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Affordable Climate Change Mitigation through Vegan Diet

The cost to keep global warming below 2°C is estimated at US$270-470 billion per year by 2030, however a Netherlands study shows that this mitigation cost can be slashed by 80% if we retire grazing pastures and livestock feed cropland, allowing forests, woodlands and native grasses to grow.  The World Preservation Foundation asserts that this approach, adopting a global vegan diet, will result in net cost savings, since this diet change will substantially reverse non-communicable diseases (NCDs), estimated to cost over US$2 trillion per year for the next two decades.  This approach is also a major step in arresting several pressing environmental issues, and food and water security.

Adaptation cost (the cost of adapting to a warmer world) according to UNFCCC estimates will be $40-170 billion per year, however a 2009 report led by a former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted the real costs of adaptation were likely to be 2-3 times greater than UNFCCC estimates[i].  If warming is restrained to 2°C, the World Bank estimates adaptation costs to be $75-100 billion per year between 2010 and 2050.  These estimates assume that climate change will be manageable, not catastrophic.

However, the true cost could be far higher.  The US Natural Resources Defense Council predicted the cost of unabated global warming (the cost of doing nothing) in the US alone to be $1.9 trillion annually, half of which will be from hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs and water costs[ii]. 

“globally there has been a more than threefold increase in loss-related floods since 1980 and more than double the number of windstorm natural catastrophes, with particularly heavy losses as a result of Atlantic hurricanes.”

Munich RE – one of the world’s leading reinsurers, 2010

So if adapting to the expected climate will cost $40-$510billion per year to 2050, what about the cost of reducing the warming?

Mitigation costs – the cost to fix the climate

Widely cited McKinsey mitigation cost modeling in 2009 found the cost of limiting warming to 2°C to be less than 1% of GDP, or €200 to €350 billion annually by 2030[iii].  Mitigation measures drawn on for this study include energy efficiency, alternative energy, limiting fugitive emissions, carbon capture and storage, avoided deforestation, minor reforestation and some agriculture measures, among others.

Although this mitigation estimate is quite appealing given the alternative of catastrophic climate change, there is an even more attractive potential solution: a 2009 study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency[iv] calculated that a global transition to a low-meat diet would reduce these climate change mitigation costs by about 50%; a no-meat diet would reduce mitigation costs by 70% while an animal free diet would reduce costs by 80%. 

To underline that last statement, the Netherlands study found that a global plant based diet would reduce mitigation costs by 80%.  This study found that the lowest cost means of drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere was to retire grazing pastures back to growing vegetation: growing trees, grasslands and soil carbon sequestration being far less costly than alternative sequestration methods.  The scale of this solution is also enormous, because grazing pastures now take up a quarter of earth’s dry land area.

Retiring all grazing land is in fact sustainable: a 2011 paper in the journal Nature found that if all livestock production ceased, there would still be a global over-supply of food[v], finding that converting 16 staple crops to 100% human food (rather than livestock feed) would result in a 28% over-production of global food, equivalent to a 49% surplus of food kilocalories. 

Global diet change to plant foods would stimulate major expansion in certain industries: manufacture of meat and dairy analogues is already rapidly growing, and the market for carbon sequestration (once carbon markets expand) will incentivize landholders to turn over pasture to trees.  Rangelands and savannah now used exclusively for (or suitable only for) livestock grazing could be turned over to reforestation and soil carbon re-stocking. 

Health savings

Although this solution minimises mitigation costs, it also offers cost savings.  Non-communicable diseases (NCD’s: cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes) are now the leading causes of death globally, responsible for 63% of all deaths worldwide.  NCDs are seen as a clear and growing threat to international health care, prompting the UN to convene a high level meeting to focus attention on this crisis in 2011.  The World Economic Forum together with Harvard School of Public Health estimated that the economic impact of NCDs over the next two decades will be US$47 trillion, equivalent to 75% of 2010 global GDP[vi]. This threatens to bankrupt national health care systems.  Given that the meat and dairy-heavy diet is a major contributor to NCDs, this plant diet mitigation approach offers substantial cost savings, and in fact will save many lives.

Environmental impacts

Relieving a quarter of the earth’s land surface of grazing livestock will have profound environmental benefits.  Reactive nitrogen pollution, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water use, water quality, land degradation, air pollution and the oceans will all benefit greatly.

Additionally, food and water security for the expected 2-3 billion population increase is made achievable.  The Twente Water Center in the Netherlands estimates that compared to plant foods, up to six times more water is used to grow a kilogram of protein from animal sources, and twenty times more water to grow calories from beef than from grain or potatoes[vii]. 

[i] Parry, M, Arnell, N, Berry, P, Dodman, D, Fankhauser, S, Hope, C, Kovats, S, Nicholls, R, Satterthwaite, D, Tiffin R,  Wheeler T (2009) Assessing the Costs of Adaptation to Climate Change: A Review of the UNFCCC and Other Recent Estimates, International Institute for Environment and Development and Grantham Institute for Climate Change, London.

[ii] Ackerman, F. and Stanton, E, (2008, May). The Cost of Climate Change, Natural Resources Defense Council. Retrieved from: http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/cost/cost.pdf

[iii] McKinsey & Company (2009, January). Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy: Version 2 of the Global Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curve. Retrieved from: https://solutions.mckinsey.com/ClimateDesk/default.aspx

[iv] Stehfest, E., Bouwman. L., van Vuuren, D. P., Michel, G. J., den Elzen, M. G. J., Eickhout, B., Kabat, P. (2009). Climate Benefits of Changing Diet. Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Climatic Change, 95. doi 10.1007/s10584-008-9534-6

[v] Foley, J., Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K., Cassidy, E., Gerber, J., Johnston, M., Mueller, N., O’Connell, C., Ray, D., West, P., Balzer, C., Bennett, E., Carpenter, S., Hill, J., Monfreda, C., Polansky, S., Rockstrom, J., Sheehan, J., Siebert, S., Tilman, D. & Zaks, D. (2011) Solutions for a cultivated Planet doi:10.1038 Nature 10452  October 2011

[vi] Bloom, D.E., Cafiero, E.T., Jané-Llopis, E., Abrahams-Gessel, S., Bloom, L.R., Fathima, S., Feigl, A.B., Gaziano, T., Mowafi, M., Pandya, A., Prettner, K., Rosenberg, L., Seligman, B., Stein, A., & Weinstein, C. (2011). The Global Economic Burden of Non-communicable Diseases. Geneva: World Economic Forum. See www.weforum.org/EconomicsOfNCD

[vii] Lundqvist, J., de Fraiture, C. Molden, D., (2008)  Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses  and Wastage in the Food Chain.  SIWI Policy Brief. SIWI. http://www.siwi.org/documents/Resources/Policy_Briefs/PB_From_Filed_to_Fork_2008.pdf

Gerard Bisshop

Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop is the Executive Director of The World Preservation Foundation who aim to be an access-point for information to assist media and concerned parties to engage and to encourage governments, public bodies and other institutions to introduce beneficial legislation and policies resulting in the subsequent mitigation of climate change and minimization of associated human, planetary and economic costs.

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