Meat-eating and Global Warming

By: Michael Baur

In a 2009 article in the New York Daily News, Princeton philosopher and animal rights advocate Peter Singer proposed that we begin imposing a heavy new tax on the sale of meat.

One justification for such a tax, he argued, was that it would help to reduce meat-consumption and thereby help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  As Singer rightly pointed out, a 2006 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization showed that livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.  More specifically, the study showed that worldwide livestock farming causes about 18% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, while only about 13% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions were caused by all forms of transportion combined (see this BBC news article for more on this).

Singer’s article was clearly intended to induce his readers into drawing the inference that reducing our meat consumption (through taxation or other means) would make a significant difference in helping to reduce our greenhouse as emissions.  But it would be a mistake to draw such an inference on the basis of Singer’s article.  Singer’s article rightly includes some important facts about livestock farming and global warming, but significantly, it also misleads the reader by omitting some other important facts.  For example, Singer misleads the reader by failing to mention that (a) a very large number of cows raised in non-western countries are not raised to be eaten, but are raised for other purposes such as doing work in fields; and (b) cows being raised in the western world (i.e., North America and Europe) account for only 15% of all cows worldwide; the other 85% are being raised in non-western countries (and a large number of these ‘non-western’ cows are not being raised for meat).

In India, which is home to the largest bovine population in the world, there are 283 million cows that are certainly not being raised as food (by contrast, there are only 34% of that number — roughly 95 million head of cattle — in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture).  So in spite of what Singer intends to imply through his article, it appears that a reduction of meat consumption throughout North America and Europe (where only 15% of all cows live) would not make such a huge difference in reducing our overall greenhouse gas emissions (see this New York Times article for further information).

Dr. Michael Baur is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Director of the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University. 

This was reposted with permission from Michael Baur’s blog, MichaelBaur.com.

All posts and comments on the Ethics and Society blog are solely the opinions of their respective authors, and do not represent the position of Fordham University or the Center for Ethics Education.


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