Vegetarianism: An Argument from Global Warming

Here’s an argument for giving up factory farmed meat products (we may call it the argument from global warming):

Freston writes:

A U.N. report from just this past November found that a full 18 percent of global warming emissions come from raising chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals for food. That’s about 40 percent more than all the cars, trucks, airplanes, and all other forms of transport combined (13 percent). It’s also more than all the homes and offices in the world put together (8 percent).

That figure (18%) and the comparisons are just staggering.  The author unfortunately does not explain why the mass production of animals causes so much of “global warming emissions”.  At first I thought it might be from the carbon dioxide produced in animal respiration.  But not really.  It’s the flatulent cows, pigs, etc., releasing all that methane into the air from their digestive tracts.  Here’s Noam Mohr’s lowdown on methane and animal agriculture from, and his conclusion, in the article A New Global Warming Strategy:

By far the most important non-CO2 greenhouse gas is methane, and the number one source of methane worldwide is animal agriculture.

Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-CO2 greenhouse gases put together. Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. While atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen by about 31% since pre-industrial times, methane concentrations have more than doubled. Whereas human sources of CO2 amount to just 3% of natural emissions, human sources produce one and a half times as much methane as all natural sources. In fact, the effect of our methane emissions may be compounded as methane-induced warming in turn stimulates microbial decay of organic matter in wetlands—the primary natural source of methane.

With methane emissions causing nearly half of the planet’s human-induced warming, methane reduction must be a priority. Methane is produced by a number of sources, including coal mining and landfills—but the number one source worldwide is animal agriculture. Animal agriculture produces more than 100 million tons of methane a year. And this source is on the rise: global meat consumption has increased fivefold in the past fifty years, and shows little sign of abating. About 85% of this methane is produced in the digestive processes of livestock, and while a single cow releases a relatively small amount of methane, the collective effect on the environment of the hundreds of millions of livestock animals worldwide is enormous. An additional 15% of animal agricultural methane emissions are released from the massive “lagoons” used to store untreated farm animal waste, and already a target of environmentalists’ for their role as the number one source of water pollution in the U.S.

The conclusion is simple: arguably the best way to reduce global warming in our lifetimes is to reduce or eliminate our consumption of animal products. Simply by going vegetarian (or, strictly speaking, vegan), we can eliminate one of the major sources of emissions of methane, the greenhouse gas responsible for almost half of the global warming impacting the planet today.

UPDATE (January 29, 2008): The New York Times has an article relevant to this post, titled Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.  The article mentions that “beef generates 24 times more carbon dioxide equivalent gases than the vegetables and the rice“, in the form of fossil fuels burnt in producing beef.  So the production of meat contributes more greenhouse gases than vegetables, not just in terms of methane, but also in terms of CO2.  (Hat tip: Richard Chappell)


6 thoughts on “Vegetarianism: An Argument from Global Warming

  1. This is fascinating. I’ve heard of arguments and points regarding environmental damage caused by animal agriculture methane before, but had no idea the numbers were so high.

    I wonder if there are other alternatives to consider, however, aside from simply getting the world to go vegan. And, BTW, the vegan dream is highly, highly unlikely… I mean let’s be honest: I think, if pressed to it, the majority of the world would give up and/or make major sacrifices in all the other greenhouse gas causing areas before they give up meat.

    So, since meat consumption is not going away, maybe there are other ways this can be mitgated. Perhaps we can develop (possibly through breeding techniques or other modification) ways to create animals that produce far less methane. Surely there must be other ways to combat this.

  2. BJ,

    It’s nice to hear from you. And you are probably right to note that widespread veganism is unlikely. Just last semester, though, I was doing TA work for an introductory Asian philosophy course, and in connection with Buddhism the students had a chance to write a position paper on vegetarianism. From the positions stated in those papers, I estimate that at least 1/5 of the students in class (12 out of 60) were vegetarians. I thought the percentage would have been much lower, so I was pleasantly surprised!

    I guess the reason most people don’t want to give up meat is because they believe it is difficult. It’s not as difficult as you might think, though, once you try it! What one needs are some motivational tricks to get one started. For example, one of the tricks I used was to tell myself that abstaining from meat is a piece of cake when compared to writing philosophy papers (this worked really well for me, though I’m not sure if it will work for others). One can also try abstaining from one kind of meat altogether, and then gradually abstaining from other kinds, one by one.

  3. My wife and I have been vegetarians for over 30 years, and we raised our children as vegetarians. We left it up to them in their early teen years to decide for themselves if they wanted to be vegetarians, and both of them, now at 19 and 25 yrs., decided to stick with this dietary regime. I believe it is much harder to be a vegan (and thus a bit unreasonable to expect any significant number of individuals to become vegans) and I make no apologies for not going in that direction. Still, I think there would be enormous benefits if many more individuals simply adopted a vegetarian diet. There are any number of kinds of arguments for vegetarianism, and some individuals might prove responsive to some and not other arguments: say, those framed in terms of personal health or spiritual beliefs, or, those framed in economic and/or ecological terms. We try not to make a big deal about our vegetarianism when eating in mixed company, as a lot of folks are put off by anything that smacks of preachiness or self-righteousness when it comes to such matters. Not a few vegetarians have indulged in behavior that has (unintentionally) harmed the cause.

    Today it is even easier for human carnivores to adopt such a diet, especially if one can develop a taste for the sundry “fake meat” products! I adopted the strategy of gradual abstention mentioned above, saving fish for last, which we gave up just before the birth of our first child (we contemplated explaining to him why we ate fish, but not other kinds of meat!). So I agree that it is not as difficult as many assume to switch to vegetarianism. I’m always a bit taken aback by the folks who call themselves “vegetarian” and yet admit to eating chicken and fish!

  4. Patrick, thanks for the feedback. Perhaps those people who call themselves “vegetarians”, but eat chicken and fish, are in need of Confucian correction of names! I don’t know about chicken, but the proper term for those who eat fish but not other kinds of meat is “pescetarian” (I know this b/c I was one until the summer of last year).

    You are right about the danger of being too self-righteous or preachy. I’m not averse to rational persuasion though, and I hope people don’t mistake that as preaching. (I hope to add several other arguments against eating meat here, in more leisurely hours.)

    Veganism is hard, I admit (even for me, and I’m lactose intolerant). But inferring from past experience, I bet even veganism isn’t as hard as it looks.

  5. Several years ago, I (not my wife, however) became a vegan, and it was not as difficult as I imagined it to be. I do miss the taste of cheese and “my” scrambled eggs!

    • Hi Patrick, good to hear from you. Can’t believe it’s been 7 years already since we had our last discussion on this subject! It’s great to hear that you are living out your beliefs to the fullest.

      I stopped eating fish later on in 2008, then turned vegan in early 2013. Believe it or not, it’s somewhat harder to be veg in Korea than in the States. Now I face a new dilemma in the form of a cat I am looking after, and this is going to be the hardest step of all.

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