products of animal agriculture, such as meat and dairy, that are the most unsustainable of all.

What makes animal agriculture so inefficient? In short, animals consume more food than they produce. Or put another way, syphoning plant protein through the bodies of animals in order to produce animal protein is like filling your car’s tank by throwing a bucket of fuel at it: you’ll lose more than you gain and create a right mess in the process!

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Feeding livestock
Efficiency fail 101: Farmed animals consume more food than they produce.

That doesn’t even begin to address the damaging greenhouse gas emissions released from the millions upon millions of ‘food’ animals belching and farting all day long. It might sound comical, but these emissions account for one of Australia’s leading contributors to climate change — which ironically will likely impact farmers earliest and hardest of all, particularly through the devastating impact of more frequent, longer and severe droughts.

Despite these dire climate predictions, Australia’s former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, rejected calls from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to introduce more stringent emissions targets.

And while former Prime Minister Morrison did his best to keep the conversation focused on power prices, an IPCC report actually stresses that it’s our food systems that present one of the most pressing issues: in order to combat climate change, we need to use less coal and reduce global meat consumption starting NOW:

The Oxford University report describes how avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth! And that’s not all. Making the change to a more sustainable plant-based food system will help not only people, it will spare billions of farmed animals from the horrors of factory farms and slaughterhouses, and help save our precious wildlife:

The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% — an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined — and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.
Damien Carrington
Environment editor, The Guardian UK

It’s true, eating beef is bad for cows and koalas.

A global shift

It’s a no brainer. A shift away from environmentally damaging meat and dairy production, to a cleaner, healthier plant-based food system is better for everyone. The United Nations was one of the first global institutions to point out that we need to reduce our dependence on animal products to avoid environmental destruction, and since then many influential voices — from business leaders and NGOs to multinational corporations — have joined the chorus.

Climate action group One Million Women has been talking about it for years. As has The Climate Council. Climate guru Al Gore, who comes from a line of cattle ranchers, is now vegan. There are schools all over the world that are adopting ‘Meat Free Mondays’ to teach students about sustainability and to reduce their eco footprint. Much like IKEA did when they introduced ‘veggie balls’ to their menu.

In 2018, the Stockholm International Water Institute warned that we must reduce global animal product consumption to just 5% of our calorie intake by 2050 to make sure we don’t run out of fresh water. And Greenpeace encouraged its global followers to reduce their meat consumption — or ditch it altogether:

When Woolworths launched it’s vegetarian ‘mince’ in 2018, the product was sold out within days –  And in 2022, the massive appetite for delicious plant-based food that helps the environment, improves personal health and reduces the suffering of animals just keeps on growing (just like plants, yay!). Veganuary — a charity that encourages people to try vegan for January — smashed records in 2022— signing up over 600,000 people.

All of which begs the question: exactly when will our policymakers catch up?

With a former Prime Minister who did his best to warn us not to get “distracted by ideological debate” when it comes to climate change, and failed to prioritise Australia’s international climate obligations, it doesn’t seem likely that calls for a meat tax (to help offset meat’s significant financial burden on the environment and public health system) will be adopted any time soon.

So despite the fact meat and dairy are some of the greatest polluters of all, political focus remains stubbornly fixed on the energy we use to power our homes, rather than our bodies. The former government had no emissions reductions policies — in the energy or agricultural sectors! But that didn’t stop former Prime Minister Morrison insisting that Australia will meet our Paris climate commitments. How? Well, according to the old PM “the business-as-usual model gets us there in a canter”.

He didn’t seem to understand that how we’re operating our “business-as-usual” — is actually cantering Australia, and the world, towards a cliff…

The good news? We don’t have to wait for governments to act!

Through the power of our everyday choices, each and every one of us can be a player and make a huge difference in the do-or-die climate change game.

With governments lagging behind, predictably the tech world is ahead of the curve, investing big money in alternatives to inefficient and unsustainable animal agriculture. Within decades it’s expected that cruelty-free meat and dairy cultured in a laboratory (that is, without the need to raise and slaughter animals) will not only be commercially viable, but market forces will quickly make clean, slaughter-free meat completely ‘normal’.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Lab meat
Slaughter-free meat cultured in a lab could help solve the climate crisis

Until then, the planet’s future is squarely in our hands. And on our forks

The fact remains that for the eco-conscious world citizen, no amount of energy efficient light bulbs or 2-minute showers will outweigh the benefits of eating fewer animal products.

Reducing or replacing animal products in our meals is not only the most profound way to practice environmentalism — it’s easy, it’s healthy, and it doesn’t cost an extra cent.

And fortunately it turns out that the way of eating that is best for the planet, is also better for the animals, and for us, as well.


Hungry for more?

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