Go Solar or Go Vegan - What Should We Do First?

Global Carbon Stock Map circa 2005: Source UNEP


"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does." - William James

It is very clear that fossil fuel use is going to decline and perhaps end during the 21st century in response to climate change. It is also very clear that a global shift towards veganism will occur during this century to save ourselves from environmental catastrophes and the worst impacts of climate change.

But where should our priorities lie? Should we focus on weaning ourselves from fossil fuel use - go solar, go electric, etc., or should we focus on weaning ourselves from meat, dairy, fish and egg consumption, i.e., go vegan?

This is a question that I hear quite often. Of course, the glib answer is to tell people to do both, but it is clear that going solar requires capital outlay whereas going vegan requires a change of mindset and it is important to understand what needs to come first. Should we change our behavior first or should we change our energy infrastructure? And the best way to answer this question is to conduct a thought experiment.

Imagine that we can wave a magic wand and turn our entire energy infrastructure over to solar, wind and other renewable sources instantly so that fossil fuels no longer have to be burnt to run the human enterprise. As a result, we stop pumping greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), into the atmosphere. That is the good news. But the bad news is that the temperature of the planet will start going up at a faster rate and it will increase approximately by an additional 1 deg F within a decade.

The reason for this temperature increase is simple to understand. When we burn fossil fuels, we not only pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but we also pump aerosols such as sulphur dioxide (SO2) that are partially shielding us from the true impacts of our greenhouse gas emissions. While greenhouse gases stick around for hundreds of years in the atmosphere, aerosols precipitate and disappear from the atmosphere within a couple of weeks thereby exposing us to the true effects of our fossil fuel binge to date. Think of aerosols as the haze that prevents the sun from shining brightly on our Earth. When the haze disappears, the Earth heats up.

At present, the Earth's temperature has gone up by about 1.4 deg F since pre-industrial times and that's as if the Earth is a human being with a 100 deg F fever. The Arctic ice melting, the Australian Fires, the Midwest droughts, Superstorm Sandy, etc., are the Earth's immune reactions to this 100 deg F fever. Increasing the temperature by another 1 deg F will result in a 101 deg F fever. I don't know about you, but personally, with a 100 deg F fever, I can still function in my day to day life, but with a 101 deg F fever, I'm resting in bed waiting for the fever to subside. That extra 1 deg F temperature increase can have serious repercussions for us on the planet as well. This is why Hansen et al. contend that we would need to keep pumping aerosols into the atmosphere even after we phase out greenhouse gas emissions in a Faustian bargain to avoid excessive temperature increases. And suffer the resulting acid rain, etc.

Next imagine that you can wave the magic wand and get everybody to go vegan instantly. This would release approximately 40% of the land area of the planet that is currently being used for livestock production back to Nature, to regenerate forests and strengthen life support systems throughout the Earth. In the process, carbon will get sequestered in the soil and in the regenerating forests, effectively reducing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.  Then, as our fossil fuel use is phased out over time, we won't need to worry about having to pump aerosols into the atmosphere to keep the planet's fever under control.

And the good news is that going vegan can actually be begun instantly. All we have to do is to put fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains in our mouths instead of the flesh and secretions of animals.

That magic wand is in our hands.