Skip to navigationSkip to content

Eating meat is worse for the environment than driving to work

Workers are pictured at a meat processing plant in Brest, December 2, 2014. Belarus' Deputy Agriculture and Food Minister Igor Brylo said that talks on lifting Russia's ban on the import of foodstuffs produced by Belarusian enterprises were to be continued in Minsk on Tuesday, according to state agency BelTA.
Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko
Stay away from that steak.
  • Hanna Kozlowska
By Hanna Kozlowska

Investigative reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Next time you brag about biking to work instead of driving for the sake of the environment, take a good look inside your lunch box.

According to a new report released by the London-based think tank Chatham House, livestock production accounts for more direct greenhouse gas emissions overall than all trains, ships, planes and road transportation combined. Making up 14.5 % of the global total, the livestock sector is responsible for more emissions than the entire United States, the world’s largest economy.

Although the report doesn’t compare individual actions such as eating a burger vs. driving to work, it does urge greater consumer awareness of the damage that meat-eating does to the environment.

With demand for meat and dairy products increasing rapidly, things could get worse. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that by 2050 meat consumption could rise by a whopping 76%, with a 65% increase for dairy. Currently, the world’s largest consumers are China, the EU countries, the United States and Brazil.

Courtesy of Chatham House
The largest meat consumers, 2011

Producing your juicy hamburgers and fatty bacon is the largest source of methane and and nitrous oxide in the world. Most of the emissions come from manure and fertilizers used to produce feed for the animals, and enteric fermentation—a digestive process that causes animals to release methane by exhaling, belching, or passing gas.

Courtesy of Chatham House
Breakdown of livestock sector emissions by source

The problem is that people seem willing to ignore the damage that meat-eating does, even as they try to find greener ways to travel. The report shows a significant gap in awareness about the contribution of meat and dairy consumption to climate change.

The report’s authors say that governments and environmental groups hesitate to put the issue of animal product consumption on their agendas, partly due to fear of backlash from private sector producers and consumers who do not want governments dictating their lifestyle choices. What’s more, they write, states support the meat industry directly by subsidizing its producers. They point out that OECD countries gave out $53 billion in livestock subsidies in 2013.

Courtesy of Chatham House
Comparison of perceived and actual contribution to climate change

The rise of “sustainable” meat won’t solve the problem, the authors say: “New technologies and changes in livestock production practices offer important means to reduce livestock emissions,” they write, “but on their own cannot deliver the reductions needed to limit the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius,” a limit that world leaders committed to at the UN Climate Summit in New York this summer.

The only real solution, the report says, is a change in consumer mentality, which will require a massive effort to raise public awareness. And it might require swapping that ham sandwich in your lunchbox for a hummus wrap.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.