But what we want to know is: What’s on the menu? Specifically, will this large gathering on climate change be serving meat — whose production and consumption are major contributors to climate change?
We tried to find out.
The first answer to our e-mail inquiries ignored the question and pointed with pride to the event’s effort to be green. A U.N. spokesperson responded: “There have been quite a few actions taken by both the Brazilian Government and the UN secretariat to ‘green’ the Rio conference. For one thing, the conference will be ‘papersmart,’ with no hard documentation issued unless a special request is made for print on demand. I also know that the Brazilian Government has been addressing plastics issues.”
Pressing further, we found out from another U.N. spokesperson that priority will be given to “organic foods in catering services.” Which sounds nice enough, except that “organic” cattle typically produce even more methane per pound of beef than their less-well-treated brothers and sisters.
The United Nations has been holding environmental conferences since 1972. Initially these events focused on industrialization, economic growth and their impact on the environment. By the 1990s, the focus shifted to the effects of global warming. At the first Rio meeting in 1992, 154 nations, including the United States, promised to stabilize the level of greenhouse gases and prevent dangerous changes to the climate system.
They have failed miserably. Since then, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has risen to a level that many scientists think is already dangerous. Many climate experts suggest that we have less than two decades before we reach a point of no return — after that, nothing we can do will prevent climate changes from spiraling into disaster.
No one really believes that the Rio+20 meeting will result in a new agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In that case, the best thing the conference could do for the climate is to remove meat from the menu — and to make a big deal about it. Everyone at that meeting should know that meat is a major contributor to climate change. It is also one problem that can be solved more quickly than others. Cutting out meat would do more to help combat climate change than any other action we could feasibly take in the next 20 years.
A 2006 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” called raising animals for food “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Since then, climate researchers Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang have estimated that livestock and their methane-rich byproducts account for even more greenhouse gas emissions than the earlier report estimated — a whopping 51 percent. More conservative estimates say that meat accounts for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions.