Data Journalism

The lesser known culprit of climate change

Coming up on a year since the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, we can confidently say that most of the world’s governments and population are aware of the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

There have been global efforts, albeit in most cases modest, to reduce the use of fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources. Many countries have adopted forms of carbon taxes which have encouraged industries to reduce their carbon footprint, while being energy and fuel conscious as individuals is encouraged and is gradually becoming the norm.

Even with these efforts to change the patterns of our behaviour, there continues to be a stark hole in the global rhetoric surrounding climate change mitigation. The livestock industry and the dietary habits that fuel it have been vastly overlooked given the significance of their contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The amount of variables that are attached to the livestock industry when it comes to producing GHGs are vast, so numbers seem to vary between different studies. Even with the most conservative data, it is clear that the production of meat and dairy is one of, if not the largest contributing global sector of fossil fuels. Not only this, but a large bulk of the GHGs that are produced is methane, which is significantly more detrimental to the atmosphere than its widely known brother, carbon dioxide.


Source: OECD 2016


Although these numbers make a glaringly clear case to reduce the amount of meat we produce, there is little being done to address this. Projections from the OECD show that average meat consumption of the world will continue to rise in a linear fashion through the foreseeable future. When this data is correlated with the projected increase in population, the numbers look very grim.

China has been the first country to take a serious stance against the meat industry, with plans to cut national consumption by 50%. If successful, this change is projected to reduce China’s GHG emissions by 1bn tonnes. But the rest of the world is failing to follow suit.



Source: OECD 2016

Australia is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to meat consumption, and in 2015 we overtook the United States as the biggest meat devourers of the world. Although we have slunk back into second place this year, it is clear that Australian’s either don’t know or don’t care about the impact meat consumption has on climate change.



Source: OECD 2016,                                                         Population Project 2015, UN



Why is this so? Even impassioned environmental advocates rarely attack our dietary habits as a way to combat climate change, even though the effects it has have been known for the last decade. The cultural anthropologist Margeret Mead famously stated that “it is easier to change a man’s religion than his diet,” and it appears as if we have taken her words as doctrine.

Fossil fuels are easy to blame because they are produced by big bad corporations that we can point our fingers at while sacrificing little ourselves. Eating less meat, however, requires a personal sacrifice that seems to be too much for to contemplate.

If we are serious about tackling climate change, which seems the logical pathway as the only other option is a slow destruction of civilisation, we need to start addressing our dietary habits. The levels of meat consumption exhibited by countries like Australia and the United States are quite simply indefensible in the very near future.



By Declan O’Hara

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