Your Burger or Your Car! (And More Fun with False Dichotomies)

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, whose blog is a must-read look at the political dynamics of congressional policy-making, makes an eyebrow-raising assertion in his food column today:

homecoming.jpegPhoto: CowCar

It’s not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it’s that it is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global transportation sector.

Really? Klein cites a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which found that the livestock industry — the process of bringing meat from farm to table — generates 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions "measured in CO2 equivalent."

Transportation, according to the UN report, generates 13.5 percent of global emissions measured by the same method.

And that’s an important caveat. Two gases produced in large quantities by livestock are methane and nitrous oxide, which have 23 times and 296 times the "global warming potential" of CO2. Measuring methane and nitrous oxide in "CO2 equivalent," then, pads the climate impact of livestock versus CO2 emitters such as cars and power plants.

The 2006 UN report’s comparison rings hollow in another way as well. Measuring the movement of feed to factory farms, not to mention the movement of packaged meat to supermarket shelves, means that livestock is part of the world’s transportation sector, not a separate and distinct source of emissions.

Later in his column, Klein also cites a University of Chicago study that found adopting a vegan diet would be healthier for the environment than driving a hybrid car. As Dan Lasher of the Natural Resources Defense Council discovered, however, the Chicago researchers drastically underestimated the amount of CO2 released by one gallon of gas, among other "generic calculations."

So what’s the lesson? Cutting down on burger consumption could be a positive choice that also helps the environment. But setting up false dichotomies that suggest gas-guzzlers can be mitigated by salads, that’s pretty unhealthy.

  • Red

    Well, what’s wrong with using “CO2 equivalents”? If methane is worse from a global warming perspective than CO2, it should be weighted more.

    I agree, though, that the transportation emissions of the livestock industry should be counted only as transportation emissions, not livestock.

  • gecko

    This information machine you have here at StreetsBlog/LivableStreets is wonderful!

  • Doug

    I’m not sure the transportation component of food should be allotted only to transportation. It depends on the use of the data. If you are looking at how your decisions affect the system, you want to look at livestock with transportation in it. If you are making policy decisions, you will probably look at them separately.

  • What about the energy intensive corn that feed all of these animals, and the antibiotics they require because the industry makes the animals extremely unhealthy?

    And how about the land used for livestock?

    And how about packaging the meat at the grocery stores in plastic and styrofoam – because meat products must be specially packaged not to infect other food?

    Were all of these things factored into the U.N. report?…Admittedly I have not read their report, so perhaps they were.

    But I think the negative impact of eating meat is more likely to be underestimated than overestimated.

  • The biggest flaw in this claim is that it uses *world* emissions from livestock vs transportation, but people spread this finding in the United States to imply that it is more important for us to stop eating meat than for us to drive less.

    Needless to say, Americans use much more transportation than the rest of the world. The UN study says that transportation, generates 13.5 percent of global emissions. But in the United States, transporation generates over 30 percent of emissions. In California (where we are not heavily dependent on coal for electricity) transporation is 40 percent of our emissions.

    In addition, anyone who reads this list should know that you have to be very narrow minded and ill informed to say: “adopting a vegan diet would be healthier for the environment than driving a hybrid car.” Americans drive twice as much now as we did in the 1960s, and we should drive less – as Ray LaHood and California’s SB375 now say. Only the ignorant would take it for granted that we will keep driving as much as we now do and can reduce our impact only by shifting to hybrid cars.

  • I should add that I am all for eating less beef as well as for driving less. One pound of chicken causes less than one-tenth the ghg emissions of one pound of beef.

    However, I get annoyed when food activists falsely claim that it is more important for Americans to eat less meat than to drive less. I have never heard transporation activists make the equivalent comparison, but food activists make their misleading comparison all the time.

  • Josh

    Charles, the transportation activist who wrote this post basically made the misleading comparison that you say you’ve never heard. After spending most of the post downplaying the effects of meat, she concludes, “Cutting down on burger consumption could be a positive choice that also helps the environment.” Compared with the strong arguments on this blog that cars contribute to climate change, this makes food choices seem not as significant.

    Imagine if a post here concluded that “Cutting down on driving could be a positive choice that also helps the environment.” People would be up in arms that a clear relationship between cars and the environment is being presented with any kind of doubt.

    I agree that we shouldn’t frame this as an either/or issue, but it’d be nice to see each side acknowledge that both diet and transportation have huge effects, without feeling the need to defensively downplay the other side.

  • Josh: I have made the comparison myself several times in the past, but only in response to false claims by food activists. Likewise, Elena is making the comparison in response to false claims by food activists. It is always the food activists who *initiate* the comparison.

  • However “liberal” he may be on other issues, Ezra Klein is a reactionary blowhard on transportation issues, indistinguishable from Sam Staley or Tony Avella.

  • If Klein’s blog is a “must-read” for transportation reform advocates, it’s because our potential allies take him much more seriously on transportation than they should. I’ve been told that he’s very thoughtful and insightful on a range of issues, but transportation would appear to be an exception.

  • If the price of meat isn’t covering its “impact” on the Earth, raise its price. I’ll still buy it, and I’ll still enjoy it. But I won’t be guilt-tripped into eating less beef by nebulous arguments over the amount of gases cows give off. Those arguments only matter to a small segment of the population.

