Lord Stern is wrong: giving up meat is no way to save the planet

Type: Think Pieces Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Tuesday 27 October 2009

Technological advances, not "live more simply" environmentalism, will deliver a greener planet.

Lord Stern, whose 2006 report set out the consequences and costs of various levels of global warming, has now called for humans to stop eating meat. His reasoning is that our farm animals, especially cows and pigs, expel methane, which is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, making meat-production account for 18 percent of all carbon emissions. He says that it will become as socially unacceptable to eat meat as it is to drink and drive.

The proposal is not surprising, since it is but the latest in a series of proposed behavioural changes which are claimed to be essential to the planet's survival. People have been told they must eat locally-sourced food, abandon their cars for public transport, and drastically cut their air travel, among many other 'essential' changes. Giving up meat is only another step on the 'live more simply' road.

At the heart of the environmental lobby lies an unease at progress and change, and a veneration of a calmer, slower lifestyle. It goes hand in hand with a disregard for the material goods which extend choices in the rich nations, and even for the economic growth which offers the poorer ones a ladder out of subsistence. Although 'saving the planet' is advanced as the reason why these lifestyle changes must be implemented, it sometimes seems as if the simpler life is an end in itself, and that global warming is a convenient excuse to force acceptance of it.

Lord Stern, whose 2006 report set out the consequences and costs of various levels of global warming, has now called for humans to stop eating meat. His reasoning is that our farm animals, especially cows and pigs, expel methane, which is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, making meat-production account for 18 percent of all carbon emissions. He says that it will become as socially unacceptable to eat meat as it is to drink and drive.

The proposal is not surprising, since it is but the latest in a series of proposed behavioural changes which are claimed to be essential to the planet's survival. People have been told they must eat locally-sourced food, abandon their cars for public transport, and drastically cut their air travel, among many other 'essential' changes. Giving up meat is only another step on the 'live more simply' road.

If we give up animal husbandry and eat the vegetarian diet Lord Stern advocates, it would be one devoid of milk, cheese and butter, and the world would have to get along without leather for its shoes or jackets, or wool for its clothes. This is not going to happen, any more than the other 'essential' changes.

What will happen instead will be new technologies that solve the problems without behavioural change. There will be emission-free transport, cleanly-produced energy, and minimal-impact production. Human ingenuity and resourcefulness are quite capable of achieving this, and can even be accelerated by suitable incentives.

It is highly likely that animals will be genetically engineered to emit less methane, and highly unlikely that human beings will give up a large part of their diet. The one is easy to do; the other is probably impossible, as well as undesirable. Some in the environmental lobby oppose this kind of technological change precisely because it will make behavioural change unnecessary. It will enable people to live as they want to live, rather than as others think they should live.

But technology will win, and the constricted lifestyles advocated by Lord Stern and others will lose. A look at human development suggests which course is the more likely.

Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.