Humans must adopt vegan and vegetarian diets to stop climate change, UN report warns

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  • Current food system accounts for between 25 and 30% of greenhouse gases 
  • To feed 9.8bn people on Earth in 2050, world needs 56% more food than 2010 
  • Experts have warned this would involve converting 6million sq km to agriculture 


PUBLISHED: 10:31, 5 August 2019 | UPDATED: 16:04, 5 August 2019

The world must turn towards healthy plant-based diets to stop climate change, a UN-backed report has warned.

Our food system accounts for between 25 and 30 per cent of greenhouse gases, and is choking the life from fresh and coastal waterways with excess nitrogen.

In order to feed the predicted 9.8 billion people on Earth in 2050, the world will need to produce 56 per cent more food compared to 2010.

If the level of meat and dairy consumption rises in line with current food habits, six million square kilometres (2.3 million square miles) of forests would need to be converted to agriculture – an area twice the size of India. 

wo-thirds would be changed to pasture land, with the final third being used for crops, according to the Creating a Sustainable Food Future report.

The world must turn towards healthy plant-based diets to stop climate change, a UN-backed report has warned (file photo)

The world must turn towards healthy plant-based diets to stop climate change, a UN-backed report has warned (file photo)


Eating meat, eggs and dairy products hurts the environment in a number of different ways.

Cows, pigs and other farm animals release huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. While there is less methane in the atmosphere than other greenhouse gases, it is around 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

Raising livestock also means converting forests into agricultural land, meaning CO2-absorbing trees are being cut down, further adding to climate change. More trees are cut down to convert land for crop growing, as around a third of all grain produced in the world is used to feed animals raised for human consumption. 

Factory farms and crop growing also requires massive amounts of water, with 542 litres of water being used to produce just a single chicken breast.

As well as this, the nitrogen-based fertiliser used on crops adds to nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is around 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere. These fertilisers can also end up in rivers, further adding to pollution.

Overall, studies have shown that going vegetarian can reduce your carbon emissions from food by half. Going vegan can reduce this further still. 

Johan Rockstrom, former director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Change Impact Research, said: ‘To have any chance of feeding ten billion people in 2050 within planetary boundaries, we must adopt a healthy, plant-based diet, cut food waste, and invest in technologies that reduce environmental impacts.’ 

The ‘great food transformation’ proposed in the report is at odds with other schemes that aim to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

One report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) proposes to convert areas the size of India to biofuel crops or CO2-absorbing trees.

Nearly all Paris-compatible climate models slot in a major role for a two-step process that draws down carbon by growing biofuels, and then captures CO2 released when the plants are burned to generate energy. 

The amount of ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’, or BECCS, required in coming decades will depend on how quickly we sideline fossil fuels and shrink our carbon footprints.  

Capping global warming at 1.5C would require converting some 7.6 million square kilometres (2.9 million square miles) to BECCS. 

Even if temperatures were allowed to climb twice as high, the report concluded, biofuels would still need to cover some 5 million square kilometres (1.9 million square miles).

But these proposals ‘could compromise sustainable development with increased risks – and potentially irreversible consequences – for food security, desertification and land degradation,’ a draft summary of the 1,000-page IPCC report warns.

Meanwhile, the fundamental drivers of Earth’s environmental meltdown – CO2 and methane emissions, nitrogen and plastics pollution, human population – continue to expand at record rates, further reducing our margin for manoeuvre.