Give up meat to cut carbon, says Stern

People will have to consider giving up meat in order to halt climate change, an influential authority on global warming has warned.

Lord Stern, the author of the 2006 Stern Review on the cost of tackling global warming, said that “a vegetarian diet is better” and predicted that eating meat could one day become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.

“Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources,” he told The Times.

“I think it’s important that people think about what they are doing and that includes what they are eating. People change their notion of what is responsible. They will increasingly ask about the carbon content of their food.”

Stern warned that a successful deal at December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen could lead to increased costs for meat and foods that generate large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions.

Lord Stern’s comments have provoked a fierce debate over meat consumption, with nearly 400 comments on The Times website by lunchtime on Tuesday.

Lord Stern himself admitted that The Times’ choice of headline – ‘Climate chief Lord Stern: give up meat to save the planet’ – was “unfortunate”. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, he said that reducing meat consumption is just one of a range of carbon-cutting actions humans will have to take to prevent catastrophic climate change.

He stood by his assertion that meat consumption is one area that needs to be addressed, however. “We need to make cuts right across the board. That includes electricity, transport, heating and food,” he said.

Meat industry representatives have written a joint letter to The Times in response the article, defending meat consumption and highlighting the importance of livestock to diet and environment. “Adopting a balanced approach to tackling the challenges of climate change is the only way we can make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions,” it said. “Trumpeting an isolated lifestyle change as a way of reducing our environmental impact is irresponsible and likely to be counterproductive.”

The letter pointed out that the industry has made “great strides” in improving the productivity of farmed livestock and said that it will be possible to reduce greenhouse gases emissions further through breeding and feed improvements.

Environmental groups insist that production-based emissions cuts will not be sufficient to reverse climate change, however.

Speaking at a Sustainable Consumption Institute conference recently, WWF-UK chief executive David Nussbaum urged the industry to enter into a constructive dialogue over meat consumption. He acknowledged that consumption is a highly contentious issue, but warned that if nothing is done, emissions will keep rising until the government is forced to take “drastic action”, such as rationing or fiscal measures.

“The longer livestock remains the elephant in the room, the more draconian these changes are going to be – on everyone,” he said. “Conversely, the sooner we start speaking about it and looking at the options, the less invasive they will be.”

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