  • Well, what’s wrong with using “CO2 equivalents”? If methane is worse from a global warming perspective than CO2, it should be weighted more.

    I agree, and I think Elana’s wrong to discount the notion of “CO2 equivalents.” But there are other consequences of diet and transportation choices to consider, including health and safety, efficient resource use, clean air and water, and good neighborhoods.

    Beef-eating and car-driving detract from these goals in various ways, and the choice of which to prioritize depends in part on how much value you put on them. Transportation reactionaries like Klein love to focus on one factor (like greenhouse gas emissions) and brush the other factors (like particulate emissions, which just don’t travel very far with cows) under the rug.

  • As I explained on Streetsblog Capitol Hill, I don’t believe using “CO2 equivalents” is dishonest — it’s merely a way to obscure the methane and nitrous mitigation efforts that have seen crucial success in the U.S. (where transportation has a much higher share of emissions than globally, as it happens), while CO2 emissions continue to rise.

    And as far as the relative emissions generated by food choices, poultry has a lower carbon footprint than dairy, according to the U. of Chicago study cited in the WaPo. So perhaps it depends on the material in one’s burger/salad.

  • Guys, Klein may actually be right.

    He is not going anywhere near as far as PETA’s campaign claiming that a person driving a Hummer is causing less harm to the environment that a person who eats meat.

    Klein’s *very different* statement is that overall, meat production and consumption are a larger contributor to climate change than the transportation sector. Like I commented before, I bet the U.N. report is leaving out some of the climate changing impacts of meat production. Further study would be necessary to really get to the truth.

    Klein is not making the dichotomy that PETA did, and I think you are all blaming him incorrectly. Aside from that sentence that the ag sector is responsible for more emissions, the rest of the piece doesn’t even compare the personal choice to drive a car with the personal choice to eat animals.

    And his last sentence is something that everyone will have to live by at some point if we are all going to avert disaster: “…if we’re going to take global warming seriously, if we’re going to make crude oil more expensive and tank-size cars less practical, there’s no reason to ignore the impact of what we put on our plates.”

  • Dave Wiley

    I agree with the point this article is making. More than this, however, even if the math and language was more accurate the author should cite the sources so readers can check for themselves. For instance I’d like to know if the people who came up with the conclusions have been rigorous in their work or just guessing.

    I’m one of the few people I have met who are (mostly) vegetarian for environmental reasons. Our diet is one of the just one of the things about the first world that is unsustainable. Like using human-powered transportation, however, I soon discovered that vegetarianism is also better for my health and my wallet. Triple win.

  • MisterBadExample

    I’m surprised this is causing so much controversy. It’s long been a truism of the Peak Oil movement that it takes nine calories of fossil fuel to grow, ship, process, package and sell one calorie of food in the United States. James Kunstler constantly refers to the American predeliction for the ‘5,000 mile Caesar Salad’. It takes about 20 barrels of oil to breed, feed, slaughter, process, refrigerate and ship a cow that’s been turned into food–National Geographic stated (in an article about beef three years ago) that it works out to about a gallon of gas per pound of steak. BTW, fish (especially salmon and tuna) are even more fuel intensive than beef.

    Peta would probably argue that the total energy impact of beef should include the western medical interventions needed to fix problems caused by an animal-protein rich diet–colon and prostate cancer, COPD, etc. And if you’re a trade activist, there’s also the fact that most of the feed for American beef is grown in Africa, meaning that every pound of feed has traveled at least 6,000 miles. Such ‘trade’ also makes poor countries vulnerable when demand for beef falls off, since humans can’t eat the crops.

    But no–becoming a vegan doesn’t mean you get to keep your SUV. we’ve got big problems with energy and fossil fuel, and there aren’t any easy tradeoffs to make.

  • Anyone who has gone through the experience of a car accident compensation claim can attest to the fact you’ll need all the help you can get. In some instances, the case is simply too big to handle on your own. Often, this is the case when these cases involve someone dying from the effects of an accident or being disabled for the rest of their lives. You’ll need a payout which not only covers the immediate physical suffering, but also to compensate the loss of income from time missed, medical treatments and any other financial damages associated with the injury.
    Your attorney can assist you in receiving the payout you deserve. If you choose not to hire a lawyer with matters such as whiplash injury claims, you immediately experience a reduced chance of receiving compensation. Plus, the payout will probably be significantly less than what you hoped for and less that what you would have received through an attorney specializing in personal injury.

  • Anyone who has gone through the experience of a car accident compensation claim can attest to the fact you’ll need all the help you can get. In some instances, the case is simply too big to handle on your own. Often, this is the case when these cases involve someone dying from the effects of an accident or being disabled for the rest of their lives. You’ll need a payout which not only covers the immediate physical suffering, but also to compensate the loss of income from time missed, medical treatments and any other financial damages associated with the injury.
    Your attorney can assist you in receiving the payout you deserve. If you choose not to hire a lawyer with matters such as whiplash injury claims, you immediately experience a reduced chance of receiving compensation. Plus, the payout will probably be significantly less than what you hoped for and less that what you would have received through an attorney specializing in personal injury.

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