Millions of Americans are going vegan or vegetarian to save the planet. About 5% of all U.S. adults – and roughly 8% of those aged 18-34 – have banished meat from their diets.
Their logic is simple. Cows, pigs, and other livestock produce huge amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases. So by slashing meat consumption, humans could theoretically slow the rate of global warming. As Kieran Suckling at the Center for Biological Diversity recently put it, “meat drives climate change and extinction.”
That argument is compelling – but unfortunately deeply flawed. Global population growth, and the increases in energy consumption and carbon emissions it inevitably brings, far outweighs any emissions reductions that’d result from even a society-wide adoption of veganism.
Simply put, banning burgers will be for naught if we don’t stem population growth – especially in developed countries like the United States.
Currently, there are 7.8 billion people on Earth and 330 million in the United States. If growth continues at its current rate, by 2050, the global population will reach 9.8 billion. Almost 450 million people will call the United States home.
Population growth here in the United States is of particular concern. Consider that the average American emits 16.5 metric tons of greenhouse gasses annually. That’s more than three times the global average of 5 metric tons per capita.
Fossil fuel consumption accounts for 80% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, animal agriculture is responsible for a mere 3%.
Globally, fossil fuel use accounts for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation is responsible for another 18%. Animal agriculture brings up the rear: altogether, livestock emit between 13% and 18% of global greenhouse gasses.
Consider the impact of cattle. Leading climatologist Dr. Michael Mann, of Penn State University, argues that cows get a bad rap. Citing a recent study of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Mann notes that beef production and consumption are responsible for just 6% of global carbon emissions – a “pretty small piece of the pie.”
Mann agrees we should all minimize our per-capita carbon footprints – but says we should primarily focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels to power our vehicles, homes, and businesses, rather than worrying about the comparatively insignificant emissions from meat consumption.
Both meat and fossil energy consumption are directly correlated with population size, a key factor in carbon emissions. Earlier this year, Mann warned that “we probably already exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity by a factor of eight.”
In short, unless we limit future population increases, trimming meat consumption amounts to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
If Americans want to fight climate change, they’ll have to address our country’s unfettered population growth – most of which is driven by immigration. The United States admits more than 1 million immigrants each year. In the coming decades, these foreigners will account for almost 90% of total growth, according to Pew Research.
When immigrants move to the United States, their carbon footprints typically skyrocket. They generate “an estimated 637 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually,” according to the Center for Immigration Studies. That’s equivalent to the carbon emissions required to power 107 million U.S. homes for an entire year.
Going vegan makes sense for many environmentalists. But even if everyone on Earth were to go vegan, the planet could not withstand an unlimited number of them. Americans could do far more to fight climate change by scaling back immigration than we ever could by refusing meat.
Leon Kolankiewicz is an environmental planner and Scientific Director of NumbersUSA, a non-profit organization promoting the recommendations of two Clinton-era presidential commissions on immigration and environmental sustainability.