“Veganuary” in 2020 was unprecedented in size and publicity. 2021’s veganuary is predicted to break the record once again, reaching even bigger heights as individuals worldwide experiment with being vegan for a month.
This comes the month following the “Sixth Carbon Budget” by the UK’s official Climate Change Committee (CCC)’s. The report is politically and economically conservative, and as a result ecologically conservative, aiming for net zero carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 2050. Its most ambitious “scenario only reaches Net Zero in 2042, with a reduction of 87% by 2035”. This stands in stark contrast to the justified demand of net zero by 2030, or even 2025, of much of the environmental movement.
The CCC’s conservative targets have nonetheless faced even more conservative pushback, notably over proposals to reduce animal product creation and consumption. The report states:
“Changes in consumer and farmer behaviour can release land from agriculture... five measures could reduce annual agricultural GHG [Green House Gas] emissions… with diet change the most significant”.
They advocate “a 20% shift away from meat and dairy products by 2030, with a further 15% reduction of meat products by 2050[: to be] substituted with plant-based options.” Their most ambitious vision involves “50% less meat and dairy by 2050.” In either case they recognise that corresponding reduction in livestock and grassland would deliver large GHG abatement.
They model this dietary shift as part of wider changes to agriculture, reduction in food waste, and carbon sequestration. “Around 9% of agricultural land will be needed for actions to reduce emissions and sequester carbon by 2035 with 21% needed by 2050. Improvements in agricultural productivity and a trend towards healthier diets are key to releasing land”.
“Among the measures to release land, moving diets away from the most carbon-intensive foods delivers the highest emissions savings.” On top of this, dietary shifts aim to reduce emissions associated with food imports, rather than outsourcing them as “carbon leakage”.
Their models convert the “land sector” from a significant source of greenhouse gasses currently — “12.8MtCO2e in 2018, equivalent to 2% of UK GHG” — to a major net carbon sink of 19MtCO2e by 2050.
This is through a combination of planting forests, peatland restoration, and bioenergy crops. While the first two will remove a lot of carbon from the air, while also supporting biodiversity, bioenergy is not so green. The report’s theory is that land could be used for bioenergy crops, which remove carbon from the air, and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) prevents it from re-entering the air.
CCS is not a reliable or widely used technology, and could capture only some of the carbon. Really Existing Biomass emits more CO2 per unit energy than coal; and devours more fuel than is planted for its consumption. As such, it burns pre-existing forests, releasing novel CO2, destroying ecosystems and consequently degrading soil. This cannot easily be reversed, and releases yet more atmospheric carbon.
Their suggestion of “increased use of wood in construction”, if done in sustainable ways at sustainable levels, is a good one. Their model’s reliance on unproven Direct Air Capture of CO2 with storage is not. They should instead be more ambitious in wider GHG reductions, and also in planting forests and so correspondingly in animal product reduction.
“Our analysis starts with the assumption that land is prioritised for housing and other economic activity and food production before climate objectives”, they acknowledge. They suggest only £1.5 billion annually for the necessary land use changes, which they recognise bring “co-benefits for health and recreation, air quality, flood alleviation and biodiversity.” In total, they would only “increase woodland cover from 13% of UK land area to around 18% by 2050”
Larger investment and policies to bring about faster dietary change would bring greater advantages in all these areas, widen woodland cover, and sequester more carbon.
As previously argued (Solidarity 559): “The central job for environmentalists is to confront ‘fossil capital’. To shift into ‘blaming’ individuals, consumers, the bulk of humanity, the working classes, is self-defeating. Obsessional preoccupation with diets and veganism falls into such a trap.”
However, a vast reduction of animal products is necessary: as far and as fast as possible. We must aim, internationally, for collective solutions — not individual moralising — to reduce it by much more than 50%, considerably sooner than 2050. Current levels of animal-sourced production cause a plethora of environmental harms. Big agro even plays a major role in churning out ever-more frequent epidemics.
Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty engaged, in the months leading up to the pandemic, in much debate around reduction of animal products (Solidarity 529 here and here). It seemed de facto settled, although wasn’t fully, and the debate moved on, then was surpassed by Covid-19.
How important is this component of our environmental programme? Should socialist environmentalists advocate individual veganism? Is my contention that we should aim to phase out the vast majority of animal products internationally correct?