People all over the world have followed the progress of the COP26 climate summit closely, knowing as they do that the future of the world hangs in the balance. It feels as though citizens are at the mercy of the powerful elite who lead the biggest nations – an elite with vested interests in fossil fuel agendas, meat industries and deforestation.
Who are these people, seeming to refuse to use their influence to slash emissions, to tell the public that they must change how they live their daily lives for the sake of the planet?
It’s almost old news by now. Through social media and scientific research, we have become all too aware of the disproportionate impact that our day-to-day habits in the West have on the planet. The average person in the UK has a carbon footprint around 60 times higher than their counterpart in Mali, for example. We know that livestock such as cows are massive emitters of methane, and that the resources (such as water and grains) needed to feed them could be more efficiently directed straight into our own mouths.
We know that cutting back on red meat is good for the heart and reduces risk of disease. Many of us have seen that vegetarianism and veganism is no longer rare, or especially hard to do.
And yet we are also crushingly aware of our own individual insignificance. Not buying lamb meat won’t save the life of any specific lamb; switching from cow’s milk to oat milk won’t prevent catastrophic extreme weather events; taking the train to university rather than driving won’t stop unprecedented heat waves from killing thousands of vulnerable people.
We know that the most important changes are systemic – such as the regulation of corporate titans such as BP; governments ceasing deforestation; transport companies moving to green energy. When the people with the power to effect these changes shift the blame onto us, the public, for our dietary habits, something feels wrong.
What we don’t all realise is that the possibility of these big systemic changes does not diminish the accumulated impact of smaller ones. According to New Scientist in 2018, an average UK meat eater who goes vegetarian will cut their dietary carbon footprint by 1234 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year.
By comparison, the average UK family car has an annual footprint of 2300 kg CO2e. So just two people going veggie would have the same impact as taking a car off the road for a whole year. On a global scale, the UN estimates that 14% of greenhouse gas emissions are derived from livestock.
This is where governmental influence could translate marginal gains into significant global emissions reductions, by encouraging millions to reduce their meat intake.
But how? The idea of a meat tax in the UK (and elsewhere) has already been rejected, for valid reasons: it would hit the poorest hardest, putting important nutrition beyond financial reach while allowing the wealthy (who eat more meat) to continue their carnivorous ways.
An ad campaign risks making things worse, an effect often observed when adults are lectured to. Moreover, the government is unlikely to want to appear any more overbearing than necessary following many months of unparalleled restrictions of personal liberty during the pandemic. Perhaps this explains the hesitancy of the government to take a stance on meat despite recent pressure from advisors.
The truth is that we don’t need a controversial government to tell us what we already know. Meat consumption has already dropped by 17% between 2009 and 2019. The tide is already turning. But to continue this we need to address cognitive dissonance in ourselves, our peers and our families by aligning our daily actions with what we know to be right, as best we can.
We need to make a reduction in our meat intake and to inspire others to do the same, while respecting that the ability to do so is a privilege not available to everyone. We can put pressure on governments to make systemic changes by showing that we recognise and accept our own role in the climate fight.