The futility of changing our light bulbs in order to combat climate change has become the rallying cry of those tired of policy makers placing the responsibility of action on the individual instead of the Government. And for good reason.
Upgrading to more efficient light bulbs will never make enough of a difference, not if the electricity that powers them continues to come from burning fossil fuels or, in New Zealand’s case, is 80 per cent generated from renewable sources anyway.
On the other hand, highlighting the insignificance of our individual contributions to solutions for big problems like climate change seems to give us an excuse to do nothing. After all, if the problem is so big that solving it requires international agreements and full-scale governmental buy-in, why bother inconveniencing myself or changing my habits?
Nevertheless, there is at least one thing we can all (well, most of us) do that would make a big difference in the fight against climate change – modify the way we eat.
When most people think about the causes of climate change, the images that typically pop into their heads are of smoke stacks belching black clouds of pollution and gridlocked freeways packed with gas-guzzling SUVs. Rarely do images of cows happily munching their way across a grassy hillside, or fields of monocrops being sprayed with chemicals, take centre stage. However, the relationship between food and climate change is both significant and complex.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture is responsible for roughly 25 per cent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Most agriculture-related emissions come in the form of methane from enteric fermentation (livestock burps) and nitrous oxide from the use of natural or synthetic fertilisers. Emissions from agriculture continue to grow largely because of increasing demand for animal products (meat and dairy) and continued industrialisation of farming.
Changes in farming practices (eg implementation of sustainable farming methods) and shifting away from animal product consumption offer big opportunities for decreasing agricultural emissions and allow the individual to vote with their wallet. Recent research also suggests that as much as a quarter of all calories produced for human consumption are lost or wasted in the food supply chain – another area where individuals can make a big difference.
It’s not just about meat. Eating sustainably produced produce decreases chemical use and eating locally decreases greenhouse gas emissions required for transportation. But the problem goes even deeper.
Despite the increasing popularity of cooking shows and chefs as celebrities, people spend less time preparing their food now than at any time in history.
In some respects this is a success. The vast number of options for obtaining food without cooking it have freed us up to do things we are better at and enjoy more – like watching TV and staring at our phones. But research shows that distancing ourselves from the production of our meals leaves us even less attuned to the consequences of our choices and collectively less healthy.
Obviously I am speaking to citizens of developed nations and specifically those who have the financial freedom to change their diets. It would be outlandishly unfair to suggest those who are already struggling to maintain a healthy diet should bear the burden. But for those of us with the power to change, we shouldn’t let the magnitude of the problem lull us into complacency.
Unlike changing light bulbs, changing our eating habits has so many added benefits. Eating a plant-based diet, rich in local and sustainable products, means better health, happier animals, a cleaner environment and more local jobs.
Collectively we should be demanding rapid, top-down responses to climate change, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a little old-fashioned bottom-up approach as well.
Dr Kelli M. Archie is a climate change lecturer in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington.