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An Inconvenient Lesson From the Pandemic: We Have to Stop Eating Meat

The Covid-19 emissions paradox reveals the adjustments we have to make to fight climate change.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Cattle on a farm in a deforested section of the Amazon in Itapua do Oeste, Brazil.

In November 2019, the United Nations Environmental Programme, or UNEP, called for global greenhouse gas emissions to decline by nearly 8 percent every year until 2030 if there is to be any chance of restraining global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). In the first four months of this year, anthropogenic emissions did indeed fall 8 percent due to shutdowns responding to the Covid-19 pandemic—for a brief moment, the prerogatives of short-term and long-term necessity coincided. Many economies’ emissions have since bounced back, however; by the year’s end global greenhouse gas pollution will likely decrease by only 5.5 percent. The worst shock in the history of capitalism—far surpassing the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Black Thursday in 1929, and the Spanish Flu of 1918—sufficed to only briefly brush against the UNEP’s 8 percent target. We are left with the paradox of climate change: UNEP’s target is feasible because we momentarily achieved it, but it also seems impossible, for how could we suffer worse recessions year upon year for a decade? The key to the riddle of the 8 percent problem is land, which provides ground for both hope and despair.

Only two activities changed drastically during the pandemic: transportation and land use. The former, which accounts for 20 percent of fossil CO2 emissions, fell by half during the worst stages of the global lockdown due to canceled commutes and travel,  but it has quickly recovered. “Fundamentally nothing has changed,” Carbon Brief’s Simon Evans observed. “Once people get back in their cars, it’s the same cars.” Metrics for the other big sectors, like industry, shipping, and electricity, only dipped slightly during the pandemic. By contrast, deforestation—what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rather bloodlessly calls “land-use change”—has exploded. Poring over satellite data of 18 countries, the World Wildlife Fund found that global deforestation in March 2020 jumped 150 percent compared to the three-year average. Deforestation releases the carbon trapped in trees and soil and facilitates the expansion of the livestock industry, a huge greenhouse gas polluter that relies on vast swaths of land cleared for pasture and feed. The climate effects of such wanton deforestation will partially vitiate any environmental gains from the collapse in ground and air transport this spring.

The coronavirus distracted us from noticing how patron states have quietly given their blessing to rapacious ranchers and loggers. In April, Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s minister for the environment, advised his ministerial colleagues to further deregulate the Amazonian beef industry “while we are in a quiet moment for press coverage because they only talk about Covid.” While most countries’ greenhouse gas emissions will fall in 2020 because of the pandemic, Brazil’s are set to increase by 10–20 percent, despite Jair Bolsonaro’s administration finally having been forced by an international divestment campaign to announce a 120-day moratorium on fires in the Amazon. Brazil is not unique, nor is it even the worst offender. Forests in Indonesia and Congo have been razed this year at an even faster clip. Land-use change and its close associate, the livestock sector, produce vast quantities of methane—a greenhouse gas that is many, many times more potent than CO2. Methane pollution, produced both by ruminant livestock—through their unusual digestive process—and the deregulated fracking industry, is now experiencing its fastest growth rate in the last twenty years.

To meet the targets researchers say are necessary to forestall catastrophic warming, we will likely have to reduce deforestation emissions as quickly as transport’s emissions fell during the pandemic. Fortunately, where the will exists, giving up meat and reforestation can both happen quickly. While it will take decades to rebuild our transport, energy, and housing infrastructure, what we eat depends in large part on what we sow next season. The livestock industry currently provides only 18 percent of food calories but occupies 83 percent of all agricultural land, including billions of hectares of pasture that, until recently, had been forested.

That’s not to say that cutting meat and reforesting is entirely simple. As the affluent eat most of these environmentally destructive products, their consumption should fall farthest and fastest. Given the colonial history of wildlife conservation, care must be taken to ensure that environmental policies prioritizing reforestation do not burden the world’s poor. That means taking into account the rate of regrowth and carbon sequestration of potential forests as well as their biodiversity alongside true international solidarity in the form of reparations, technological and academic exchanges, and global scientific collaboration. We will have to find safer, better paid, and less grueling jobs for former livestock workers from North Carolina to Chile. And prioritizing reforestation should take place in conjunction with respect for Indigenous land rights, not in opposition to it. 

The livestock industry directly produces more greenhouse gas than the ocean of petroleum burnt to power all the world’s planes, cars, ships, trains, and trucks. Abolishing the livestock industry and replacing it with vast new forests could achieve more than electrifying the entire transport sector, and it would be easier and quicker to accomplish because it requires no new technologies or dramatic infrastructural changes. The land/meat problem is so bad that addressing it offers rich dividends. Methane, for example, is a climatically destructive but short-lived gas, which means we’ll quickly reap the benefits of cutting it. By contrast, the half-life of CO2 is three times as long.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that while politicized tree-planting campaigns are often simplistic and will never in isolation be a realistic solution to the climate crisis, trees remain easily the cheapest technology for so-called carbon capture or “negative emissions”: Every ton of carbon sequestration through reforestation costs only $1, according to estimates from the National Academy of Sciences. Artificial carbon capture and sequestration technologies, by contrast, remain untested, unsafe, and around $400 per ton. Reclaiming pasture and mono-cropped soy and maize for protected, biodiverse forests could sequester 860 gigatons of CO2 by 2100, or roughly 10 gigatons a year, an amount that cannot be achieved by artificial sequestration technologies anytime soon—and that’s while healing ecosystems at the same time. If we don’t employ negative emissions technologies (and reforestation is the best we have) then greenhouse gas reductions might have to be 15 percent a year until 2040—twice the pace for twice as long. That’s the equivalent emissions effect of five Covid-19 pandemics a year for a generation. 

Behavioral change must be collective to have an effect. Just as scientists have determined what fossil fuels can be dug up within the limits of 2 degrees Celsius, we have to consider that there are few animals left to safely slaughter on a damaged planet. There are many other benefits to abandoning carnivory: the land-hungry livestock sector is a major driver of habitat loss, which drives mass extinction and accelerates the emergence of zoonotic diseases like the current coronavirus. The choice between restricting meat consumption and running the risk of more frequent pandemics and climate change catastrophes should not be a tough one. Yet the silence of governments and experts on the meat question is deafening. Even UNEP, for example, emphasized in a report this month that two of the seven major causes of zoonoses were increased demand for meat and the intensification of factory farms; yet none of their 10 policy recommendations involved reducing meat production.

The pandemic has taught us that we can act quickly as a global polity—even if some countries have proven more adept than others. No nation, however, has yet to act on the land question. And no nation can afford to ignore it.