Two recent studies reported in the news, plus a weather event here in Hong Kong, point to a possible dire outcome for the world, but also a potential way to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
First the weather event: few will be surprised to hear that the local average temperature in May was the hottest on record, a full two degrees above normal. And while only two degrees may not seem much, weather records are usually set by one or two tenths of a degree, so our heat in May was actually unprecedented by any standard.
That the record of 15 consecutive “very hot days” occurred in May, before summer even started, suggests that we may be entering a new era when it comes to extreme weather events.
The first of the news stories mentioned above concerns a report on a study predicting a grim future for our planet because of the melting Antarctic icecap. The study showed that the rate of melting has tripled since 2007; this melting alone could contribute to a rise in the sea level of 15 centimeters by the year 2100.
This rise coupled with the melting water from the Greenland icecap and the simple expansion that occurs when water gets warmer will mean the total rise could be much more than 15 centimeters. Coastal communities and low lying islands could be hit hard because even small rises in the sea level can bring devastation. However, the worst of this grim news can be prevented, and this is where the second study comes in.
When solutions to our climate change predicament are discussed, the possibilities that immediately come to mind are to replace fossil fuels, such as dirty coal, with alternative energy sources, such as solar power. Another idea that is getting recent coverage is to develop technologies to sequester carbon; in other words, use machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. However, the solution proposed by the other study is much more prosaic but likely the most effective and economical.
Stop eating meat.
Such a solution to climate change may appear either irrelevant or even trivial at first given the magnitude of the problem. Surprisingly, however, this study, published in the prestigious journal, Science, found that a vegan diet “is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on the planet Earth.” Giving up driving or flying has far less of an impact, the lead author of the study, Joseph Poore, claimed.
The study examined all aspects of food’s impact on the environment, such as land use, climate change emissions, use of water, and water and air pollution. The study revealed that among all types of animal-sourced food including fish, beef had the largest negative impact on greenhouse gases. As cows digest their food, they belch methane, a gas which is about 30 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Then there are also the vast tracks of land, which were once oxygen-producing forests, needed to grow corn and soybeans for cattle feed. In a comparison of equal amounts of beef and tofu, the study found that beef contributes more than 30 times the amount of greenhouse gases than tofu does.
Other types of meat and fish, while less impactful, are still far more damaging than any type of vegetable. For example, shrimp and fish farming were also found to be heavy emitters of methane. Among animal-sourced food, eggs came out lowest in terms of their impact, although they were still more harmful than any plant-sourced food.
A recent study by University of Hong Kong’s Earth Science department found that the average resident here eats 664 grams of meat per day, over half a kilo, which puts them among the biggest meat eaters in the world.
Far more worrisome is the fact that China’s total meat consumption is now double that of the United States, a country not exactly famous for vegetarianism. Further, with China’s continuing economic expansion and resulting affluence, there is a great likelihood that mainlanders’ diet will become increasingly carnivorous.
Finally, who would have thought that the simple act of enjoying a juicy steak or a char siu bau (barbecued pork bun) would be a contributor to our latest heat wave? However, we need to realize that our eco-system works in complex ways that are intricately interconnected.
Clearly, the only way to address this problem is by spreading the news in the hope that each of us would do what we could to halt, if not reverse, global warming. In a parallel situation over a generation ago, governments recognized the need to reduce smoking.
Thus, they started education campaigns which eventually led to heavy taxes on tobacco and a successful reduction of smoking that continues until today. Isn’t it time that governments recognize the damage done by our consumption of meat and act accordingly?
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.