How Lomborg is manipulating on meat, climate and sustainability
How Lomborg is manipulating on meat, climate and sustainability
by Rune-Christoffer Dragsdahl, Secretary-General of the Vegetarian Society of Denmark
As a Danish citizen, it is saddening to see how my fellow Dane, Bjørn Lomborg, who became world famous as the ‘skeptical environmentalist’ from a country otherwise known for environmentally friendly policies, again and again is allotted space in newspapers around the world to manipulate on serious topics affecting us all.
In his column in the New York Post on October 22nd, Lomborg argued that claims about the climate and environmental impact of meat are “massively overhyped”. Subsequently, he has repeated those claims in other newspapers, including in his native country.
However, the most recent study, which he tries to discard, was made in collaboration between University of Oxford, Harvard University, the International Food Policy Research Institute, Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research and others and published in one of the leading scientific journals Nature. In short, it was carried out by respected scientists from respected universities, while Lomborg himself enjoys virtually no such scientific respect, and for good reason.
In his column in The New York Post, Lomborg refers to himself being a vegetarian for four decades. However, that is no qualification, and he has clearly not worked seriously with the subject of the environmental impact of meat consumption.
Conveniently for his argument, Lomborg ignores the following facts:
- If diets became largely plant-based, huge areas of agricultural land could be taken out of the food system and instead be used for reforestation (capturing CO2 from the atmosphere) and planting biofuel crops (to replace fossil fuels). This would buy the world precious time for converting the energy system, while keeping global temperature increases at bay. Calculations on this are well-known and have been made by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency as early as 2009 and most recently by the UN Climate Panel. If Lomborg had studied the subject of meat and sustainability seriously, he would be familiar with these calculations.
- Lomborg ignores that emissions from agriculture are projected to rise to a much larger share of total emissions in the coming decades.
- Lomborg ignores that there are many other environmental impacts of livestock production: Water pollution, water use, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, etc. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), livestock production is one of the world’s two or three largest environmental problems. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it is one of the two largest problems.
- Lomborg refers to “a peer-review of studies” showing that the reduction of CO2 per person would be just around 500 kilos per person per year if switching to a vegetarian diet. However, for most of the readers of Lomborg’s article, their personal reduction would be much greater. The most reliable calculation, from the University of Oxford, published in the journal Climatic Change, estimates the reduction from what they define as a diet with high level meat consumption (which is less than what most people in rich countries actually do eat) to a vegan diet is 1,560 kg CO2 per year.
- Lomborg refers to a Swedish study arguing that vegetarian food is cheaper. Lomborg therefore hypothesizes that the money saved would be spent on something else, which, in turn, would increase emissions. However, while vegetarian diets can be cheaper, we know from consumer data from Denmark that vegetarians typically choose to spend more money on food than the average consumer, thus resulting in less money spent on other purchases and by implication less emissions from such other purchases. Lomborg’s assumption is therefore mere speculation and a junk argument with no merits.
- Lomborg ignores the huge savings associated with switching to a plant-based diet. According to yet another study from University of Oxford, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the combined environmental and health savings of a switch to a vegan diet amount to at least 1 trillion USD a year. As the researchers write: “Overall, we estimate the economic benefits of improving diets to be 1–31 trillion US dollars, which is equivalent to 0.4–13% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050”. Lomborg is usually obsessed with costs and benefits, but completely ignores this calculation.
Lomborg also believes that there is a continuing and increasing demand for meat in the world, which should be met. However, he ignores the following facts:
- China has a target of halving meat consumption by 2030.
- In India, according to OECD, the meat consumption per capita is less than 5 kilos, which is the same as it was around 20 years ago, despite the fact that the country has witnessed economic progress and a growing middle class.
- There is no natural inner drive towards eating more meat. Eating a lot of meat is in some countries associated with status. Why? Because it is associated with the status of affluent countries, where meat consumption is usually high. However, in these years, the diets of the most affluent countries are moving towards more plant-based diets. Thereby old associations of meat with status and development are being challenged.
- For around 1 billion of the world’s poorest people who have limited or no access to a balanced plant-based diet, in the foreseeable future, eating animal products is crucial to ensure adequate nutrition. However, this has nothing to do with the urgent task of inspiring the rest of the world’s population to move towards a more plant-based diet.
While the project of Lomborg could in theory be constructive – focusing on how to maximize positive change in a world of limited resources – what Lomborg in reality is doing, again and again, is ignoring science and manipulating the public.
The fact is that cutting significantly down on meat consumption (as well as consumption of other animal products) has huge positive environmental impacts as well as huge associated economic benefits for society.
Rune-Christoffer Dragsdahl is Secretary-General of the Vegetarian Society of Denmark. The Vegetarian Society of Denmark was founded in 1896 and is one of the oldest vegetarian associations in the world. Mr. Dragsdahl holds a Master’s Degree in Anthropology from University of Copenhagen and is a PhD Fellow at University of Copenhagen doing research on agricultural development and trade in Eastern Africa. He is a former intern at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and a former External Lecturer in Sustainable Food Systems.
The reply above was sent to New York Post shortly after Lomborg’s first article in that newspaper in October 2018. However, the newspaper never responded. When Lomborg’s manipulations reached Denmark, they were fact-checked by the Danish conservative newspaper Berlingske: https://www.berlingske.dk/videnskab/faktatjek-af-lomborg-er-det-korrekt-at-klimaeffekten-ved-at-blive and critisized by several scientists, think tanks and NGOs.