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  • 12.18.14

People Have No Idea That Cows Cause Climate Change

Ask the average person what’s driving global warming, and the meat and dairy industries are probably far from their minds. And that’s a problem.

Meat and dairy products account for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions–more than cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes combined. Collectively, livestock animals have a greater climate impact than the entire U.S. economy (mostly because they release methane and nitrous oxide, two potent gases).

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And yet, ask the average person what’s driving global warming and they’re unlikely to say cows or pigs.

According to a new international survey, people are twice as likely to identify transport emissions as a cause of climate change compared to meat and dairy (63% against 29%). One quarter said meat and dairy “contributes either little or nothing to climate change,” compared to 8% who said the same for transport.

Richard Thornton via Shutterstock

The poll was conducted for a report by Chatham House, a British think tank, and is based on interviews in 12 countries, including Brazil, China, France, Germany, and the U.S.

The issue is important because food-related emissions are set to rise as the developing world gets richer. Countries tend to eat more meat protein as people have more money to spend. One study predicts that global meat and dairy consumption will jump about 70% compared to 2005 to 2007 levels. If that happens, it’s unlikely that we can keep global carbon emissions within safe limits.

The report argues that low levels of awareness of meat and dairy’s role contributes to the problem. Unsurprisingly, among people saying they were unaware of the link to climate change, 54% said they were unwilling to alter their meat intake, while 62% said the same for dairy.

Part of the fault lies with governments who aren’t doing much to reduce livestock emissions. Just the opposite, in fact. OECD countries handed out $53 billion in subsidies to the sector in 2013, according to the report.

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“Despite the clear case for action to tackle demand for meat and dairy products, there is a remarkable lack of policies, initiatives or campaigns to do so,” Chatham House says. “The received wisdom among governments and campaign groups appears to be that trying to reduce consumption of animal products is at best too complex a challenge, and at worst risks backlash.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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