Something is cooking in the world of climate politics. 或者, perhaps more accurately, something isn’t.
本星期, the American recipe website Epicurious announced that, for environmental reasons, it wouldn’t publish any new beef recipes. No more steaks, burgers or creative ways with mince; no more juicy rib. Since about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock farming, with beef responsible for nearly two thirds of those, it wanted to help home cooks do their bit.
All this seems guaranteed to trigger the sort of people who get very emotional about roast beef and yorkshire pudding, particularly in the same week that the White House had to quash some wild scare stories about Joe Biden banning burgers to save the planet. (Spoiler alert: not happening.) But the twist in the tale is that Epicurious actually stopped publishing beef recipes a year ago without telling anyone, and it says its traffic numbers show the vegetarian recipes offered instead were gobbled up. Those who scream loudest don’t, as ever, speak for everyone.
Cheap and relatively painless ways of tackling the climate crisis are rare, as Boris Johnson may discover once he actually spells out the detailed implications of Britain’s ambitious pledge to cut carbon emissions 经过 78% 经过 2035. Swapping gas boilers for environmentally friendly heat pumps will cost thousands, and they won’t be suitable for every home; so far, an awkward silence hangs over what the owners of those houses are supposed to do.
The Treasury, 同时, has still yet to rule on the potentially politically toxic question of introducing pay-as-you-go road charges, to replace the fuel tax that the increasing number of electric or hybrid drivers won’t be paying. Johnson’s preferred green solutions are ones that magically allow life to carry on much as before, while new technology does all the heavy lifting – a strategy he described at last week’s climate summit as “cake have eat”. But that was his Brexit strategy, 也, and we’ve all seen how well that worked out. Dietary changes, 然而, are one of the few climate change measures where the biggest obstacle to change isn’t economic but cultural, and where doing the right thing potentially saves rather than costs individuals money.
People hate being told what to eat, which is why social media is still full of furious Republicans shouting at Biden to “get out of my kitchen”. But the Epicurious episode suggests it’s the idea of being nagged or lectured that really hurts; the actual reality of eating other things instead of meat can be surprisingly palatable. Progress may, in short, be easier than it sometimes sounds.
Eating habits are already changing, if not fast enough for climate scientists then faster than angry burger warriors suggest. One in eight Britons claim to be vegetarian or vegan and another one in five flexitarian, eating meat-free sometimes; and although meat consumption rose over the last decade the big rise was in chicken, not red meat. Going veggie for the sake of the planet, rather than the animals, might have sounded eccentric a generation ago but it barely raises a millennial eyebrow now. By the time generation Z are their age, counting dietary carbons may seem no stranger than counting calories.
As a lifelong carnivore, even I’ve been slowly reducing red meat for a while. It started with one vegetarian day a week, then substituting fish for a couple of meat meals, then swapping in more chicken, and so far none of the family has actually noticed. (Like Epicurious, I’ve chosen not to advertise the strategy until someone complains.) We still eat beef and lamb sometimes, but it’s becoming more of an occasional treat, less of a routine midweek spag bol. Taking it gradually, 同时, has made the whole thing feel doable rather than daunting.
True, if the entire planet went vegan by 2050, we could save nearly eight billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, 根据 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Realistically, that’s not going to happen, but even the 4.5 billion tonnes saved by everyone eating according to healthy dietary guidelines (more fruit and veg but less sugar, meat and dairy) or the three billion plus saved on a “climate carnivore” diet that replaces three-quarters of red meat currently consumed with alternatives such as chicken, would be worth having. As with any diet, avoiding making the perfect the enemy of the good means people are less likely to give up halfway through, as does encouraging rather than hectoring.
Ministers have shied away from calls for a “carbon tax” on red meat for not entirely illegitimate reasons; taxing food is toughest on low-income households, because they spend proportionately more of their income on it. But if this government or its successors are reluctant to wield the big stick then they must dangle juicier carrots, starting with a public education campaign making the connection between healthy eating – something Johnson has finally agreed to push, after a near fatal brush with Covid shocked him into losing weight – and helping the climate. (Research commissioned by the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs found carbon emissions could fall by 14% if everyone in Britain stuck to healthy eating guidelines, which would also help reduce heart disease and cancer rates – although some cattle and sheep farmers would need financial help to find alternative uses for their land, with their markets taking a potentially painful hit.)
And that’s just the start. A handful of restaurants are now experimenting with carbon labelling on their menus to highlight environmentally friendly choices. There’s no reason that couldn’t be extended to food sold in supermarkets, encouraging producers to cut unnecessary carbon emissions and earn better ratings. The food industry will protest, but it’s that or stiffer tax and regulatory changes in years to come, which they’ll like even less.
Even tiny changes such as putting the veggie dish at the top of restaurant menus, rather than at the bottom like a reluctant afterthought, can shift ordering habits – as could a few primetime TV shows on climate-friendly cookery, fronted by the kind of celebrity names capable of causing a run on ingredients. A plant-based menu for heads of state at this year’s Cop26 climate crisis summit, showcasing adventurous meat-free cooking, should be a no-brainer, and so should providing more communal spaces to grow our own fruit and veg, building on a surge of enthusiasm for allotments in lockdown. In a culture war it’s soft power that ultimately counts, and progressives may hold more of it than they know on this one. “Let them eat chickpeas” may not be a winning electoral strategy. But nor is burning down the planet just to make dinner.